Yukon Nuggets

1923 Yukon Nuggets

The Man who cremated Sam McGee


"Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee," said Robert Service in his famed story of a man cremated in the boiler of a steamboat called the Olive 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 Laberge? And by whom? And why? Well, the cremated man's real name seems lost in the mists of more than a 100 bygone years. It wasn't Sam McGee, but whoever it was - he was cremated by Leonard Sugden.

Doctor Leonard Sugden was working for the NWMP in the winter of 1899-1900 when he mushed out to a cabin on Lake Laberge to check on the well-being of a miner, ill with scurvy. Sugden found the man – dead. And there was no way to bury him in the frozen ground.

So Sugden loaded the corpse on a sleigh and hauled it to the NWMP post at Tagish. Legend has it that the Mounties used the newly arrived telegraph line to contact his family in Tennessee for permission to cremate him. Maybe!

A steamboat, the Olive May, was frozen in for the winter at Tagish. The crew of the boat, who were wintering at Tagish, 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.

But what about the doctor who inspired the poem? Doctor Sugden first came north on a whaling vessel and administered to the people at Juneau. In 1897, he headed for the Klondike but had to winter at Marsh Lake, where he built a cabin and worked as a doctor for the NWMP. When the real gold rush began in 1898, he helped pilot boats through Miles Canyon and the White Horse Rapids. Dr. Sugden stayed in the Yukon. He married in 1906 and moved to the Kluane area where he mined, hunted big game and bought a Prizma movie camera. With it he produced, in 1915, a film called The Lure of Alaska which played to rave reviews across America and Europe.

The film includes shots from the Seattle harbour and along 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.

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.


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.