Carcross’ Caribou Hotel has deep veins of Klondike history, ghost lore

The name Gideon is tethered to hotels across North America.

Slide open the top drawer of any desk or bed-side table in a hotel, inn or motel and you’ll find a Gideon Bible.

But in the instance of the Caribou Hotel in Carcross, Yukon, the Gideon you may run into is its former innkeeper.

Carcross is situated on the northern shores of Bennett Lake. Travel south along the lake and you’ll find the abandoned town of Bennett, a revenant of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 to 1899.

Bennett was the first home of the Caribou Hotel, but it is now the denouement of those travelling the White Pass and Chilkoot trails.

The three-storey Caribou Hotel, which presently resides on Dawson Charlie Street in Carcross, is the second building constructed on the property. The original Bennett-built hotel was destroyed by a fire on Christmas Eve, 1909.

The original hotel has a close connection to Klondike history.

In 1896, a family from Carcross and Tagish Nation had gone north to where the 60-mile river comes in around Dawson City.

George and Kate Carmack (Shaaw Tlaa), who was from Tagish, had gone down the river for hunting and fishing. They discovered gold with Dawson Charlie and his uncle Skookum Jim Mason. That started the Klondike gold rush.

Now, travel back to Bennett, where prospectors Frank Turner, Thomas Geiger and John Barrett ended up forming Turner and Co. and turned Barrett’s tent from a liquor store into a hotel in Bennett.

White Pass Railway came through from Skagway, Alaska through Bennett. Subsequently, Bennett became a ghost town. But, William “Big Bill” Anderson bought the Yukon Hotel from Turner and Co. in 1901 and moved it to Carcross via scows on Lake Bennett.

The Carmacks, along with Dawson Charlie, returned to Carcross in 1903. Dawson Charlie purchased the hotel from Anderson and renamed it the Caribou Hotel.

Unfortunately for him, he would only be in the hospitality industry for five years. He fell off a White Pass railway bridge and drowned.

Enter Edwin and Bessie Gideon, who rented and operated the hotel from Dawson Charlie’s heir, Annie Auston.

Bessie lived in the hotel until her death in 1933. And it appears, to some, that she hasn’t quite relinquished her responsibilities to lodgers, or to its current owners Anne Morgan and Jamie Toole.

Polly’s origins

Now, one can’t discuss Bessie Gideon first without mentioning the foul-mouthed parrot, Polly, who lived with her at the hotel.

The Yellow-Naped Amazon would come with his owners Captain James and Louise Alexander every fall to the Caribou Hotel as they ventured south along the Pacific coastline.

Little known to the Gideons, the Caribou Hotel would feature in another historical moment, as the Alexanders were on their way to Skagway to board the SS Princess Sophia.

On Oct. 25, 1918, the SS Princess Sophia sank after running aground on the Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal. A total of 298 passengers, 65 crews, an unknown number of Chinese workers, 25 horses and five dogs succumbed to Mother Nature’s wrath. The lone survivor was the English setter who belonged to the Alexanders.

Polly was thusly welcomed into the Gideons hotel as a curiosity at first, but then as a living legend. The parrot died in November 1972 at the ripe age of 125 and would be granted dispensation to be buried in the same cemetery as Dawson Charlie and Skookum Jim. Hunting guide Johnnie Johns performed the eulogy at Polly’s funeral.

The story of Polly and his connection to the community was detailed in John Firth’s book The Caribou Hotel: Hauntings, Hospitality, a Hunter and the Parrot.

“He basically became somewhat of a legend,” said former journalist Firth, in an April phone conversation. “He was notorious for his vocabulary, which would make a sailor blush, and he was notorious for singing rather ribald ditties.”

Bessie Gideon was rather pious, so in order to offset the foul fowl, she taught the parrot hymns.

“You would get these ditties, and then ‘Onward Christian Soldier’ right on the heels of it,” Firth added. “Somebody in his past also exposed him to opera. And he could sing arias.”

Mrs. Gideon keeps watch

It’s a bright and sunny April day in Whitehorse. It started at -28 but now sits at -5, and former journalist and history writer John Firth is more than happy to talk about the Caribou Hotel.

Firth grew up in Whitehorse and recalled his many trips to the restaurants in Carcross.

“I did see the original Polly, but I was pretty young and it didn’t really register on me at that point,” the 68-year-old said, adding there was a gap in the literature on Carcross. “Hotels are the heart of the small community.”

He feigns incredulity when anyone is skeptical about Bessie Gideon’s spirit walking the halls of the Caribou Hotel.

Whether people believe in Mrs. Gideon or not, it is said she is a benevolent spirit who knocks on people’s doors, pours bath salts into tubs and performs various chores.

“There was nothing malevolent or vindictive about here,” Firth said. “As things modernized, one previous owner claimed that she learned how to run a vacuum cleaner and clean some of the rooms for her.”

Firth shared a few of the stories he detailed in his book about run-ins with Mrs. Gideon. One gentleman came out of his room one night and ran into an elderly woman who appeared to be confused. He took her downstairs to the lobby, opened the door and when he turned around the woman had disappeared.

Canada Post memorialized the hotel’s resident spirit with a stamp in 2015. Co-owners Anne Morgan, and her partner Jamie Toole, have been renovating the hotel since they purchased it in 2006.

With COVID-19, they’ve unfortunately had to shutter the bar, which was open to the public.

“We’re forever hopeful that we’ll be able to open,” she said, with a laugh, in an April phone conversation.

The foundation was crumbling and the back was falling in when they first took possession. Toole and his team lifted the building off its original foundation, and then poured a new foundation and added a six-foot basement.

A water storage tank was added for a fire-suppression system to bring it up to modern building code expectations.

During their work, they’ve come across a lot of unique, historical snippets from Canada’s past. One of the whiskey bottles the couple found inside the walls was from Toronto distillery Gooderham and Worts. Old medicine bottles were found as well, including Merz Santal Compound.

“It’s been everything from wiring, plumbing, heating. Everything that was original has gone back into it,” Morgan said.

Photo courtesy Anne Morgan
Renovations to the Caribou Hotel include wood panelling
as well as furnishings that are true to the time period

And during all those renovations, both Morgan and Toole have had experiences with the uncanny, especially this past winter while he was staying in a cabin behind the hotel.

“At first, (Toole) would wake up in the middle of the night because he could hear someone playing the harp and singing, and there are not very many people that can play the harp. That’s kind of a unique thing,” Morgan said, during an April phone call. “I’m pretty sure there is no one in Carcross who plays the harp.”

Morgan was at the hotel with Toole in the hotel one night and questioned if he was dreaming. But Toole was convinced.

“It sounded like a young girl singing with a harp playing,” he said. “My partner Anne was with me one night, a week later, and I heard it again.”

He rose out of bed and looked out both windows in the cabin he was staying in and there was nothing there.

Other strange instances for Toole, he’s had plenty of experiences on the stairwell of the second floor. He’s felt an inexplicable force brush him back on the stairs, as well as forced awake by what felt like someone choking him.

In addition, there have been phantom footsteps heard on the third floor. It is alleged that a trapper was found sick in his cabin and brought to the hotel. A doctor was called for from Whitehorse, but before he could arrive the trapper succumbed to his ailment.

Previous owners have spoken of people’s conversations on the stairs. But no one was there.

Admittedly after all Toole’s experienced, the former skeptic is leaning more towards fence-sitter.

“Well, these things have happened to me, so maybe I am believing now, you know?” Toole said. “And I don’t smoke that stuff.”

Skeptics no more

Anne Morgan admitted she didn’t know the Caribou Hotel was haunted when they purchased it in 2006.

“I never gave it too much credit, I guess,” she said, adding previous owners have been full of stories that paint Mrs. Gideon in a protective light.

One such instance featured a television set that needed to be switched off manually and former owner Alice McGuire.

The story is also featured in Firth’s book, and it accounts McGuire’s late-night working alone in the saloon when a man came in at closing time. She asked him to leave and he started to approach her. As he got closer, she positioned herself on the other side of a pool table. Then the TV turned on.

The man moved closer and the TV volume got louder and louder and then turned off.

“Now they’re both kind of like, ‘What’s with the TV,’ that’s really odd,” Morgan said. “But the fellow still hadn’t left.”

The TV turned on a third time, but this time at full blast, for a minute. The man finally left and Alice McGuire locked up and went home.

Morgan recalled one of her own employees had an experience where a breeze brushed by her and then she heard footsteps on the second floor.

“Things like that happen, often,” Morgan said.

Firth’s book is rife with further stories. Morgan shared one with him about someone asking her why the lights were on in the Caribou Hotel’s third-floor rooms.

Another instance had a relative of the Gideons pay a visit to the hotel. Jannette Corby, the grandniece of Bessie Gideon said hello up the stairs to her long-since-passed great aunt, only to get a response that chilled her.

She left before Morgan could show her around the second floor.

The Caribou Hotel is not only a revenant of Canada’s Klondike past, but it’s also a capsule of smalltown Northern Canada life.

Feature photo courtesy of Travel Yukon

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