How to Dig Graves in the Snow: A Story of Grand Forks, Yukon, and Jews in the Klondike

Last winter I wrote a 1,000 word story titled ‘The Kevura’, about the discovery of a dead body in the snow. It’s now been published, in the online Flash Fiction Magazine.

The story is set in the town of Grand Forks, Yukon, a place now so forgotten that it only has a 72-word entry on Wikipedia. First established in 1896 as a small settlement of forty buildings, the town grew to house 4,000-10,000 people (the number varies according to accounts) after gold was discovered nearby in 1897. The town had electricity, a public bath, a dentists, a famous roadhouse, and a municipal government.

In 1899 gold was discovered in a more accessible location, in Alaska, and Grand Forks fell into decline. By 1911, just fifteen years after the town was established, the town was completely abandoned so that the ground underneath could itself be mined for gold.

This is what the town looked at in 1902, around the time my story is set:

Dawson City Museum (1984.139.1). Reproduced with permission. The annotations were added by someone who lived in Grand Forks from 1903 to 1907 (when they were 10-14 years old).

The annotated panoramic lists some of the towns amenities, including a Japanese restaurant, a German bakery,  and a photographers’.

This is the same site in 2017:

Google Earth aerial photograph.

Almost nothing is left, except for a single derelict building and the remains of the cemetery, carved into the hillside, protected from mining by (let us assume) reverence for the dead. In 2009, historian and conservationist Ed Jones began restoring the cemetery.

The Klondike is a beautiful place, with a vivid history.

Someone who captures the excitement of the gold rush era, as well as the beauty that still exists today, is the American novelist Jack London, who traveled to the Klondlike to observe the gold rush first-hand. His work preserves the language and style of the people who took part in the gold rush:

Take the oath again, Daylight,” the same voice cried. “I sure will. I first come over Chilkoot in ’83. I went out over the Pass in a fall blizzard, with a rag of a shirt and a cup of raw flour. I got my grub-stake in Juneau that winter, and in the spring I went over the Pass once more. And once more the famine drew me out. Next spring I went in again, and I swore then that I’d never come out till I made my stake. Well, I ain’t made it, and here I am. And I ain’t going out now. I get the mail and I come right back. I won’t stop the night at Dyea. I’ll hit up Chilkoot soon as I change the dogs and get the mail and grub. And so I swear once more, by the mill-tails of hell and the head of John the Baptist, I’ll never hit for the Outside till I make my pile. And I tell you-all, here and now, it’s got to be an almighty big pile.

— Jack London, Burning Daylight (London: William Heinemann, 1910) pp. 31-2

Simple words — ‘the Pass’, ‘the Outside’ — are made more significant by capitalization and the context of an isolated, dangerous landscape. The image of someone carrying ‘a rag of a shirt and a cup of raw flour’ conveys more information than some novels achieve in an entire page, giving us a glimpse into a wider world in which those items exist and could conceivably be all that someone carried through a pass in a blizzard. I don’t know where or what ‘Chilkoot’ and ‘Dyea’ are, but I don’t need to. Just the fact that they are mentioned, with almost no context or explanation, tells me that this is a world where any settlement is important merely because it exists.

My experience of reading Jack London is like C.S. Lewis’s experience of reading Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic northern poem and later, the title Segfried and the Twilight of the Gods:

I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) […] Pure “Northernness” engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity…

— C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 1955


The dead person in my story is Jewish, and there was indeed a small Jewish community near Grand Forks, in Dawson City, at the turn of the last century. In 1995, Norman E. Kagan – a Jewish man from Minnesota – came across the old Jewish graveyard in Dawson, with graves dating from 1902 to 1931, and lobbied for its restoration. The Yukon News reported the find three years later: ‘unnoticed and hidden from view by overgrowth are the neglected and forgotten tombs of five Jewish pioneers. In the centre of the wooded lot lies the broken overturned gateway, a rotting white-picket fence and the burial mounds. Only one is marked with a gravestone.’ The cemetery has since been restored:

Thanks to Angharad Wenz from The Dawson City Museum, for walking over to the cemetery and taking these photographs for me.

It is estimated that around two hundred Jews settled in Dawson, having journeyed there – with 100,000 others – during the gold rush around the turn of the century.1 The current population is thought to consist of just one person.

The protagonist in my story struggles to bury the Jewish man in the winter. This is a real struggle for Jewish communities in cold areas, as the bodies need to be buried as soon as possible, according to Jewish law, and specialist equipment is needed to cut through the frozen ground. The difficulty is a particular concern for small, isolated communities. In some places, the graves are dug in the autumn, ahead of time, but that’s not always an option if the person who dies needs to be buried in a particular place, such as a family plot. If you can, you wait until Spring for the burial. If not, you just have to hope nobody passes away when the weather is really cold.

A ‘Grave Thawer’, one of the pieces of equipment used to dig graves when the ground is frozen. Source: Christine Peterson, Telegram and Gazette (Worcester, Massachusetts).

The people living in the Klondike at the time of the gold rush would not have had grave thawers such as the one pictured above, but they may still have been able to dig graves even in the winter; the problem of digging through frozen soil had been tackled by the miners at the start of the rush, in order to maximise the number of months they could work.

In 1887, a miner named Fred Hutchinson had the idea of building a fire over the frozen area he wanted to mine:

Hutchinson built a fire on the ground, and took out a little pay dirt. His neighbors observed his freakish undertaking and laughed at him. But the following year two of them made fires on the ground, and, the diggings being shallow, took out considerable dirt. These first efforts were necessarily crude, but they demonstrated that ground might be worked which the sun’s rays could not reach.  In any event, it was a great leap forward, as twelve months’ work was now possible instead of only two as before. Some, however, did not take kindly to this, and they said, “It’s an bad now inside as outside—work winter and summer.”

—Tappan Adney, The Klondike Stampede (New York and London: Harper, 1900), pp. 242-3

‘Starting a Hole’: two Klondike miners dig a trench for their fire, in order to thaw out the ground below (from Tappan Adney, The Klondike Stampede, p. 242)

A fire did the job, but it took a long time to make (see Jack London’s short story ‘To Build a Fire‘), and thawed a wider area than was needed. During the gold rush the miners eventually developed more efficient ways of thawing the soil, including flamethrowers and steam pipes:

During the winter of 1897 much discussion was held by the miners concerning the improvement of the firing method. All sorts of ways were proposed, only to be dropped after thorough examination; but two stood out prominently and permanently, namely, thawing by steam, and thawing by coal oil or gasolene flames. The latter idea was an enlarged plumber’s torch, the intense flame of which was to be directed against the wall of frozen earth […] The gasolene torch was
tried, but its action was too slow and too local. Steam at a pressure of about forty pounds to the inch was carried in flexible hose, and applied through ” points,” that is, a section of half-inch iron pipe five or six feet long, into one end of which a steel plug is inserted. In this area bored two or three holes one-eighth of an inch in diameter, through which the steam issues against the frozen gravel, and thaws it at an astonishing rate.

—William Ogilvie, The Early Days on The Yukon & The Story of Its Gold Finds (London and New York: John Lane; TorontO: Bell & Cockburn, 1913), pp. 230-1

This photograph shows two men digging a grave in Yukon, February 1922, although its not clear if they needed to thaw the ground first:

Two men, probably digging a grave in the snow, in Hundred Mile Landing, Yukon, February 1922. Source: Yukon Archives Images Database. The town of Hundred Mile Landing still exists, although it is so small and remote I can’t find anything about it on the internet, except for a 2017 expedition by the British Exploring Society to view its ‘historic graves‘.

In my story, the boy who finds the dead body goes to the local doctor, Dr Truax, for help.

There was a real Dr Truax who worked in Grand Forks in the early twentieth century, although it was Grand Forks, British Columbia, rather than Grand Folks, Yukon.

Still, both Grand Forks towns were small communities in rural Canada, and Dr Truax’s stories – written down after he retired in 1947 – shed light on what life would have been like for a doctor working in Yukon around the same time.

A country doctor at the turn of the century sometimes had to act as an undertaker, as both the Dr Truax of my story, and the real one, knew:

There were a lot of  queer  old characters  living alone up in the mountains. One old fellow  named  Ned  lived twelve miles up a trail, the last five miles of which could be traversed  only on  foot or horseback.  He  used  to  come to Grand Forks once in a while for a fifty-pound sack of flour and other things  he  needed.  Then  he  would  carry them home on his back with  a “tump-line,”  an  arrangement used by early  prospectors  to carry  loads […]

One day, word came to the police that he was dead […] When we arrived we were surprised to see him standing in the doorway, and he was as surprised as we were to see a doctor and the policeman. The police corporal said to him, “We thought  you  were dead.”

The old man let out a roar of laughter and said, jok­ingly, “Why, I’m thinking of getting married.”

About a year after that we received another  message that the old man really was dead. On our arrival at his place we found that the poor old fellow  had  dropped dead in his field, and had been lying in the hot July sun for several days. The only thing we could do was to dig a grave there and bury him which was what the old man would have wanted anyhow. That was the end of poor old Ned.

You can read more about Dr Truax’s life as a country doctor in Pioneer Days in British Columbia, vol. 4 (Nanoose Bay: Heritage House, 1979). I have uploaded a PDF of Dr Truax’s article here.


Update: Michael Gates, a historian and writer from Yukon, kindly gave me an update on the Grand Forks cemetery which he visited a few years ago: ‘There is not much left of Grand Forks these days. The cemetery is on the hill overlooking the town site, which has essentially vanished. The cemetery is rapidly being overgrown with vegetation, and if it weren’t for the work of Ed and Star Jones, along with a number of friends, there would not be much left there today.’


Notes

I am grateful to Angharad Wenz from The Dawson City Museum, for taking the time to answer all my questions, and sending me documents about the history of Jews in the Yukon. My thanks, also, to Michael Gates for responding to my question about Grand Forks, and sending me more information based on his personal experience of the site.

  1. See Norman Eli Kagen, ‘The Dawson City, Klondike Jewish Cemetery,’ Western States Jewish History, XXXI.4 (Summer 1999), 319-321 (p. 319). Go back.

 

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