1918 Yukon Nuggets
Who was Dan McGrew?
A bunch of the boys were a whooping it up in the malamute saloon.
The kid that handled the music box was playing a jagtime tune,
Back of the bar in a solo game sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
While watching his luck was his light o'love the lady that's known as Lou.
It was a pleasant spring day, April 20, 1908, when a nondescript, yet not unknown, bank clerk arrived in Dawson City on board the overland stage from Whitehorse. He slid into town without fanfare and took up his duties behind the teller's cage in the ornate Bank of Commerce building on First Avenue. Nondescript? Maybe, but his fame had predeceded him. The gold rush city folk were expecting another wild, crazy drinker and gambler to join the ranks of colourful characters in their midst.
Instead, they found a shy, introverted young Scot who drank little and smoked only occasionally, who preferred long solitary walks in the wilderness. Though polite and proper, he spoke very little. Could this be the same man who had recently taken the world by storm with the publication of bawdy book of pungent poetry called Songs of a Sourdough?
Was this the man who wrote about corpse cremations in beached river boats; who wrote about a painted prostitute with an added halo whose image hangs in a church; who told the steamy story of a double shooting murder in a local saloon?
His skill, apart from pen-pushing in the Bank, was listening. He loved to listen to the tall tales of the Klondike and would seek out old-timers for that purpose. He was also a bit of a writer, having studied literature in Scotland before he emigrated to Canada in 1896.
Thus stories of the great gold rush, a rush that had already past him by, became grist for his gift as a writer. He could embellish a simple story with such detail and twist that ordinary events became extraordinary, almost epochal episodes on the world's stage that was the Klondike.
By the time he arrived in Dawson City in 1908, he had already become world famous for his clever reconstruction of a saloon shootout in which two men lay stiff and stark, while a rouge-painted lady pinched a dead stranger's poke of gold. In his later years, Robert Service always claimed that his characters, including Dangerous Dan McGrew, who appeared like a slate of scoundrels in a police lineup, were fictional. These are not the simple facts of the case.
Most of the characters who permeated poems by Robert Service were based on real people. He listened, he learned, he wrote. We know that Sam McGee, born near Peterborough, Ontario, was as real as ice fog, 'Touch the Button' Nell actually strutted her stuff on saloon stages in Dawson.
The "kid that handled the music box" in the Shooting of Dan McGrew was an accomplished piano player from Chicago, whose mother was one of the foremost music teachers of her day. Clancy was an honest-to-God Mountie.
But who was Dan McGrew? In my search for characters real or imagined by Robert Service, I had long been unable to pinpoint the hero-villain in the famous poem. Since Robert Service would never admit to the existence of such a person, the search for Dan McGrew and his "lady that's known as Lou" seemed endless, as well as hopeless.
Then I got to figuring who he was, and to wondering what he did. With a final piece of information, the job was done. These are the simple facts of the case.
Murray Eads came to the Klondike in 1898, not to mine for gold, but to run dance halls. There was big money in saloons and dance halls, and Murray Eads knew the business.
Eads was a flamboyant character. His whole career had been tied to Dawson City's gaudy dance hall days. He managed the old Standard and the famous Monte Carlo saloons. Alexander Pantages, who became the owner of North America's biggest movie chains, and Tex Rickard, who became owner of Madison Square Gardens, tended bar for Eads.
In 1904, he married a dance hall girl, Lulu Mae Johnson, who had come over the trail with a troupe of performers, hired by Eads. She was touted as one of the real beauties of the Klondike. Murray was a Kentuckian. Lulu Mae hailed from Alabama.
At the time of the marriage, Eads owned the Flora Dora on Front Street. It was a bustling place and not without its characters. The walls behind the ornate bar were covered with paintings of voluptuous nudes. In back of the bar, as with every bar in Dawson, was a room dedicated to the favourite pastime of the city's wild, rich miners.
Gambling! Faro, aceaway, and spread misere were games of choice. While the gamblers made and lost a fortune in gold dust, as many as twenty women, according to NWMP Inspector Zachary Wood, rented rooms upstairs in 1907.
One day, the Royal Northwest Mounties charged Lulu Mae Eads with "allowing women of loose, idle or suspicious character on the premises for the purpose of keeping company with men." Prostitution was not totally condemned in Dawson, but the Mounties did not take kindly to the business being conducted under their noses right on Front Street, across from the prestigious Bank of Commerce. They charged Lulu because her name appeared on the liquor licence. Her husband Murray, the owner, had his own reasons for this arrangment.
The matter was settled, Lulu Mae stayed out of jail, and Eads went on to expand the Flora Dora and rename it the Royal Alexandra. It became one of Dawson's classiest dance halls and made nothing but money for the couple. With money came respectability. The Eads, their dance hall and assorted shenanigans aside, were pillars of the community.
In the fall of 1918, Mr. and Mrs. Eads decided it was time to leave the Klondike. They sold their various business interests and made arrangements to leave for the coast. Neither had been out of the Yukon since they arrived at the height of the gold rush twenty years earlier.
In October 1918, they travelled to Whitehorse by sternwheeler, took the White Pass train to Skagway, and booked passage south on board the CPR ship, the Princess Sophia. The Sophia left Skagway on October 23, 1918 with three hundred and fifty-three passengers and crew on board. In a blinding snowstorm in the Lynn Canal, the ship struck the well-charted Vanderbilt reef.
It sat high and dry for two days waiting rescue from another CPR ship, the Princess Alice.
Then, on October 25, a blizzard swept the stricken Sophia into the sea. All passengers and crew, including Murray and Lulu Mae Eads, were drowned. Ironically, the couple had drawn up their last wills just a few days before the disaster.
It became apparent later that they had stayed in the Yukon for twenty years, not so much because they loved the place, but because they feared sea travel.
In my search for Dan McGrew, the real Dan McGrew and his "lady that's known as Lou," a telling piece of evidence came after the sinking of the Sophia and the death of Murray and Lulu Mae Eads. It came in a letter, recently uncovered, written by a woman from Juneau, Alaska, to a friend.
"The Princess Sophia went down with all passengers and crew", she wrote in 1918. "It was a terrible tragedy. The ship took with her Lulu Mae Eads, the lady that's known as Lou."
Is it possible that Dangerous Dan McGrew, that mythical character from the inventive mind of Robert Service, was her flamboyant husband, the Dawson saloon king from Alabama, Murray Eads?
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.