Hazel Meloy by Craig Oliver
It was a cold, late afternoon on the Yukon’s Pelly river system: a dark, windswept day with clouds scudding past quickly — when you know in your bones that high winds and rain are coming soon. My canoe partner, Tim Kotcheff, and I had been paddling since early morning and were anxious to get undercover when we noticed a small break in the tree line on the far shore.
A path snaked its way up through the woods to a small huddle of abandoned shacks in a large clearing. Most were collapsed but one, with a sign proclaiming it to be the Kirkman Creek post office, though leaning awkwardly, was still standing. The door was locked but it took very little effort, without doing any damage, to open it.
The cabin had not been occupied in many years, giving it a quality of being caught in a frozen moment of time. The calendar on the wall was dated 1946. Dust lay deeply and undisturbed on an old iron cooking stove in the corner, intact even to the stovepipe through the roof. Beside it, a row of pots and pans hung neatly on the wall in descending order of size. Stacked in a tidy pile on a wooden table were copies of Life magazines from the 1930s and 40s, and beside that, a comfortable rocking chair. In a corner of the one-room cabin, a well-made bed was covered by a yellow old-fashioned quilt, and the wall behind was draped in attractive flowered cloth wallpaper and some red velvet material that had begun to peel. Obviously, the cabin had known a woman’s touch.
We slept that night in our tent nearby and returned the next day to take a closer look. Feeling a bit guilty for snooping into the private lives of strangers long gone, we found under a moth-eaten rug, a small door leading into a storeroom. The storage area was full of the usual bric-a-brac: a pile of colourful Christmas decorations, some furniture, an ancient outboard motor. Most fascinating of all, however, was a package of handwritten letters: our first clue about the people who had lived in the cabin, in the middle of nowhere, so long ago.
Most of the letters were addressed to a woman named Hazel. Since none of the envelopes were readable, we couldn’t find her last name. Many of the letters were from a man named Jack. They covered a 30-year period ending in the late 1940’s. Full of regard and affection, they told of common, everyday events that make all our lives go: the death of friends, the birth of children, the weather; but one letter was particularly poignant. Jack, who we realized was Hazel’s husband, was evidently a freelance prospector. He wrote of a disappointing visit to Whitehorse, about 600 miles south.
“Well dear, guess I’ll hit the hay soon. Not very good results today. I took the copper samples in but the man said they wasn’t nearly as good as I thought. Not feeling no hell. I have been thinking of the flowers in the garden and how beautiful they must be. I’ll be home soon. Love your husband. Jack.”
We could have left then and forgotten about the memory-cluttered cabin, but at that point we found ourselves fascinated about Hazel and Jack and what their fate had been. It was, to us, an unfinished detective story in the wilderness, so we decided to try and search the rest of it out. The rivers of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories have their own culture. Myths and Hollywood movies to the contrary, the northern river people are not strong silent types. They love to talk to strangers, to exchange the latest news of friends along their river highway, and to gossip.
So, as we paddled our way across the great rivers that flow into the Yukon system, we pelted those few people we met with questions about the mystery couple.
We had little real success until one day, rounding a bend in the wide Yukon, we came on a bizarre sight. Seated on the river bank in a white folding chair was an old man. Propped up beside him a chalk board, like a billboard, and on it he had written “Rooms — One Nite. $1.50.” This man was the last survivor of a once-thriving gold rush town which had long since disappeared into the river; all but one ramshackle structure, a former trading post, which he lived in. He rented a portion of it for the night to passers by, though few come that way.
He had known Jack and Hazel, though not very well. Their last name he did know, however: Meloy. They had been, he said, the last residents of a place called Kirkman Creek — the name of the motley collection of abandoned buildings. For a few hectic years after the rush of the 1890’s, it had been a town of madcap gold prospectors and lumbermen chopping and piling wood for steamboats. Meloy’s cabin, he remembered, had served as the post office.
Jack Meloy, this man told us, was dead. About 30 years ago, canoeing up the river with his wife, he had suddenly slumped over and asked her to head for shore. Without saying another word he died as the canoe touched land, probably of a heart attack. Jack had been in his middle 70s at that time. Hazel had returned and tidied up the cabin for one last time, then left it for good taking nothing with her but some valuable china and silverware. He had no idea where she had gone. Though she was, he thought, younger than her husband, she would be well over seventy-five by now – if she was still alive. That, for us, seemed to be the end, however inconclusive, of our search for Jack and Hazel Meloy.
In another week of paddling we reached the end of our journey, Dawson City. We were still unable to get the Meloys off our minds. There were too many loose ends, but we decided to do one last bit of checking.
Just off the main street, strewn with memories of when Dawson was the Paris of the North, is the ‘Sunset Old Folks Home’. Sitting on its front steps, about to take his daily walk, we met the famous Yukon character known as ‘Black Mike’. He was said to be well over 100 and would probably know – if anyone did – what had become of Hazel Meloy. (we took this photo in 1975, two years before he died at 107)
Of course he knew Hazel. Her mother, had been a dance hall ‘actress’ – a word that covered many sins in those days in the Klondike. Mother and daughter had left the north and toured a little around Spokane and Seattle but when Hazel was in her teens they had drifted apart. Hazel came back to the Yukon and got a job delivering the United States mail to wilderness outposts, carrying it by packsack in the summer and by dog-sled in the winter. Along the way she met a prospector away out in the mountains and they got married. He was Jack Meloy.
That seemed, to us, to be the end of the story. ‘When did she die?’ I asked Black Mike. He looked puzzled. ‘Never did,’ he replied.
Up the hill, not 200 yards from where we stood, Hazel Meloy was living in a blue-roofed frame house. As we approached it the house had a distinctly peculiar touch. The main door was covered with white sheets and a silver cross about six feet high was nailed on top of it. Feeling slightly sheepish, we knocked at the side door and roused an old lady in a cowboy hat who introduced herself as Hazel Meloy. Though well on in years and living alone, she invited the curious strangers in for tea.
We explained ourselves and apologized for our curiosity, but it was all unnecessary. Within minutes she was showing us pictures. A photograph of her mother in a dance hall costume – the only picture she had of her. Another of Mrs. Meloy standing over a very large and very dead bear. It had attacked her husband outside the cabin one day and she had rushed out and killed it with a few well-placed shots from a big pistol. Reaching behind a row of books she brandished the same loaded Smith and Wesson revolver, telling us that Dawson was getting to be a rowdy town and she was ready for intruders.
Hazel reminisced about her husband. He had failed in mining and trapping but luck had finally gone with him. He and some others had discovered gold at a place called Casino Creek and had sold their share for the then-huge sum of $15,000 dollars. Later, the buyers made millions off it. She and Jack had been the last residents of instant towns along the path of the gold stampede.
The Meloys never had any children. Their lives, which took them apart so much, never permitted the raising of a family. With no intention of being maudlin, she told us how her husband had filled her thoughts in every one of the years they had been married, and in the three decades since he died. He was a man, she said, who took everyone at his word, and, as she put it: ‘who never salted a claim’. In this age of the women’s movement it occurred to us that Hazel Meloy had been far ahead of her time. She was a strong and independent woman who had been an indispensable partner to her husband in their frontier life together.
As we left Mrs. Meloy and her terrier – an old dog suffering rheumatism – at her side gate, she explained the reasons for her unusual front door. It was really her memorial to Jack. When she moved to the house in Dawson following his death, Hazel had sealed over her front door with sheets so that no other man would enter her home by the main entrance again. On top of it, she nailed the big silver cross in permanent memory of the man she had lived with so long, whose memory would not die until she did.
Their life had been a hard one, and very poor as the lives of most northern Canadians are. Yet in a strange way, Jack and Hazel Meloy, two total strangers, one long dead and the other near the end of her life, had touched the lives of two young men from Southern Ontario, half a continent away. For a moment, as she waved back to us, I was struck by the brevity that is the common fate of all our lives, and by the importance of loyalty and affection as the qualities that redeem them.
Craig Oliver is former manager of the CTV’s Ottawa Bureau and has canoed extensively in the north.
North/Nord Magazine – 1977
Hazel Ester Meloy, born Hazel Ester Morgan on 23 November 1893 in Hope, Idaho, moved to Alaska in 1919 where she met Jack Meloy on a hunting expedition. Jack Meloy was born 1894 in Le Ban, Washington. Jack and Hazel were married March 1927 in Fort Selkirk, Yukon, and lived in Coffee Creek, Yukon, where they ran the Post Office. They were flooded out several times and moved to Kirkman Creek.
After the sternwheelers left the Yukon River in the 1950s the Meloys moved to Dawson City where they were active in community affairs. They had a house on 8th and Harper. Their house was famous for its garden during the summer months. In 1971 Jack and Hazel Meloy were chosen as Mr. and Mrs. Yukon, an honour bestowed by the Yukon Order of Pioneers, for the Sourdough Rendezvous Festival held in Whitehorse.
Jack Meloy died while on a hunt between Kirkman and Thistle creeks in 1973. Jack was 80 years of age. Hazel died 10 years later on 19 December 1983.
Meloy, Jack, 1894-1973, Meloy, Hazel, 1893-1983