The contention that “every bottle has a story,” is fully borne out by the small ceramic flask shown here. It tells the story of W. H. (“Bill”) McPhee, a figure in the frozen North whose role in the Yukon Gold Rush was not to moil for the shiny stuff in the earth but to get it in payment for whiskey in his saloons. Said the Dawson Yukon Sun: “The memory of man runneth not back to the time when Bill McPhee first came to the Yukon.”
According to his response to the 1910 census, McPhee was born in Eastern Canada in 1841 of Scottish ancestry. Shown here, he came to the United States in 1870 and eventually became a citizen, although equally at home in Canada. Of his early years, information is scant. He appears to have had some early employment in the whiskey trade, likely spending a period employed in a saloon. He is shown here in middle age.
Although he indicated he had arrived in the Canadian Yukon in 1888, McPhee first shows up in the public record six years later running a drinking establishment in “Forty Mile,” accounted as the oldest town in Canada’s Yukon. It was established in 1886 at the confluence of the Yukon and Fortymile Rivers by prospectors in search of gold after a strike had been made on the banks of the Fortymile. With a population of about 600 by 1894, the town, shown below, boasted two general stores, a lending library, billiard room, ten saloons, two restaurants, a theatre, an opera house, a watchmaker, and several distilleries.
After McPhee with two partners opened a saloon in Forty Mile he was soon active in public affairs in the town and became one of the founders of the Yukon Order of Pioneers. This group was formed in 1894 by members of the community to bring an element of “law and order” to Forty Mile where claim-jumping and violence were all too common — and there was no local police force. At the first meeting of the Order the popular Bill was elected treasurer. Shown here is a photo of the Pioneers against a backdrop of log buildings. McPhee is second from left, seated in the first row.
It was at McPhee’s saloon, late in the afternoon of August 17, 1896, that George Carmacks made his initial announcement that he had discovered gold on a tributary of the Yukon River forty miles to the south. Although townspeople at first were skeptical, Carmacks pulled out a shotgun shell full of the metal plus a nugget the size of a dime. He had found a huge quantity of gold, describing seeing raw gold in pieces of bedrock “laying thick between the flaky slabs, like cheese sandwiches.” and had marked out four claims along the creek for himself and two companions. The next day he registered them at at the nearest police post and news spread rapidly from there to other mining camps in the Yukon River valley. The Klondike Gold Rush was on.
The denizens of Forty Mile did not wait. Many of them set out immediately that evening to the site. By the next morning Forty Mile was a ghost town as residents used every available pole boat to get upriver. Among those quick to move was Clarence Berry, one of McPhee’s bartenders. Berry, a muscular giant, was a California fruit farmer caught in the depression of the 1890s who had come North in 1894. With little initial luck as a prospector, he had gone to work in the saloon.
When opportunity beckoned, Berry did not hesitate and with partners staked claims along what became known as Bonanza Creek. By the following summer he and his buddies were millionaires. While waiting for the rivers to thaw so he could ship out to civilization and spend money, Berry reportedly placed an coal-oil can full of gold and a bottle of whiskey in front of his cabin with a sign reading “Help Yourself.”
McPhee himself was not slow in realizing the need to move his saloon to what was becoming known as Dawson City. There he opened an establishment he called the “Pioneer.” Said one observer: “In a city of greenhorns like Dawson, McPhee was a genuine oldtimer and his watering hole was one of the most popular in town.” According to author Michael Gates, however: “McPhee was not universally admired, because he was reputed to encourage men to drink themselves into insolvency.”
In the spring of 1898, Dawson’s population ballooned to 30,000 as prospectors arrived from all over the globe. As shown here, the main drag, Front Street, was lined with hastily built frame buildings and warehouses, together with log cabins and tents spreading out across the settlement. In Spring, the unpaved streets were churned into thick mud and in Summer the settlement reeked of human waste and was plagued by flies and mosquitoes.
Despite the squalor, the quantities of gold coming through Dawson triggered inflationary prices for land, food and other hard to get commodities. At his Pioneer Saloon, McPhee was benefiting from the lavish spending among the wealthier prospectors. Establishments like McPhee’s typically were open around the clock. Whiskey, much of it of dubious quality, was the standard drink. Gambling was popular, with major saloons each running their own gaming rooms and taking a generous cut for the house.
As had occurred earlier at Forty Mile, the Yukon Gold Rush slackened after 1898. Most land with potential for gold had been claimed. Many of the prospectors arriving in Dawson City could not make a living and left for home. Most important were gold strikes elsewhere in Canada and Alaska. A stampede of prospectors left Dawson City for other locations. Among the destinations was a former trading post on the south bank of the Chena River in Alaska where gold was discovered about 1902. Thousands of people flocked to the area in search of their fortune, creating a boom town the residents called Fairbanks. The main street is shown below in the 1900s.
McPhee was relatively quick to see that the local boom economy was finished and as he had done before at Forty Mile, he left Dawson City and in 1904 moved down the Yukon River to Fairbanks. There he established the Washington Saloon at the corner of First and Lacy Streets, an establishment the locals called “McPhee’s Place.” The proprietor’s genial personality and reputation as an “old pioneer,” combined with his generosity in handing out tokens good for 25 cents in trade. He made the Washington Saloon one of the most popular in Fairbanks.
Two years after opening, however, McPhee’s place was consumed in the Great Fairbanks Fire of May 26, 1906. Shown here, the conflagration destroyed most of the town, which was quickly rebuilt. McPhee had men working the day after the flames ended constructing a new one story saloon and store building. Remembering the kindness the proprietor had shown him by hiring him when he was down on his luck, the millionaire Clarence Berry quickly had wired McPhee all the money he needed to rebuild.
McPhee’s saloon was famous for harboring his pet moose that reputedly had a habit of eating potatoes and stale bread and chasing it down with beer — causing considerable havoc when the moose got drunk. According to the local press: “Since the mayor’s repeated demands to remove the moose from the Saloon were refused, he drew up an ordinance prohibiting moose on the city sidewalks—so that the large ungulate couldn’t lawfully enter the bar.” With McPhee’s permission, the moose was killed and his patrons ate it.
In 1909 controversy arose about a hiker’s claim to have climbed Denali (Mt. McKinley). To prove whether the story was true or not, McPhee who had been drinking beer, offered $500 to anyone who would make the climb, claiming, according to a New York Times story, that “no living man could make the ascent.” He gathered two other sponsors and each contributed $500 (the total worth over $37,000 today.) A group of four prospectors took him up on the challenge.
The prospectors subsequently claimed to have reached the summit after climbing more than 8,000 feet of steep snow and ice, then back down again— all in a single day in 1910. Lugging a 25-pound, 14-foot flagpole to mark their success, they claimed to have mastered North America’s highest peak using sheet metal crampons, coal shovels, hatchets, and alpenstocks to carve their way up the mountain. The claim of the prospectors soon was proven spurious. They got no payoff. The Denali was first conquered in 1913 by professional mountaineers.
Meanwhile, McPhee’s saloon business continued brisk as Fairbanks advanced from a camp to a settlement to a town and then to the largest city in Alaska. The flask that opens this post is an indication of the proprietor’s prosperity. It was made in Germany by the Schafer & Vader, a German company known for their humorous small ceramic items. Founded in 1890, the factory was located in Volkstedt-Rudolstadt. Shown here front and back, this was an expensive giveaway item for McPhee. The ceramics themselves were not cheap. Then they had to be brought by ship from Germany all the way to the American Yukon, likely after rounding the tip of Latin America. Upon arrival, McPhee was obliged to fill them with whiskey before presenting them to favored customers.
Gestures like this made Bill McPhee a legendary figure, known well to the power brokers in Alaska. He is shown here, right, posing with Tom Megowan, his good friend and a political insider. There is no evidence McPhee ever married or had children to assist him as he aged. At 72 years old in 1913 he was still running the Washington Saloon and continued, despite declining eyesight, until closed by National Prohibition. By then he was almost blind and about 1921 left Fairbanks for San Francisco and better care. Then McPhee fades into history and I have been unable to find his burial place.
“No one who ever knew him ever forgot Bill McPhee,” according to one author. Today, however, no one who ever knew him is still living. Yet through the iconic ceramic flask McPhee issued we can learn the story of this resourceful Yukon pioneer who preferred pouring golden liquid over a bar to laboriously unearthing the shiny stuff in the frozen tundra.
Notes: While this post was composed from many sources, a key one was an item entitled “A Most Popular Resort: Bill McPhee’s Saloon” by Terrence Cole from “A Walking Tour of Fairbanks” published by the Tanana-Yukon Historical Society.
Addendum: This is to alert both followers of this blog and others that I have a new website involving whiskey. It is a compilation of more than thirty vignettes about Old West saloons and saloonkeepers. Outlaws, gunslingers, and shootings abound. This new blog can be accessed at wet enterprise: select saloons of the old firstname.lastname@example.org. If this new site proves popular, other compilations under the “wet enterprise” heading may be forthcoming.