Yukon Nuggets

  • Photograph of Dufferin Pattullo. 1900/1901. Yukon Archives. Finnie Family fonds, #86.

1956 Yukon Nuggets

Duff Pattullo



There were many cheechakos in the Klondike who made the most of their brief time to develop a taste for fame and glory. They included a future Premier of British Columbia, who learned the art of hard-ball politics during his stormy eight years in the Yukon.

Thomas Dufferin Pattullo was born in 1873 in Woodstock, Ontario. His father ran the Galt Reformer, a Liberal newspaper. For a time Duff worked as a columnist, before the lure of the west called.

Through its father's connections with the Liberal government of Sir Wilfred Laurier, he was hired as the principle secretary to Major James Walsh, a former Mountie who was appointed in 1897 to lead a special government commission sent to the Yukon to bring law, order and good government to the burgeoning Klondike district.

The party of fifty well-equipped officials left Ottawa by train in September, 1897, bound for Vancouver, where they boarded the steam-ship Quadra for the journey up the Inside Passage to Skagway.

Pattullo, a young man of twenty-four, seemed to enjoy the good life afforded his lofty position, and more than once had to wire his well-to-do father for additional funds, although his government salary and perks were enough to support a person of more modest tastes.

Arriving in Dyea at the foot of the Chilkoot Pass in late October 1897, the party began the long climb to the summit while the bitter winds, freezing rain and pelting snow raged around them. It was here, on the so-called "golden stairs" near the Chilkoot summit, that young Duff Pattullo realized the coming hoards of miners were in for something far more brutal than anyone could imagine.

"Every man who comes here must be willing to take life risks and be willing to withstand every imaginable hardship," Pattullo wrote.

He soon realized that, even late in the season, the Chilkoot was not the worst obstacle. In early November the government party set sail down raging Lake Bennett, a time of year when no sane person should be on the water. They continued across Tagish and Marsh Lakes, ran the forbidding Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids, and then entered the Yukon River proper as ice began to form.

No one was under the illusion that they would make Dawson City before the river froze. And they did not. Instead, Pattullo and the others spent a difficult winter at Big Salmon, a native village about halfway between present-day Whitehorse and Dawson City, but not before he was forced to abandon his boat when solid ice cakes tipped them into the water. Pattullo made it to shore, but another man, J.J. Freeman, was not so lucky. He disappeared under the ice and was never seen again.

On the way down the river they encountered men coming out of the Klondike, and heard reports of food shortages so severe that everyone expected a starvation winter in the Yukon for those foolish enough to stay. The government party, though it had lost supplies to the icy river, did have sufficient provisions to last the long, dark cold winter at Big Salmon, where Duff Pattullo spent his first Yukon winter.

In the spring of 1898, Duff Pattullo, was travelling with a federal government contingent that had spent the winter at Big Salmon, and now continued to Dawson.

In May of 1898, they arrived in Dawson City, a city clogged with men, material, and mud. Front Street was lined with clapboard buildings, many of which housed saloons. It seemed like total chaos, but Pattullo immediately took a liking to the street, with its carnival atmosphere and expensive booze.

Still, there was government work to do, and on June 13, 1898, the Yukon Act was proclaimed and Pattullo served briefly as Secretary to the first elected Yukon Council.

By mid-August, his boss, James Walsh, had become embroiled in a scandal over gold claims. Walsh left the Yukon and Pattullo went with him.

However, by late October Pattullo was back in Dawson carrying many official government documents from the powerful federal Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton. One of those documents was very important to Frank Nantuk, a native who had been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang. Nantuk's sentence was commuted to life in prison.


Pattullo expected to be named as Principle Secretary to the new Commissioner, William Ogilvie. The Commissioner, however, vetoed the idea and Pattullo was instead offered a civil service job in the Gold Commissioner's office. Ogilvie claimed that "the boy's drinking and rebellious spirit" did not amuse him, and ordered Pattullo to report to Fort Selkirk as the government timber agent.


It was the spring of 1899 before Sifton became aware of Pattullo's fate and of Ogilvie's interference in the appointment. Bad enough that Ogilvie had overruled the powerful federal Minister, but when he complained to Sifton that such detailed management was better left to officials in the Yukon, Ogilvie's days as Commissioner were numbered.

In the summer of 1899, Pattullo was acting assistant Gold Commissioner. It was a job the 26-year-old budding bureaucrat took seriously, but he was consistently passed over for the top job - that of Gold Commissioner. In October, he quit the public service and went into private business selling real estate. However, the boom days of Dawson were over. He could barely eke out a living, but he developed a keen interest in politics. In February 1903, he was elected to the executive committee of the Dawson Liberal Club. He also declared himself a candidate for civic office and, in January 1904, finished third in a slate of twenty-four candidates for six positions on Dawson City Council.

The die was cast. Pattullo, now a city Alderman, became deeply embroiled in the ruthless Dawson game of federal politics. As a Liberal, he opposed the Liberal-appointed Commissioner Frank Congdon, who he felt had a complete lack of political finesse.

By now, the federal Liberals were taking notice. Pattullo wrote to both Sifton and Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier to vilify Congdon as "unreliable, unpolitical, weak and wholly lacking in ordinary judgment." Congdon's troops replied that Pattullo and his bunch were "a gang of bums."

When the federal election campaign began, the Yukon Liberal Association, controlled by Pattullo, withdrew their support for the official liberal candidate, Congdon, and endorsed the Conservative candidate, Alfred Thompson. On election day, Pattullo had reason to celebrate - Thompson won in a landslide.

Now, Pattullo was like a wolf on the chase, but there were no more chases in dwindling Dawson town. Young Duff had faced the rigours of the '98 trail, fought the bureaucratic battles and took part in the most bitter election campaign in Yukon history. In the summer of 1908, all this ended. But the political career of Thomas Dufferin Pattullo had just begun.

His move to Prince Rupert set the stage for his entry into British Columbia politics that culminated when he was elected B.C. Premier on November 15, 1933, a post he held until his retirement in December of 1941. Not surprisingly, Pattullo was the first B.C. Premier to suggest that the future of the Yukon lay in joining the Province of British Columbia. He died on March 30, 1956.

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.

Les McLaughlin

Les McLaughlin

As storyteller, radio man, and music producer, Les proved a passionate preserver of Yukon heritage throughout his life — nowhere more evident than as the author and voice of CKRW’s “Yukon Nuggets,” from its inception until his passing in 2011.