Robert Service

Bard of the Yukon

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,

   And the rivers all run God knows where;

There are lives that are erring and aimless,

   And deaths that just hang by a hair;

There are hardships that nobody reckons;

   There are valleys unpeopled and still;

There’s a land—oh, it beckons and beckons,

   And I want to go back—and I will.

from The Spell of the Yukon


Robert William Service (1874–1958) was a British-Canadian poet and writer, best known for his colorfully vivid descriptions of the land and the people of the Yukon Territory. Although he did not arrive in Dawson City until ten years after the great gold rush of 1898, his poetry and writings of the era helped shape the romantic ideals of the Klondike. 

He was born in Preston, in the English county of Lancashire, on January 16, 1874, the first born child of a Scottish bank clerk who married the daughter of a wealthy distillery family. He would have nine siblings, six brothers and three sisters, and his parents apparently felt the stress of his father’s work not going well. At the age of five, Robert and his younger brother John were sent to live with an uncle, the postmaster of Kilwinning, Scotland. 

In 1883, when Robert was nine years old, his mother received a legacy and the Service family moved from Preston, Lancashire to Scotland's largest city, Glasgow, and Robert and his brother rejoined the large family. At school his sense of humor and his easy facility with words made his company enjoyable. By the age of thirteen he dreamed of going to sea, but his parents did not approve, so he took his first job, in a shipping office. After that company failed, Robert, then 14, accepted a position as an apprentice at the Commercial Bank of Scotland, which would become the Royal Bank of Scotland. 

In 1893 Robert Service attended the University of Glasgow, taking to the formal study of English Language and Literature so well that after mid-year examinations he stood fourth in a class of two hundred. However, for the final class project Service wrote an essay on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, focusing on the character of Ophelia, which was not received well by his professor. Miffed, Robert issued a challenge to a round of fisticuffs, but it went unaccepted and he left the university, disenchanted and disappointed. He spent the next two years working, saving his money, and dreaming of being a cowboy in Western Canada.

In 1895 Robert turned 21 years of age, resigned from his job at the bank, and announced his intentions to be a cowboy to his family. His father, apparently understanding, bought his son a Buffalo Bill Cody-type outfit complete with hat, high leather boots, and a fringed leather jacket. 

Robert sailed to Montreal, took the train across Canada, and went to work for a Scottish family in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. He learned to milk cows, ride horseback, and do farm chores. After several months he moved to a more remote place to live and work with a rugged loner he calls Hank in his autobiography, Ploughman of the Moon. Hank ran about 20 head of cattle on his place, and Robert kept Hank company and helped with chores. Hank taught Robert to bake bread and told him stories about travels in California.    

After a year Robert left Hank to become a farm hand on a large dairy, but in 1897, at 23 years of age, he set off to by ferry to Seattle and south to San Francisco and the Barbary Coast, where he took up rambling, became a self-described hobo, or bindlestiff, and drifted, occasionally working, picking oranges or washing dishes, and for a spell, as a gardener and handyman at a house of ill repute where someone gave him a six string guitar. He returned to British Columbia and eventually became a storekeeper, a position he kept for four years.

One day in 1903, in Victoria, while Robert was standing outside the Canadian Bank of Commerce, an acquaintance hailed him and after some discussion encouraged him to go into the bank and apply for a job. He did so, using his references from the Scottish bank, and was hired. He was soon transferred to the town of Kamloops, in the desert-like interior of British Columbia, and in 1905 he was transfered north to the branch in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. 

Whitehorse was a frontier town, begun in 1897 at the White Horse Rapids on the Yukon River, as a camping site for prospectors on their way to Dawson City to join the Klondike Gold Rush. The railroad that Robert Service rode into town on from Skagway, the White Pass and Yukon Route, had been built over the mountains from the coast only five years before. 

In Whitehorse Service listened to stories of the great gold rush, and he took part in the active social life of the town. As was popular at the time, he entertained at concerts and church socials by reciting Rudyard Kipling poems and singing songs to banjo accompaniment. Hearing him, the editor of the Whitehorse Star, E. J. "Stroller" White, suggested he write something original about life in the Yukon. Soon after this, as he was returning from an evening walk, the sounds of men celebrating in a nearby saloon inspired him, and by the next morning Service had penned the lines to one of his most famous poems, The Shooting of Dan McGrew

The noted Canadian author and journalist Pierre Berton interviewed Robert Service in 1958 in Monte Carlo—the last interview Service ever gave. Berton had crossed paths with Service since childhood; in his book, Prisoners of the North (Carroll & Graf, 2004), Berton wrote, “My mother knew him when she was a young kindergarten teacher in Dawson City; he even asked her to a dance—the kind of social affair he usually avoided. His original log cabin stood directly across from my childhood home under the hill overlooking the town.”

In the Monte Carlo interview, recently uploaded to YouTube, Robert Service describes writing The Shooting of Dan McGrew after one of the churches asked him to do a bit in a program. Thinking it over on one of his long walks, he decided to take his friend Stroller’s advice and write something original: “….I heard sounds of revelry, and the line just popped into my head, ‘A bunch of the boys was a whoopin’ it up,’ and there I got my start. I felt quite excited about it, I ate scarcely any supper, and after supper I went to my teller’s cage and I started to write. Well, believe it or not, I wrote on almost continuously through that ballad, and finished it, oh, around about two in the morning. I wrote it as it stands now, scarcely a line has been changed, and finally I went to bed, my job was finished. I put it away in a drawer and forgot all about it.”

Pierre Berton asks him, “You didn’t recite it at the church social?”

Robert Service: “Oh no, the cuss words in it was something that they wouldn’t stand for!” 

Pierre Berton picks up the story in his book, Prisoners of the North. “One evening, he encountered a big mining man from Dawson, portly and important, who removed his cigar long enough to remark, ‘I’ll tell you a story Jack London never got,’ and spun a yarn about a man who cremated his pal. A light bulb flashed in Service’s mind: ‘I had a feeling that here was a decisive moment of destiny.’ He left and went for a long, solitary walk. On that moonlit evening, his mind ‘seething with excitement and a strange ecstasy,’ the opening lines of The Cremation of Sam McGee burst upon him, and soon ‘verse after verse developed with scarce a check.’

“After six hours, the entire ballad was in his head, and on the following day, ‘with scarcely any effort of memory,’ he put the words down on paper.”

Walking along the Yukon River from his Whitehorse cabin, often to the rock cliffs above Miles Canyon, Robert Service penned more poems, ‘bubbling verse like an artesian well.’ He collected enough poems for a book, and sent them, along with his Christmas bonus from the bank, to his father, who had emigrated to Toronto. The elder Service oversaw the publishing of Songs of a Sourdough, which was an immediate success, going through seven printings even before its official release date. Service eventually earned in excess of $100,000 for Songs of a Sourdough, equal to about $2.6 million today. In the United States, the book would be titled The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses

When the bank transferred Service to Dawson City in 1908, he met veterans of the Klondike Gold Rush who loved to reminisce, and Service used their tales to write a second book of verse, Ballads of a Cheechako (1908), which also became an overwhelming success. 

In 1909, when his bank wanted Service to return to Whitehorse as a manager, he decided to resign. He rented a small two-room log cabin in Dawson City and began his career as a full-time author. Like his two volumes of poetry, his first novel, The Trail of '98, also became an immediate best-seller, and Service, newly wealthy, was able to travel widely. But he felt that he still had a score to settle with the north. 

In 1909, when his Dawson bank wanted Robert Service to return to Whitehorse as a manager, he decided to resign. After quitting his job, he rented a small log cabin, built in 1897, and became a full-time author.

Robert Service had long felt that he was a bit of a fraud, for while he wrote compellingly of the Yukon and the gold rush era, he had not ‘paid his dues,’ so to speak. He hadn’t trekked over the Chilkoot Pass, nor risked his life in the perilous journey down the Yukon in a flimsy craft. Seeking to earn his sourdough stripes, he made a decision to return to Dawson City the hard way, via the notorious 2,000-mile Edmonton Trail, by birch bark canoe down the Mackenzie River, over the Mackenzie Divide via the Rat River and down the Bell and the Porcupine to the Yukon River, then up the Yukon to Dawson City. It was a properly arduous—and dangerous—journey, and by the end of it he felt vindicated. Happily returning to his log cabin on the hillside, he wrote his third book of poetry, Rhymes of a Rolling Stone

Robert Service left Dawson City for the last time in 1912, taking the last boat of the season. He moved to France, purchased a villa on the Emerald Coast of Brittany which he named Dream Haven, and married Germaine Bourgoin in 1913. He was 41 years old when World War I broke out; he lied about his age and tried to enlist, but was refused. He became a war correspondent, and volunteered for duty as a stretcher bearer and ambulance driver with the American Red Cross, but when his health broke he found himself convalescing in Paris, where he wrote a volume of war poetry, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, in 1916. It became a critically acclaimed best-seller. The book was dedicated to the memory of Service's brother, Lieutenant Albert Service, Canadian Infantry, Killed in Action, France, August, 1916. 

In January, 1917 Germaine gave birth to twin girls, Doris and Iris. The following winter, when the family traveled to the Riviera, little Doris caught scarlet fever. She died in February, 1918. 

In the fall of 1921 Service received a check for $5,000 for the film rights to The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and the family traveled to Hollywood, where Robert’s mother joined them from Alberta. That winter Robert traveled alone to Tahiti and Moorea for two months before returning to France. For the next ten years the family spent much time traveling, north to Brittany in the summers, south to Nice in the winter. They travelled to Spain, North Africa, Denmark, Finland, and Robert visited Germany, Poland, and the U.S.S.R. for two months, among other places.

During World War II, Robert Service returned to California, playing himself in the movie The Spoilers (1942), working alongside John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and appearing in a scene with Marlene Dietrich. After the war, Robert Service and his wife returned to their home, Dream Haven in the town of Lancieux, Brittany, to find it in ruin from the German occupation. They had it rebuilt, as Robert Service had a deep affection for the town and its scenic seaside. On many occasions, he made monetary gifts to the town, including for the school and for a war memorial.

Robert Service spent winters at his Villa Aurora in Monaco on the French Riviera, overlooking the warm Mediterranean, but during the summers he returned to Dream Haven. He wrote prolifically during his last years, publishing two volumes of autobiography, Ploughman of the Moon (1945) and Harper of Heaven (1948) and nine original books of verse (1949 to 1955). 

Robert Service, The Bard of the Yukon, passed away at his beloved Dream Haven on the coast of Brittany, in September, 1958, and was buried in Lancieux. He was eighty-five.  ~•~