One of the most frequently spoken names in Juneau is Stroller White. We usually refer to the tall mountain that flanks the western side of Mendenhall Glacier and serves as the larger backdrop for shorter companion Mount McGinnis.
Elmer John “Stroller” White was a famous newspaperman — known for his humor — who arrived in Skagway in 1898 and documented the wave of arrivals in that gateway city for the Skagway News as hordes pressed northward to the Klondike Gold Rush. When the stampede surged to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory, “The Stroller” followed, capturing the exotic tales of thousands of hopefuls who thought the streets were paved with gold. Soon the next gold strike drew fortune seekers to Nome and things quieted down in Dawson, leaving streets lined with cabins and families snuggly residing inside them. Schools and churches replaced some of the bars and dance halls.
Elmer White settled in Dawson as a newspaper man for a few years as the gold rush mining camp mellowed into a community. Eventually he moved south to Whitehorse for the same work. He moved to Douglas in 1916, then Juneau where he lived until his death in 1930.
Years after Stroller White’s career and life concluded, noted Juneau historian Robert DeArmond in 1969 (updated 1989) compiled a few of Mr. White’s well-known stories into a book titled “Stroller White, Klondike Newsman.” Stroller wrote humorously and didn’t seem to feel constrained by the truth in some of his commentaries.
It was while The Stroller was a reporter in Dawson that one of his most enduring “scoops” appeared in print. His column involved chirping ice worms. It was a slow news day in Dawson. When deep freeze conditions prevented fresh news from arriving in the mail for over a month and the telegraph line was down, the exasperated editor challenged Stroller and his associate to rustle up some local news. Fellow reporter Casey Moran brought back a creative “story” about Noah’s Ark being discovered atop a mountain in Alaska.
Not to be outdone, Stroller (typically writing of himself in third person) “wrote a simple and straightforward story in which he reported that the extremely low temperatures had combined with the recent heavy fall of blue snow to bring thousands and thousands of ice worms out of their beds in the glaciers surrounding Dawson to bask in the frigidity. They had crawled forth in such numbers, in fact, that their chirping was keeping the people of Dawson awake nights.”
Inspired by the Stroller’s inventive story, one of Dawson City’s crafty bartenders quickly concocted “Ice Worm Cocktails, $1.” The story was embellished further when strands of soft spaghetti appeared in drinkers’ ice.
Apparently this ice worm story engendered scientific curiosity after the column was reprinted nationally and internationally. White writes in his recollection that “The Scientific Research Society in London asked for details on the habits and environment of the ice worm and requested that specimens be forwarded by mail.”
While this seems like a fanciful tale, ice worms actually exist, but not on the glacier at the foot of Stroller’s mountain. Mendenhall Glacier has glacier fleas. They live just below the surface in the uncrystalized layer called “firn.” Glacier fleas dine on red algae. Occasionally in summer the glacier surface has a pink hue from the algae. Despite the Stroller’s claim, ice worms don’t chirp, nor do glacier fleas. There are also no glaciers around Dawson.
In 1904 Stroller, with his wife and son, moved from Dawson to Whitehorse, 110 miles north of Skagway. There he owned and wrote for the Whitehorse Star. It was in Whitehorse that Stroller made a lasting impact on the history of the Yukon by suggesting an idea about storytelling to the right person at the right time.
White’s suggestion built on the common entertainment during dark Yukon winters. Gatherings were held to hear public recitations: a person would stand on a stage and recite well-known stories for the hometown crowd. Rudyard Kipling tales were favorites. A young Whitehorse bank teller honed his storytelling skills to contribute lively performances for his friends and neighbors.
A chance comment from Stroller White changed the course of the young banker’s life and fortunes. Stroller said, “I hear you’re doing a piece at the church concert. Why don’t you write a poem for it? Give us something about our own bit of earth. We sure would appreciate it. There’s a rich paystreak waiting for someone to work. Why don’t you go in and stake it?”
With that suggestion, the young man went for a walk in the frosty night. Snow crunched under his boots making the only sound in the silent Whitehorse darkness. He had no thought of what to do, but he pondered as he wandered. He thought of a theme to carry along the story. “Revenge,” he said to himself. Adding, “Tell the story by musical suggestion.”
The banker mused about a tale of the Yukon’s harsh conditions both outdoors and in the human heart. His Saturday evening route led him past various bars ringing with revelry and music.
“The line popped into my mind: ‘A bunch of the boys were whooping it up,’ and it stuck there. Good enough for a start,” wrote famous poet Robert Service in his autobiography Ploughman of the Moon. “As I wrote stanza after stanza, the story seemed to evolve of itself.” He completed the well-known popular poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” in that one night.
Thus a spark from Stroller White inspired a creative endeavor that became the northland’s most quoted and recited rhymes. Robert Service told of the excitement, tragedy and glory of the Klondike Gold Rush that originated from and left its indelible mark on Skagway, Whitehorse, Dawson City and thousands of people. The syncopating rhythm of the rhymes creates a pattern that spurs remembering. He says in Ploughman, “I bubbled verse like an artesian well.” Service published a small book of poems that caught on with readers at a distant publishing house and led to demand for more stories and books. Bank teller Robert Service eventually became a wealthy full time writer.
Leaving Whitehorse in 1916, Stroller White moved his family to Douglas where he wrote for the Douglas Island News. He took over the Douglas paper a year before the devastating collapse of the Treadwell mines in 1917. By 1921, Stroller relocated to Juneau after Douglas had shrunk to a small version of the pre-underground mine flooded town.
Stroller’s Weekly opened in an office at the corner of Second and Seward Streets. In the inaugural edition of his newspaper on July 9, 1921 Stroller’s column answers, “Why the Stroller’s Weekly?” He started the paper in Juneau to “support his family and the constitution,” although he insists that he is “strictly politically independent.” He repeats his frequent recommendation to “put a squirt of lemon in it.” Stroller claims his mission in life is “to diffuse sunshine and start a canary bird chorus in the human heart.” Mr. White created distinctive columns on various topics. One of the mainstays was “Heart to Heart Talks with Mothers.” He advised about teething and consoled the young brides whose husbands disparaged their biscuits.
More seriously, Elmer White was chief of the Alaska Territorial Bureau of Publicity, a forerunner to a tourism office. He also served as Speaker of the Territorial House of Representatives.
Stroller published his Weekly paper until just before his death in 1930. A year later, the U.S. Forest Service submitted his name to the Board of Geographic Names to become the formal designation for the 5,112-foot peak northwest of Mendenhall Glacier. That nomination was confirmed on Oct. 7, 1931.
In his introduction to Klondike Newsman, Robert DeArmond states Stroller White’s columns appeared in many northland newspapers from about 1900 until Stroller’s death in 1930, making him “far and away the most quoted newspaper writer…and [his] column the most copied newspaper feature in the entire north.”
Stroller White’s impact on Juneau remains one of our most notable landscape features. As Yukon poet Robert Service says about the north being “a land where the mountains are nameless,”* there is one peak in Juneau named Stroller White that recognizes the contribution of a fine storyteller.
*From “The Spell of the Yukon,” this contributor’s favorite Robert Service poem.
• Laurie Craig is an artist, advocate and avid researcher of Juneau’s historical treasures. Rooted in Community is a series of articles, published in the Empire monthly, focusing on unique buildings in Juneau’s Downtown Historic District and the present-day businesses (and people) that occupy them. This work is supported by the Downtown Business Association. This article has been moved in front of the Empire’s paywall.