September 2013

Parrot Polly, Captain Alexander and the curse of the Engineer mine

By Correy Baldwin

When Polly the parrot died in 1972, he was given a funeral procession and a place in the Pioneer Carcross Cemetery beside such famous Klondikers as Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie.

Rumoured to be over 100 years old at the time of his death, Polly had spent the previous five decades at the Caribou Hotel in Carcross, Yukon, learning to swear and drink whiskey just like the hotel tavern’s regulars. The parrot arrived in 1918 when captain James Alexander, owner of the Engineer gold mine, put Polly in the care of the hotel’s proprietors. With his parrot’s security assured, he embarked on a trip to Vancouver, where he planned to sell his mine. But Alexander never returned.

Alexander came to Canada from England in 1899 as a civilian, seeking adventure in the colonies. He spent a year exploring the bays and inlets of Canada’s West Coast and became interested in exploring for minerals. But before he could try his hand at much prospecting, he returned to England, answering the call of the Second Boer War. He achieved the rank of captain fighting with a cavalry regiment.

When the war ended, Alexander returned to B.C., to pick up his frontier interests. This time, he had two companions: his wife and his pet parrot. The threesome moved to Atlin, B.C., where Alexander worked on a survey team. He later joined a group of investors that took over the Engineer mine on nearby Tagish Lake.

The deposit was first discovered by railway engineer Charles Anderson who had explored the shore of Tagish Lake by boat in 1899, following up on reports of gold-bearing quartz along the shoreline. He found it beneath Engineer Mountain that ran right down into the lake.

Work began soon after, but funds ran low, and the operation shut down for two seasons. In 1906, some of the claims lapsed, and were bought up by Edwin Brown from Atlin, who in turn sold them to Alexander and his business associates.

Little is known about how the sale went down, but apparently Brown felt cheated, and he threatened Alexander and his fellow investors in the form of a curse. Brown wished death and disaster on everyone involved with the Engineer mine.

But Alexander was not fazed, and by 1912 he had sole ownership of Engineer. The mine, how­ever, had its problems: the gold veins, while fairly rich, were small and often ended abruptly. Work had slowed, but when he took over, Alexander systematically explored the property and found more areas of interest. Investors came knocking and soon funded a larger operation, including a major underground development.

Things took a downturn as the First World War drained the mine of workers, and Alexander began looking to sell. In 1918, he found a potential buyer with an offer of a full million dollars. That October, Alexander and his wife travelled by train to Skagway, where they boarded the final steamship of the season – the Princess Sophia – to meet the potential buyers in Vancouver. Before leaving, Alexander dropped Polly off at the Caribou Hotel.

It was here that some say Brown exacted his revenge. As the steamship sailed south through the Lynn Canal, a snowstorm side-swiped it and ran it up onto a rocky reef. The ship was stuck for a day and a half. Rescue boats arrived, but the rough seas made a rescue impossible. Low tide left the ship completely above water, and those in charge debated what to do. But the storm continued to rage, eventually dragging the battered ship off the reef. The Princess Sophia broke apart and sank, killing everyone on board – around 350 people – including Alexander and his wife. Brown’s curse went down in local lore: At least 17 people involved with the mine met untimely deaths.

Legal squabbles over the ownership of the Engineer mine held up operations for nearly five years. After Alexander’s death, several people claimed interest in the property – including Alexander’s true wife, who, unbeknownst to everyone, was still living in England with their 16-year-old daughter.

No one claimed ownership of Polly, though he would of course outlive them all.

Post a comment


PDF Version