Boss Down North
Food, bed, laundry, legend, blackjack and $1,000 moose —"T.C" peddles them all to the "suckers" from outside
THE INTERSECTION of dusty Main and muddy Second Avenue in Whitehorse, Yukon, is the crossroads of the Northwest. Two wooden seats on the new concrete sidewalk are the bleachers for the fast-moving, rip-roaring cavalcade of the Yukon and Alaska. Across Second is the Commercial Bank. Down toward the station s Nick’s shoe store, the White Pass Hotel, the Whitehorse Grill, the movie showing “Rhapsody in Blue” at 75 cents a tip-up, the beauty shop and the barbers (three chairs).
But if you want anything in Whitehorse you don’t have to move farther than the bleachers in front of the Whitehorse Inn, and you don’t have to ask around farther than the florid, heavy, genial man of 55 who walks out of the Inn as though he owns the town. He does.
He is Thomas Cecil Richards, known to t he bums as “T.C.” and others as “Rich.” The man who personally improves on every vivid-hued story told about him, the man who is himself a suitable figure to place, commandingly, against the scarlet and green and blue backdrop of past and present Yukon history.
Richards is an Englishman from Leicester via
Vancouver. It is more than ordinarily difficult to write about him because when the more libellous stories are retailed to him for confirmation, he smiles, offers a bottle of rum, and shakes his head. “That wasn’t it at all,” he says. “It was much worse than that .' . .”
Take the affair, for instance, of how he came to be owner of the hotel, a three-story clapboard alfair with a beer parlor and restaurant attached. Questioned about a little game of blackjack, T.C. says: “At four a.m. on Sept. 1, 1936, I was playing against Ken Yoshida, a Japanese, and owner of the hotel. I had already won $1,000, and then $3,000, on the turn of two cards. Then I drew a king, a deuce, and a nine, and got. up from the table owner of the hotel. I went out fishing with a bottle of rum.”
This is what Whitehorse expects of Richards, and what everybody likes to believe. He does not disappoint them, but has to add that there were certain other considerations, such as the payment of a considerable sum of money for the hotel, which cost $30,000 when built. But T.C. is merely giving the public what it wants, and there is no public more gullible for the colorful story than the Whitehorse resident , the old-timer with leisure to fan the breeze and retail fabulous stories of the latest gold rush.
Thus, Richards only winks when asked how he got control of the restaurant, the taxi service (three cars), the butchery, the Blue Owl café, the laundry, t he dude lodge three miles out of town, the Whitehorse Theatre and the finest house in town. He allows people to think that all his business acumen has been over a poker table, and that he is as much a sucker for gambling as the dead beats of town, most of whom have borrowed five dollars from him at one time or another. And when asked if it’s true he’s a millionaire today, he says: “If the Judge said, ‘Pay $3,000 or go to jail’ — I’d have to go to jail.”
The rough wooden benches outside the hotel are worth sitting on any day of the week, and are provided absolutely free by Richards. A typical selection of breeze-fanners to be found there consists of one old-timer waiting for Richards, a hush pilot, an Indian trapper in an ugly store suit and the calluses healing on his hands, and an American millionaire.
Today the millionaire is Lloyd M. Bentzen, from Mission, Texas, who Continued on page 40
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Boss Down North
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looks more like a prospector than any prospector. He has flown 3,000 miles in his private plane to Whitehorse, and has paid $4,000 for a fortnight’s hunting. In the Whitehorse Inn cold room there are three moose, a caribou, and two bears, and he has just phoned Texas for his private plane to come and fetch him.
A good portion of the $4,000 has gone in Richards’ direction, and this morning, when Bentzen went shooting duck, he found, if he was interested, that each bird had cost him $50. But he will come again to the Yukon, for he is the type of sportsman who likes it ! expensive as long as it’s good. And when Richards approves of a visitor to the hotel, nothing is impossible.
The old-timer next to Bentzen could be Fred Allen, who will tell you he is a sourdough and explain at once that a sourdough is a man who has seen the freeze-up and the crack-up, shot an Indian and courted a bear. Fred has been enjoying himself hugely for the past three years, for the Alaska Highway changed his life. Back in 1914, when he was in a bar in Peru, he decided to quit the world of man. He’d had long years in sailing ships up and down the seven seas; some strange revulsion took hold of him and he quit, with a rude gesture. For the next 30 years his winter companions would be the bear, the beaver, the marten and the rivers where he caught his breakfast. He never saw a human being for months at a time.
Then civilization, which he had left, thrust out a long and questing finger and touched him again. The Alaska Highway was through, and Fred was back with his fellow men. On the whole he likes civilization now that it has I sought him out again. He talks easily to the millionaire Bentzen and produces a golden guinea on a heavy gold chain for inspection, together with several stories less suitable for open ! exhibition.
T. C. Richards emerges with the faintest aroma of rum from the refrigerator room of Burns and Co. and walks into the hotel, where he regards with some distaste the collapsed figures of several guests on the sagging settees. But on the way he has given a hello to the millionaire, waved to Horace Moore of the Yukon Star, and promised a' dollar to a dead beat later in the morning.
Horace Moore has lived at the hotel all through the tear-hellion days of the new gold rush without altering his affection for Charles Lamb, from whom he quotes liberally. Moore spends his day in an editorial sanctum that has all the comfort of an old-fashioned kitchen in Scotland. He sells 500 copies of the Star every week, recording a life that appears as normal and unexciting as a suburb of Edinburgh. The Star never got excited when 20,000 G.I.’s were within 10 miles of Whitehorse, when the line-ups for liquor were 10 blocks long and five men deep, and when fires were lighted in Main Street to keep circulation going in men waiting 10 hours for a bottle to restore circulation.
Moore went on printing the church notices, and writing scholarly editorials, and introducing an atmosphere of normalcy to an otherwise hysterical world. He even regards T. C. Richards as nothing out of the ordinary.
Sam Luts, the Indian trapper, has shared with T. C. Richards the great changes in Yukon life that came with the Alcan. He has lost the corns on his hands because he doesn’t paddle his canoe any more. The highway is now his mode of travel as a change from the Lewis River, and one of the advantages of civilization is that he can blow his profits quicker in Edmonton or Vancouver than he could at the Yaku Trading Post. One of these days Sam is going to take his wife down to Vancouver, though she still spends her time looking out on the Lewis River,
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now empty of boats, and sometimes there is almost a regret in her eyes. But Sam made $8,000 last year from furs, and some of that, too, has filtered into the Richards financial empire at Whitehorse.
The dead beat just accosting Richards is one of an exclusive little company who, if they could write, would put “T. C. Richards” down in their income tax returns as their means of livelihood. But though he is regarded as one of the softest touches north of the Alberta border, T. C. boasts that some of his dollar investments have paid dividends, and contends that there is a proper degree of gratitude whenever he stakes an oldtimer to another throw at the tables. As a gambler, he knows there’s no percentage in going back to the Army and Navy Veterans’ Club to teach the dice a lesson, but on the other hand he knows this advice is not going to do anybody much good. And in any case, he says, the club’s “Aces Away” game is well conducted.
Inspector Kronkeite of the RCMP at Whitehorse allows this, the only legalized gambling in Canada, because he knows the man who runs it and knows that if he didn’t supervise it, other characters would start up games with various little elaborations not so good for the customer. When T. C. visits the joint it’s usually well after midnight and the stakes are round the four-figure mark, recapturing the fine old atmosphere of the gold rush of 1943; but when I attended the place it seemed a drab and dusty Monte Carlo, the dice were flipping listlessly, and it was a dirty 10-spot note the croupier gave me for.my five.
Beer and Blackjack
“Aces Away,” or “Four Five Six,” or “Ships Captain and Crew,” are swift and lethal methods of redistributing currency, but there are no odds on the bank, and t he three croupiers pursue a backbreaking profession from eight p.m. to three a.m. purely for the tips tossed at them by the fortunate. The “table” is like a homemade, baize-covered bathtub, with a hole cut in the side for the croupier. It’s fast, monotonous, and inexplicable, but Richards was there in the days when there was $10.000 on the table—all of it money from Highway overtime—and when downstairs at the shabby bar liquor was poured from bottles that had cost $100.
These days, however, there’s only beer in circulation, at the Yukon rate of a dollar a bottle, and around the tables were only the stumble-bums who had already touched Richards once that day. A Finnish sailor touched me for a dollar, talking for some reason in German, and the half-success of this manoeuvre immediately prompted an ex-British soldier to address me in Hindustani, pitching his claim at a quarter. “I’ve been drunk for a month,” he said happily, “but I like it here. Somehow, I don’t seem to get on so well anywhere else . . .”
For one w'ild moment I wanted to see him somewhere else, where he wasn’t getting on so well.
Before the bleared eyes of every down-and-out in Whitehorse, there’s a wonderful Technicolored picture of sudden wealth, like the illuminated etching of Joe Lee, the Chinese laundrvman, as he rose from the dusty baize with $74,000 and left Whitehorse next day, never to be seen again. But Jim Saborne, who runs the Army and Navy Veterans’ Club, tones down the colors somewhat when he moves over to some insecure gambler and sends him home. “If they can’t afford it, or
are married, 1 throw them out,” says Jim. “This isn’t a game for a man with a family.”
Indeed, this is mostly a town for men without a place to put their feet for long spaces at a time, and for men who regard women, if at all, with some degree of intolerance. There are few women about the streets, and the girls in the Whitehorse restaurant, an admirable place that Richards keeps open all night, are there strictly for the high wages and the high tips, which in the boom days could reach $25 a day. The men pushing the bulldozers would come in and eat three T-bone steaks before they had taken the edge off their appetites-—and Richards serves them big. That was a time when women could not move around on the streets wit hout causing a minor riot.
T. C. struck it rich, but the hard way, when he first went into business in the Yukon. He had been in the butchering business in the Cariboo, British Columbia, and went to the Yukon as representative of Burns and Co. in 1911. He still has a unique standing in the well-known company, and as the undisputed boss of Whitehorse, which might be the future capital of the Yukon Territory, brings a valuable local knowledge to the business of the firm. Burns and Co. say: “We don’t know what else he is, but he is certainly a first class Burns man.”
Give ’Em Speed—3 m.p.h.
But he was always a man with an eye to the main chance, and it came first in 1921 when the White Pass and Yukon Railway withdrew from their
contract to carry the mail from Whitehorse to Dawson City. For 20 years the W.P. and Y.R. had operated the run of 330 miles by horse-stages, operating with 250 horses and running roadhouses and stables at intervals of 20 miles. The roadhouses were log buildings, and W. D. MacBride, an amateur historian of Yukon transport, reports that they were luxurious hostels with roaring fires and comfortable beds, with moose and caribou meals at $1.50 and a bed for a dollar. The fare was $125 one way by wheel stage, and less when sleighs could be used. The winter passengers enjoyed a comparatively uneventful trip with frostbite the only hardship, while for the extra fare wheel-stage passengers got floods, washouts and landslides.
But times had changed, Richards considered, and he looked at the list of
men waiting to make the journey and considered they wanted speed before comfort. For the first time he gave them tractors. It wasn’t so comfortable, but the idea was to get them to Dawson. T. C. himself made the first reconnaissance of the route by tractor. He reckoned they could keep going day and night at three miles an hour—he had done it himself. He started with five sleighs behind a tractor, all loaded with freight, and the fare was slashed to $75 single and $135 return.
But Richards was counting on men who wanted to get to Dawson pretty badly. The passengers rode on top of the freight, and when they were cold they got off and ran. If they were influential, they might get in the caboose, shared by a bull cook and his flunkey who kept the place warm, and a swamper and a greaseman charged with cutting timber for the cookhouse fire.
The passengers got there, but they got there cold. To all protests, Richards said; “Well, they want to get there quick, and I’ve done it myself.”
In 1937 the W.P. and Y.R. came back into the field with the air service, but the great romantic days were already over when Richards took over. Before his time the stages would not start if it was colder than 40 below, and in the roadhouse window there was a bottle of “Perry Davis Pain-Killer.” If the painkiller froze, then it was considered too cold for man or beast. Richards never took the temperature.
Richards is a married man with a son, Bobby, and a daughter, Evelyn. There was tragedy in his life when an elder son was drowned while fishing near Whitehorse, and his wife is a woman who now keeps mostly to herself in the luxurious house that is a palace to the people of Whitehorse.
Locking the Doors
Since the Whitehorse Inn is booked solid for next spring and 10,000 tourists await the opening of the Alaska Highway, T. C. Richards is polishing the many facets of his diamond-hard attitude toward tourists. He has with him a certain Roy Bowers, who was manager of a Beverly Hills hotel and who is not only a buffer between T. C. and the brasher characters of the town, hut an efficient echo of the Richards philosophy. Thus, when Richards says he is constantly hobbled by hums, Bowers says: “Mr. Richards means he has often been able to invest in local enterprises.” And when Richards says: “The suckers will be here in droves,” Roy Bowers indicates that Mr. Richards anticipates an excellent season. It is a combination without flaw.
The Richards outlook on the prosperity of his strange town, which now contains 2,500 souls (most of them rich and the others with expectations from Richards), is an intricate blend of giving the customers what they want and preserving the traditions of “down North.” There used to he the tradition that no trapper’s house was ever locked in all of the Yukon, and so long as a visitor left the carcass of a moose or paid back what he borrowed within five years, the owner was satisfied with the arrangement and continued to leave his place wide open. This fine system remained until the coming of the Highway, at which time, among the quarter million troops from all over the U. S. A., there were bound to he some who enjoyed hospitality without invitaj tionand omitted to leave even an IOU.
Today the front doors are locked, and I battered without result at the shack of John and Lash Collison, a quarter mile off the highway, for they had sealed it hermetically for the first
time in their lives, and them only away four months.
But Richards does his best at the. Whitehorse Inn. There isn’t a key to a single hotel room. Now and again some dude visitor asks for his key, and in explanation points to a hoard behind the desk with hooks and the door numbers. But he gives that up after one look from Richards. You take your money around with you in Whitehorse, and other goods are safe enough; there hasn’t heen a theft in the Inn for years, so it looks as though T. C. has read his people right.
As to giving the people what they want (provided they can afford it) Richards has decided, with a great display of imagination, that almost the only novelty for the travelling public is to give them the life of a trapper of the north. This he is going to start next winter. There will he a “dude trap line,” and for about $1,000 almost any tourist can journey by air to Whitehorse, stay a night in the Whitehorse Inn, and accompany a trapper along his lines, sleeping out at night. Richards is nothing if not expansive in his promises.
“I will give a guarantee,” he says, “that at least one animal will be found by the sucker—I mean tourist—in a trap. Then he can take the skin home and tell lies for the rest of his life about how he caught it when he was a trapper . . .”
It will be seen that very few of the angles escape mine host of the Yukon; and he even sees the irony of selling the hardest and loneliest life in the world to the tourist.
Richards will probably make another fortune in the next few years. There is very little that he doesn’t know of what is going on, both in official circles
and minor commerce, concerning the Highway, and he knows that the glamour of the road will continue to bring tourists up at least as far as Whitehorse, when their second set of tires will have worn down to the canvas on the 1,000 miles of rough-stone surface. Few of them will come again, and some will ship their cars to the coast for a more comfortable ride back, but they will have travelled the Alcan. Richards has a lodge near town which is also full for the next season, but he has his eye chiefly on the American multimillionaire airplane traffic, and has been known to ignore almost completely a trailerful of children on their way to Alaska, unbending only enough to sell them a cup of coffee. He can afford to wait for the millionaires, and knows that already it is being bruited about Long Island, Atlanta, Houston (Texas) and San Diego that only 3,000 miles away there are moose to be picked up for $1,000 a time.
Moreover, they won’t be disappointed when they first tramp the wooden sidewalks of the Yukon’s next capital, sampling the Richards’ coffee, using the Richards’ laundry, riding the Richards’ cars, suffering a Richards’ haircut, resting on a Richards’ bed, sitting in a Richards’ movie, eating a Burns and Co. steak. The rum comes free, in Richards’ tiny back office, where they might also be able to inveigle the big man—say at the drop of a slight hint—into a little game of blackjack.
“There’s room for plenty of tourists,” says T. C., “and two of them in a season don’t do more damage to the big game than five wolves.”
“What we aim to give the tourist,” he explains, “is hardship—with modern plumbing.” +