FAIRBANKS — This is a drawing of the Malemute Saloon, located at Ester Gold Camp in Ester. The gold camp was a support facility for gold dredges operated in the Ester area by the Fairbanks Exploration Company (F.E. Co). With the winding down of Ester area dredging in the late 1950s, the camp was sold to a group of private investors in 1958 and the new owners turned the property into a resort.
One of their first efforts was to open the Malemute Saloon. The saloon is within the Ester Camp Historic District, and according to the nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places, the building (believed to date back to about 1906 and probably moved from another location) was originally a garage before being converted into the saloon.
The owners added a wood-frame false front to the metal-sided one-story building, and for more historical ambiance, acquired the bar counter from the Royal Alexandria Hotel in Dawson City. Half of the counter was installed in the saloon and the other half was stored next door (probably in the old blacksmith shop). This turned out to be a wise decision. When the Malemute Saloon burned down on June 3, 1969, the owners were able to rebuild, install the other half of the bar counter, and be back in business as good as ever.
The Malemute (which closed in 2008 along with the rest of the gold camp resort) was well-known for its sawdust-covered floor, period décor, Robert Service poetry and lively entertainment. Contrary to popular myth, however, the saloon had no direct association with Robert Service or his poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” The closest association is the bar counter in the saloon, which, as I stated earlier, came from Dawson City.
Service also hailed from Dawson City for a time, but even then, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” was written before Service ever set foot there. Service began working for the Bank of Canada in 1903, and his first posting in the Yukon Territory was at Whitehorse in 1904.
He was already a bit of a poet, and according the biography, “Robert Service – Under the Spell of the Yukon,” Stroller White, editor of the Whitehorse newspaper, urged Service to write poetry with a local flavor, to “Give us something about our own little bit of earth.”
It was in Whitehorse that Service first listened to the sourdoughs’ yarns that gave him ideas for his poetry. “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” was written there in 1906 and first printed in Service’s book, “Songs of a Sourdough.” The book was published in 1907, one year before Service moved to Dawson City.
Service lived in the Yukon off and on for about eight years — five of those as an employee of the Bank of Canada. As far as I can tell, there is no evidence that he ever visited Ester or Fairbanks.
The Malemute Saloon now sits shuttered, as does the entire Ester Gold Camp. The property is for sale, and its fate is uncertain. It would be a shame if the Malemute Saloon became just a memory. You know, the Malemute was always a rough-and-tumble artsy type place. Maybe someone should buy Ester Gold Camp and turn it into an artists’ colony.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist and writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.