"Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee," said Robert Service in his famed story of a man cremated in the boiler of a river boat called the Alice May. Of course, we know the real McGee wasn’t cremated nor was he from Tennessee. But who was cremated on the marge of Lake Lebarge? And by whom? And why? Well, the cremated man's real name seems lost in the mists of more than a hundrd bygone years. It wasn't Sam McGee, but whomever it was - he was cremated by Leonard Sugden.
Doctor Leonard Sugden had first come north on a whaling vessel and provided medical services to residents of Juneau. In 1897, he crossed the Chilkoot Pass and wintered at Marsh Lake where he built a cabin and worked as a doctor for the Northwest Mounted Police. When the real Klondike gold rush began in 1898, he helped pilot boats through Miles Canyon and the White Horse Rapids.
He was still working for the NWMP in the winter of 1899-1900 in Whitehorse when he was told to strap on the snowshoes, harness up the dogs and mush to a cabin on Lake Lebarge to check on the well-being of a miner, ill with scurvy. Sugden found the man – dead. There was no way to bury him in the frozen ground. Thus began a true tale of the Yukon trails which became stranger as the years rolled by.
At Lebarge, Dr. Sugden loaded the corpse on his sleigh and hauled it to the police post. Legend has it that the Mounties then used the newly operating telegraph line to contact the dead man’s family in Tennessee for permission to cremate him. Maybe! True though is that a steamboat, the Olive May was frozen in for the winter at Tagish. There, the crew lit the boiler fire and helped Sugden stuff in the miner. When Robert Service heard the story in 1906, his future and that of the real Sam McGee, a miner who lived in Whitehorse, was set. The Cremation of Sam McGee made Service famous.
Robert Service, the young bank clerk, had arrived in Whitehorse in 1904. Somewhat a loner and a dreamer, Service later wrote that he heard the tale of the cremation at a Whitehorse party. He had gone to the party quite by accident because he was not invited. But he stayed long enough to hear a "fat man from Dawson" tell the story of a cremation with a strange conclusion. Service knew this was the key to his future as a writer of verse. He left the party and hiked the frozen trails around Whitehorse while he created the poem in his mind. A line struck.
"There are strange things done neath the midnight sun."
By morning, as he returned to his room on the second floor of the Bank of Commerce building at Second Avenue and Main street, the poem was complete.
And there sat Sam looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door,
It's fine in here but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm.
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I’ve been warm.Service sent "The Cremation of Sam McGee" and some other Yukon poems including the Shooting of Dan McGrew to Briggs, the Methodist Publishing House in Toronto. He had decided to pay $100, his Christmas bank bonus, to have a book of poems published. To his amazement, Briggs wrote back offering to publish the book and royalties. The poem was the beginning of a million-dollar word empire belonging to the Yukon bank clerk.
Although Service always said that the poem was fiction, it was based on people and things that he actually saw. The "Alice May" was the sternwheeler the "Olive May" that belonged to the "B.L. and K." company and had originally been named for the wife and daughter of Albert Kerry Sr.
There is no doubt Service knew both Dr. Sugden and Sam McGee who had an account in the Bank of Commerce. William Samuel McGee was born in Lindsay, Ontario, near Peterborough in 1868. He came to the Yukon in 1898 and staked claims in the Whitehorse copper belt. According to McGee’s family, Service did talk to Sam about using his name and received permission. In 1907 the publication of the poem, along with the others contained in The Songs of a Sourdough, made both Service and McGee famous. Eventually, McGee and his wife Ruth moved to Beiseker, Alberta near Calgary where he died in 1940.
But what of the doctor who inspired the poem? Leonard Sugden stayed in the Yukon. He married in 1906 and moved to the Kluane area where he mined, hunted big game and bought a state of the art Prizma movie camera. With it in 1915, he produced a film called The Lure of Alaska which played to rave reviews across America and Europe.
The film includes scenes from the Seattle harbour, up the coast of Alaska and features scenes of Juneau, Sitka, Skagway, a midnight baseball game in Dawson City, a caribou herd swimming in the river, and icebergs calving from glaciers. The movie also includes scenes of Sugden piloting a raft through the Whitehorse Rapids. About the movie, the New York Times in 1917 wrote: "Seldom have nature pictures been such a combination of thrills and wild beauty. They are a notable accomplishment of the camera and Dr. Sugden’s nerve."
Sugden toured with his film and drew large audiences. However, it is thought that much of the film’s footage is now lost. An original black and white 11 by 17-inch poster for use on the motion picture lecture circuit and talks delivered by Leonard S. Sugden to accompany the film today sells for nearly 13 hundred dollars at auction.
The poster includes a portrait drawing of Sugden in a fur cap above the title of the lecture and a drawing of Alaskan totem poles. The poster is valuable because it advertizes one of the earliest full-length documentary films produced about the north, preceding Robert Flaherty's famous Nanook of the North by several years.
Unfortunately, Dr. Sugden’s life of adventure ended suddenly in 1923 when he fell off a barge into the Stewart River near Mayo and drowned. But the lives of Robert William Service, William Samuel McGee and Leonard S. Sugden remain forever inextricably connected