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Thomas Brooks (1882-1964), Yukon Pioneer and Poet

by Murray Lundberg

This article was first published on October 30, 2016

    Only fragments of the story of Thomas "Tommy" Brooks' life have been found so far, and much of the information about him that has been published over the years has been found to be inaccurate. Yukon historian Otto Nordling became Tommy's champion, and his files at the Yukon Archives have been the best source of information for this article.

    Thomas Brooks was born at 3 St. Cuthbert's Lane in Edinburgh, Scotland, at 10:10 a.m. on March 29, 1882 (see a copy of his birth certificate, issued in 1949). He was the son of cattle dealer John Brooks and his wife Helen (nee Henderson).

    In the spring of 1899, he emigrated to Canada, and found work on a cattle ranch south of Maple Creek, in the District of Assiniboia. An administrative district of the North-West Territories, most of Assiniboia became part of Saskatchewan in 1905.

    In the fall of 1899, Tommy went to the Pacific Coast where he worked in logging camps and mines until 1904. He then went north and spent the winter in the mines of southeastern Alaska. In the spring of 1905, with three other men, he bought a small boat in Whitehorse and drifted down the Yukon River to Dawson.

    Many years then go unaccounted for, but by the mid-1920s, Brooks had settled in Carcross, and was mining and prospecting in the area. He would spend the next 40 years there.

Thomas Brooks, Ballads of the Northland     It's not known when Brooks started writing, but his first published work appears to be a single sheet of paper, folded in four, which was published in 1947. With the title "Ballads of the Northland", it had 3 of his poems: "Klondike", "North Land", and "The Dance at Caribou Crossing". It was dedicated "to those of Indian, or part-Indian blood, residents of Carcross and vicinity, who joined the Canadian Armed Forces as volunteers in World War II, many of whom suffered death wounds and disability in the Fight for Freedom."

    In the Nordling collection there are also six poems by Brooks, each printed separately on a single small sheet of heavy paper. They are undated.

    Thomas Brooks is best known for two self-published, 14-page volumes of his verses, both entitled "Ballads of the Northwest". The cover on the left below is from the one published in 1954, the one on the right from the one published in about 1961. Click on each cover to go to a page with the Preface and all the verses in that volume.

Thomas Brooks, Ballads of the Northwest Thomas Brooks, Ballads of the Northwest

    At the urging of another noted Yukon historian of the day, Roy Minter, Tommy wrote The Ballad of Elizabeth II in about 1961, in honor of the Queen's visit to the Yukon in 1959. Otto Nordling mailed a copy to the Queen, and a reply was received from Buckingham Palace.

    By 1960 or '61, Tommy Brooks apparently needed care, but there were not yet any seniors' homes in the Yukon. Tommy's correspondence about a place to live had gotten no positive replies except for one stating that a 10-unit seniors' home was under construction in Dawson, and another offering to put him up in a rooming house in Whitehorse to "solve the immediate problem". On July 26th that year, Otto Nordling wrote to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker about the issue. On August 18th, a lengthy reply was received from the Minister of Northern Affairs and National Resources, Walter Dinsdale. Among his comments, Dinsdale stated that Nordling's suggestion that a section of the Whitehorse hospital be converted into a "Home for Pioneers" and named after Thomas Brooks was impractical as the hospital was already too small.

    The first seniors' home in Whitehorse, Macaulay Lodge, was opened in 1963, and Tommy Brooks was reported to be its first resident.

    Tommy Brooks died on February 12, 1964. The death notice in The Whitehorse Star was very brief, but there were nice memorials in at least 3 newspapers in other cities (Fairbanks, Vancouver, and Brandon).

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - Wednesday, February 19, 1964

    Thomas Brooks, a one-time cowhand, traveler, prospector and author - one of the most colorful sourdoughs of the Yukon - died last week at the Whitehorse General Hospital.
    Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 29, 1882, he migrated to Canada in the spring of 1899, a lad of 16. He followed ranching south of Maple Creek in the Territory of Assiniboia, then to the Pacific Coast and the logging camps and the mines.
    The lure of the North took him to Alaska where he mined for gold. In 1905 he was in the Yukon heading for the Klondike gold fields. The stampedee to Fairbanks was in full swing. Some 800 small boats left Whitehorse down the mighty Yukon River to Dawson, Fairbanks and other mining camps springing up every day. One barge carried 40 dance hall girls and many members of the sporting element.
    During the past 40 years Brooks made Carcross, Yukon, his home.
    Some 15 years ago his travels started to take form in ballads and verses he wrote during the long winter months in his little log cabin at Carcross. His first volume, "Ballads of the Northwest", was published and a few years later his second volume was published.
    In honor of the Queen's visit to the Yukon in 1959 he wrote "The Ballad of Elizabeth II". In 1962 a letter was received from Buckingham Palace which stated that the Queen enjoyed receiving and reading his poem. This ballad has been framed and placed in the railway station at Carcross.
    He also received letters from the governor general of Canada, former Prime Minister Hon. J. G. Diefenbaker, expressing pleasure and appreciation for his writings.
    For many years Brooks urged the building of a senior citizens' home in Whitehorse - and when it opened last year he was the first sourdough pioneer of the Southern Yukon District to enter. It has often been referred to as the Thomas Brooks Pioneer Home.
    The former Hon. Minister of Northern Affairs, Walter Dinsdale, in the correspondence had this name in mind for the Home for the Old Sourdoughs.
    Brooks was buried at Carcross as he requested and selected the verses of his poem "The Lonesome Trail" as his epitaph:
"The summer's sun will shine again
"Though hills be decked with snow,
"And weeping skies will shed the rain
Where his soul was wont to go."

    Brooks seems to have written a total of 69 ballads, 36 of which have never been published. He passed on his publishing rights to Otto Nordling on January 17, 1963. Exposition Press of New York offered at some point to publish the ballads, but never did, and Nordling was never able to find another publisher for them. His final offer was to the Yukon Government in May 1973, when he offered his 2,000 copies of Volume 2 of "Ballads of the Northwest", as well as publishing rights to all of Brooks' work, with a stipulation that any proceeds go into a fund for school children in Carcross. Yukon Commissioner James Smith, however, rejected that offer on June 21, 1973, stating that the government had no interest in getting into a business best left to private industry.

    The two photos below show Thomas Brooks' grave in the Carcross cemetery. An article in The Whitehorse Star of April 16, 1964, says that the brass plaque, "weighing about 50 pounds", and curbing around the grave, would be installed as soon as thawing of the ground allowed.