A True Canadian Rock Star


A consummate showman, Joseph Burr Tyrrell poses in the studio in his exploration clothes.

When I first moved into my “new” house here in Dawson City, someone commented to me, “Oh. So you bought the Tyrrell House.” The moniker meant nothing to me at the time, but since I knew my two-story log home was quite old, I just assumed that was the name of some local family that had once lived in it. Although that guess proved to be technically correct, I have subsequently discovered much more about the person who has lent his name to my dwelling, and in true Yukon fashion, the story is larger than life.

My house was in fact built in 1901 by Joseph Burr Tyrrell, who was born in Weston, Ontario in 1858 and, in his 99-or-so years of life, went on to become famous three times over — as an explorer/cartographer, geologist, and pioneer paleontologist. It is the latter for which J.B. is perhaps best known, since he discovered the Albertosaurus bones in Alberta’s badlands. The Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta is another building named after him, specifically for that find. I’m not jealous, though … I happen to know he never slept or shat there.


Tyrrell relaxes in his office, located in the living room of our house.

Originally a lawyer by training, Tyrrell was advised against the profession for health reasons, and told to find work outdoors. (Wow. If only more members of the legal profession would heed that call).

So, J.B. joined the Geological Survey of Canada and traveled to the far North, where he did mapping and exploration. Tyrrell initially found fame as the leader of 1893 and 1894 expeditions into the “Northern Barren Lands.” It was the first visit to the Kivalliq Region (in what is now Nunavut) by a non-native since the 1770s, and included first contact with a number of Inuit peoples.


Tyrrell’s bust at the Mining Hall of Fame

Tyrrell’s career switch to geology worked quite well, so much so that he has also been inducted into the Mining Hall of Fame, as a result of his lifetime of geological accomplishments. It was that endeavour that brought him to Dawson City in 1898 during the great Klondike gold rush, where he promptly quit the Geological Survey (it’s said he was dissatisfied with the lack of promotions anyway) and went instead into the gold business — a career that ended up lasting 50 years. It was shortly thereafter that he built this house, which also served as an office for his geological business. The building was first located down on Church Street, but, in 1905, following one of Dawson City’s many floods, Tyrrell had the house moved up here to Seventh Avenue.

During his Dawson days, Tyrrell’s business was doing so well, he even had his own steamship, which he named after himself.


The steamer Tyrrell across the Yukon River from Dawson City in 1902.

The man was certainly not shy, posing for studio shots in explorer gear, and effecting a Teddy Roosevelt look. Eventually J.B. moved back east, although gold stayed in his veins, and he later went on to manage a gold mine in Kirkland Lake for many years.

I’ve always appreciated renaissance men, so one thing I admire about Tyrrell is how multi-talented he was. Among his other accomplishments, he edited and published the biography of explorer David Thompson, after coming across the man’s voluminous journals and field notes. And following Tyrrell’s retirement to northeast Scarborough on the Rouge River, he established substantial apple orchards and interest in grafting and breeding. The expanded orchards, later managed by his son George, are now the site of the Metro Toronto Zoo.


Tyrrell House, with the sign for J.B.’s geological business, shortly after its construction in 1901.

Throughout it all, Tyrrell was also an avid amateur photographer, and there are hundreds of his pictures available in the University of Toronto archives. For me, to come across photos of the Tyrrell house that I now own, dating from the gold rush era and actually taken by the man personally, is a real kick.

The only fallout from uncovering Tyrrell’s story, however, is that I can no longer look at this dwelling the same way. It seems to me I can feel the man’s presence whenever I move about the old place, especially the living room where he once had his office. It is nonetheless a warm feeling to know that I have stumbled into stewardship of an interesting piece of Canadian history, and I’ll be framing some of Tyrrell’s photos to put up on my, or rather his wall, as a bit of a tribute.


2 thoughts on “A True Canadian Rock Star

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