The asteroid Welzl , discovered on 24 September , is named after him. After attending elementary school he was trained as a locksmith in Zvole and became a journeyman in The next two years he travelled a significant part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on foot. After his army service he went to Genoa , where he was hired as a stoker on a ship going to the United States.
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But there is another lesser known attraction in the public cemetery on the hill above town — the grave of Jan Welzl. Jan Welzl, a native of what is now called the Czech Republic, resided in Dawson City from until his death in He was an aging indigent whose presence in the gold rush city was not so out of place as it might have been elsewhere.
Dawson City had a large population of aging men — relics from the gold rush decades before. He was just another one of them. People remembered him as a friendly, rotund gentleman with a bushy walrus moustache; a pipe was often clenched between his teeth. He was unconventional and an inventor who, from his first arrival in Dawson, was at work making one contrivance or another, chasing the Holy Grail of inventors — the perpetual motion machine.
One elder of Dawson City told me that when he was young, his mother would bake pies which he was then sent to deliver to the septuagenarian. In fact, the kids would flock to his cabin at the corner of King Street and Fifth Avenue to peer through the window at his marvellous device, or listen to his stories.
His cabin was always filled to overflowing with one of his ingenious contraptions. He was buried in the public cemetery and his burial site was almost forgotten until some of his countrymen sought and located it although there is controversy over its location.
But Welzl had a reputation that spread across the globe and included a bestselling book. In fact, he is something of a national hero back in his homeland. One account states that he apprenticed for a short time as a watchmaker; another says it was as a machinist. He may have done military service before he went on his famed travels through the polar regions. In , as a crew member of a small polar ship named Seven Sisters, he was shipwrecked on the Pacific Coast of the United States.
Lacking identification, he was deported to Europe, where, in order to raise money, he gave lectures and sold articles to newspapers about his exploits in the North. He thus attracted the attention of two journalists, who over a period of two months, conducted an extended interview with him.
They took meticulous notes and paid him a small sum of money in exchange for signing over the publishing rights to his story. The book was and still is shelved as non-fiction, yet it contains some of the most preposterous assertions detailing facts about the North. I reviewed the section that describes his journey over the Chilkoot Trail and down the Yukon River. They are more fiction than fact. Take for example the funicular railroad that carried gold rush stampeders to the foot of the Chilkoot Pass was something lost in translation?
Or how about the net the Mounted Police stretched across the Yukon River below Five Finger Rapid to catch all the drowned corpses that floated by? And be careful of the skunks that are found in the forests beside the river! In the eyes of Dawsonites, he remained nothing more than one of the many oddball hermits who occupied the Klondike in the decades after the gold rush. Back home in Czechoslovakia, he was not forgotten. The communist government does not consider Welzl to be the model of a good Czech citizen.
A short-lived liberalization of Czechoslovakia occurred in Welzl again served as a symbol of individual liberty. The return to hardcore communism once again made his work a victim of censorship. When my wife Kathy hosted a Czech diplomat visiting Dawson City in the s, he acknowledged both the existence of the man, and his unfavourable standing with the communist government. Jan Welzl is once again in favour.
Tourists from his homeland flock to his Dawson City gravesite and what it symbolizes for them. In the end, it is not the factual accuracy of his narratives that matters to them as much as what he represents. Every year, in his home town of Zabreh, where a large statue of Welzl is prominently displayed, participants with suitcases compete in a run in remembrance of the Czech wanderer.
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Jan Eskymo Welzl
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