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Buzzsaw Jimmy

by Darrell Hookey, 1998

    "Ha! I fooled you that time you Son of a Bitch!"

    Colourful words that made a colourful Yukon character famous.

    Buzzsaw Jimmy had just fallen from his perch atop his mobile, engine-driven, wood-cutting machine and cut his right leg off.

    Being able to pick up his leg and shake it mockingly at the contraption that had just caused the tragedy would be difficult for anyone ... even to a man as perceptive to the humourous side of life as Buzzsaw Jimmy. But, you see, this leg was a wooden peg replacing the same good leg that was cut off by the same machine some time before.

    He was an accident waiting to happen ... and as a woodcutter Buzzsaw Jimmy never had to wait long. In 50 years of cutting wood in the Yukon he collected more than a metre of stitches over his body, lost a finger and, of course, lost his leg ... twice. You would think the mishap-filled journey from his home in Saint John, N.B., would convince him to find a safer career. In the Gold Rush year of 1898, at the age of 25, James Domville Richards boarded a Colonist Sleeper to Vancouver. It derailed near Rat Portage killing two of his fellow passengers.

    The replacement train almost derailed past Canmore when the car he was riding in left the rails and bounced along the ties until a quick-thinking passenger pulled the bell cord alerting the engineer.

    A derailment in the prairies is one thing, but in the middle of the Rockies "I would have been just a little grease spot".

    Safely arriving in Vancouver, J.D. Richards, as he called himself at the time, took a job finishing the construction of the Steamer The Honest Citizen.

    After the shake down cruise, he took a job on another steamer headed for the coast of Alaska. She was a small ship, so she was pulled by a larger steamer. The Pacific Ocean became too choppy for the speed they were travelling and J.D.'s ship began to fall apart from under them. The first mate had to threaten the steamer ahead with a rifle before she would slow down.

    Repairs were made and the trip to St. Michaels, near the mouth of the Yukon River, was completed. J.D. Richards then boarded the Steamer James Domville, named for his Godfather Lt.-Col. James Domville, Member of Parliament for King's County, N.B., and a manager with the Yukon Steamboat and Mining Company.

    The ship's job was to push a barge laden with whisky up the Yukon River to the thirsty new city of Dawson. She barely had enough coal to reach the arranged woodpile of, what turned out to be, green cottonwood. Captain Ferris ordered barrels of fat pork to be pulled from the hold and used for fuel.

    Seeing the white tent city of Dawson prompted the crew to spruce themselves up for a night out. Although it was the heady year of 1898, J.D. saw that the good claims were already taken and the food was scarce, so he gladly returned to the winter quarters of the Steamer James Domville via the Yukon River.

    Arriving in Whitehorse Oct. 5, Captain Ferris offered him five dollars a cord, on top of his usual wages, to chop wood for the boilers. But gold fever got the best of him. So he and Chris, a deck hand, built a sleigh and headed for Atlin after a Christmas dinner aboard the ship.

    It took them five weeks to get there and they managed to file some claims. But they decided to return to the ship anyways. They left the stove, tent and sleigh behind and "siwashed it on way back", meaning they slept wrapped in canvas on ground exposed by large fires.

    In her first run of the season, The Steamer James Domville was headed back to Dawson City. But she was wrecked in the Thirty Mile River just 24 hours into the trip. The crew was paid off and J.D. began his career along the length of the Yukon River doing odd jobs. He cut wood, prospected, worked on boilers and machinery, ran messages, and anything else to make a dollar.

    After a few years J.D. adopted Whitehorse as his home and became a town fixture. Although he blended right in wearing his bib overalls, denim shirt and black cap with chin and cheeks covered in an ever-present blanket of stubble, there was still something different about him. A lot of the Stampeders worked hard at odd jobs ... but he worked at a feverish pitch. A lot of men were good with their hands ... but J.D. displayed a genius as he coaxed more power from a boiler or modified a less than perfect tool.

    And then there was, "The Machine".

    He took an old tractor and an engine from a Model T Ford and fused them together with bits of iron, pulleys and circular blades to create an unequalled wood-cutting machine.

    When one of his two or three helpers placed a log in the clamps, the blade would rip into it with an unforgiving whine that could be heard all over town. Eight to 10 cords an hour would be dispatched when the next best machine could manage only three. People would hire him just to see The Machine at work. He charged $1.50 for each cord if the logs were already there. The going rate at the time was seven to eight dollars supplied, cut and delivered.

    The Whitehorse Inn hired him regularly to cut its wood because he was so fast ... and to make sure he stayed ahead of his tab at its City Cafe where he ate daily.

    Lloyd Ryder's father, George, was in the wood-cutting business as well. He would sometimes hire his "friendly competition" to chop his wood when he got behind.

    Lloyd remembers J.D. (or "Buzzsaw Jimmy" or "Jimmy Buzz Saw" as he was now called) as a quiet man, a loner, but always good to the kids in town. He would talk to the Ryder, Drury and Cyr kids and give them candy.

    Buzzsaw's home was a garage on Second Avenue between Elliott and Main Streets (where the Tim Horton's now stands). He would park The Machine in there and park his truck beneath his hammock strung up in the ceiling rafters since it was the only way he could climb up to it. A string was attached to the damper of his Yukon Stove to control the heat while he was up in the hammock.

    People wondered how he would get into his bed at night if his truck met with misfortune. At least once a year he tested his brittle and meagre luck by being the last person to drive across the river in the spring. Sometimes he would be over (in what is now Riverdale) in the morning collecting wood and the river would be flowing by evening ... but he would always be back in time.

    Despite all of the money he must have been earning he didn't have much to show for it. He was impractical with money but was a content sort and "a gentleman in many ways", according to Bill Drury.

    He would make little inventions that had no real purpose and would write poems for his advertisements in the Whitehorse Star. A short little poem reflecting his philosophy on life or just for fun would be followed simply by "SEE Jimmy Buzz SAW".

    For all of his rough edges and whimsical sense of humour, friends who knew Buzzsaw well loved to shock people by informing them he had a diploma in business administration.

    Buzzsaw, himself, started an autobiographical booklet with the words, "Graduate St. John, N.B., Business College ...".

    He was an interesting man. Tourists to Whitehorse would see Buzzsaw driving The Machine from one woodpile to another and cameras would be quickly brought to the ready. People from all over the world would agree on one thing: They had never seen anything like it.

    Talking to Buzzsaw was a treat as he would brag about all of the injuries he'd collected. Like back in September of 1911 when he almost lost his right arm. He only allowed the hospital to keep him one day.

    A few years later he was getting ready to go home for the night when he fell from his seat and caught his right leg in the gears. George Ryder lived a block away and was able to get him to the hospital by sleigh, but the leg was amputated above the knee. With a wooden peg in place he was back at work ready for his next accident. This time, on Dec. 12, 1919, he crawled under The Machine to locate a problem without bothering to turn the power off. Shifting positions beneath the spinning blade, he cut his upper right leg through the muscle and to the bone. Once again, he hobbled back to the hospital.

    Four months later he lost his balance stepping on a log and fell back onto the blade cutting 45 centimetres diagonally across his back.

    Two years later he crushed his left leg just above the ankle. And then there was the time he swung an axe at a tree and cut his left leg instead ...

    Yukon News columnist, the late Don Sawatsky, wrote once: "Jimmy seemed to live under an evil star but it wasn't anything fatal - just bothersome enough to interrupt his daily schedule at the woodpile."

    But at least it made him famous. He especially loved to tell people how he fooled the fates by cutting off his peg leg.

    If he weren't so accident prone, Buzzsaw Jimmy would have been famous for other reasons. He could have been remembered as the man who (please pause here for effect) SAVED WHITEHORSE FROM BURNING DOWN.

    It was May 30, 1921. He was taking part in the winter gab session at the Yukon Electric Power House when the Whitehorse Hotel (now called the Edgewater) caught fire. Townsfolk remembered the last fire in 1905 that destroyed the downtown core and they could see this fire was big enough and hot enough to repeat the performance.

    The only chance to save the town was to put a maximum amount of water on the fire immediately.

    Despite the fact he was in the company of engineers who made a living working with the boilers every day, it was Buzzsaw Jimmy who took over. He found an old wash tub and began throwing straight coal oil to the boiler every five minutes. The pumps "just sizzled" allowing the fire fighters to keep four hoses trained on the fire from all four sides of the burning structure.

    By 1950 Buzzsaw was well into his seventies and The Machine, too, was getting old. They both moved onto some property owned by George Ryder. One day The Machine was towed away to the dump (like the proverbial glass milk bottle, its future value wasn't appreciated).

    One day Buzzsaw left as well. He died at Grandview Nursing Home in Vancouver on August 21, 1967.

    He fooled The Machine one last time.