Although this Englishman of Scottish ancestry spent most of his life in the New World in Canada, Alaskans adopted the poet of the Yukon, too. For surely no one before or since has better interpreted the vastness, power, beauty and cruelty of the North.
After landing in Skagway in the early 1900s, he boarded a White Pass and Yukon Railroad coach. As it inched up over the narrow gauge tracks by precipitous cliffs, he could see where so many gold seekers had fallen to their deaths. When he arrived in Whitehorse it was 40 below, and he found the town teeming with Klondikers on their way to and from the mines, loaded with gold dust and yarns.
The sensitive young man found it a thrilling environment and began to write rhymes describing the North Country. Most of them ended up condemned to the bottom of a drawer. But some people thought his rhymes had merit.
Service later told how “Dangerous Dan McGrew” began: “Stoller White, editor of the Whitehorse Star, first suggested my writing an original poem to recite (at a church gathering). I decided to give it a try and went for a long walk to think it over. As I returned from my walk, I had nothing doped out. It was a Saturday night, and from the various bars I heard sounds of revelry. The line popped into my mind, ‘A bunch of the boys were whooping it up,’ and it stuck there. Good enough for a start….”
The rest of the stanzas came so easily he was amazed. It was as if someone was whispering in his ear. Before he crawled into bed at 5 a.m., his ballad was in the bag. However, he decided against using it for the initial purpose – the cuss words, he thought, made it impossible to recite at a church concert.
“The Cremation of Sam McGee,” “The Call of the Wild,” “The Spell of the Yukon” and many other ballads followed within short order. And although we know Service was never in the Klondike, his poems seem strangely authentic and true to the country.
Will Rogers’ tribute back in the 1930s explains the popularity of Robert Service. Rogers said Service served the common man “literary steak, well seasoned with plenty of calories and tasty trimmings.”
Service died in September 1958.