Robert William Service (January 16, 1874 – September 11, 1958) was a Scottish-born Canadian poet and writer. He is most well known for his writings on the Canadian north, including the poems "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee".
He was born into a Scottish family while they were living in Preston, England. He was schooled in Scotland, attending Hillhead High School in Glasgow. He moved to Canada at the age of 21 when he gave up his job working in a Glasgow bank and travelled to Vancouver Island, British Columbia with his Buffalo Bill outfit and dreams of becoming a cowboy. Hired by the Canadian Bank of Commerce, he was posted to the bank's branch in Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. Inspired by the vast beauty of the Yukon wilderness, Service started writing his poetry about the things he saw.
Service became known for his work about the West, and the Yukon gold miners. Such works as "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee" made him famous around the world. After having collected enough poems for a book, Service offered a publisher $100 of his own money to publish the work, but the publisher was so sure that the works would be popular (he had already taken 1700 offers for sale off the galley proofs), he returned Service's money and offered him a contract.
The book was published in 1907 in North America as The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses and in England as The Songs of a Sourdough. This made Service wealthy and he became known as the "Canadian Kipling". Within two years he was able to quit his job at the bank, and to travel to Paris, to the French Riviera, to Hollywood, and beyond. During his time living in Paris he was reputedly the wealthiest author living in the city yet he was known to dress as a working man and walk the streets, blending in and observing everything around him. From 1912 to 1913 he was a correspondent for the Toronto Star during the Balkan Wars. During World War I he was a driver for the American Field Service and a war correspondent for the Canadian government.
Robert W. Service married Germaine Bougeoin, a Parisian, and they purchased a summer home in the Brittany Region of France. At the outbreak of World War II he was in Poland and fled the country, going back to North America and on to Hollywood, California where he remained until the war's end, at which time he returned to his home in Brittany, France.
Service wrote two volumes of autobiography - Ploughman of the Moon and Harper of Heaven.
He died in Lancieux, Côtes-d'Armor, in Brittany and is buried there in the local cemetery.
Robert W. Service has been honored with schools named for him in Anchorage, Alaska (Service High School), in Toronto, Ontario and in Dawson City, Yukon Territory. He was also honored on a Canadian postage stamp in 1976.
Author and Canadian historian Pierre Berton was a childhood neighbour to the poet.
Tom Byrne frequently does readings in Dawson City at the Robert Service Cabin. He has recorded many of Service's works for casette and CD.
Robert Service lived for many years in a log cabin on 8th Avenue in Dawson City, Yukon. His relative prosperity allowed him the luxury of affording a telephone. After he left to go to Europe, the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (I.O.D.E.) took care of the house for many years, preserving it. Service eventually decided he could not return to Dawson, as it would not be as he remembered it.
Eventually, the Service cabin was taken over by Parks Canada, which maintains it, including its sod roof, as a tourist attraction. Irish-born actor Tom Byrne created The Robert Service Show which was presented in the front yard of the cabin, starting in 1976. This was very popular for summer visitors and set the standard for Robert Service recitations.
A dispute with Parks Canada's onerous lease renewal demands resulted in the elderly Mr. Byrne discontinuing the show at the cabin. The show was moved to a Front Street storefront and since 2004 has been held at the Westmark Hotel in Dawson. A local Dawson entertainer, Johnny Nunan, now recites Service's poetry (including the classic "The Cremation of Sam McGee") from a willow chair while visitors sit on benches on the front lawn. Following the presentation, visitors can view Service's home through the windows and front door. The fragility of the house, and the rarity of the artifacts, precludes any possibility of allowing visitors to walk inside the house itself.