Whitehorse Daily Star

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Photo by Photo Submitted

A HOME ON WHEELS – Dick Stevenson poses for a photo with the old bus he lived in decades ago in the Dawson City area. Photo by JIM ROBB

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BOTTOMS UP – Dick Stevenson is seen with the original sourtoe cocktail in December 1978 at the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City. Photo by Robb Lucy

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Photo by Whitehorse Star

ON THE MOVE – Dick Stevenson enjoys a ride down Main Street in the 2018 Canada Day parade.

Last call sounds for beloved cocktail inventor

“Captain” Dick Stevenson, whose absurd barroom cocktail caper saw the territory toasted in newspapers around the globe, died Thursday morning in Whitehorse.

By Jim Butler on November 15, 2019

“Captain” Dick Stevenson, whose absurd barroom cocktail caper saw the territory toasted in newspapers around the globe, died Thursday morning in Whitehorse. He was 89.

The irrepressible Stevenson snatched widespread fame as the bemused creator of the sourtoe cocktail, reliably ready for imbibing at the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City.

The outrageous rite involves downing a shot of whisky containing a mummified human toe.

Once the digit touches your lips, you have officially joined the club, and are handed a certificate commemorating that glorious occasion.

Since 1973, the year of the drink’s creation, more than 90,000 sourtoe cocktails have been served.

Whitehorse artist Jim Robb was a friend of Stevenson’s for more than 30 years.

“At the start of the sourtoe cocktail thing, nobody thought too much of it, but it went to a world-wide thing – it was even on the front page of the New York Times,” Robb told the Star Thursday afternoon. “It was great publicity for the Yukon.”

With Stevenson, Robb once visited the ramshackle Miller Creek miner’s cabin where the brainchild of the cocktail was born after Stevenson discovered a human toe.

The discarded digit, a casualty of a case of frostbite in the 1920s, had been capably preserved in a Mason jar full of rum for 40 years.

Shortly after finding the toe, when Stevenson went into Dawson, he ran into a couple of reporters. Collectively, they dreamed up the cocktail concept in the appropriate locale of a popular watering hole.

Decades later, Stevenson said he thought the whole stunt would permanently peter out after a dozen or so drinkers had dared bring the glass to their lips.

Forty-six years later, the cocktail continues to lap up global fascination in the form of features – or hard news, whenever something untoward occurs, such as a theft or a swallowing of the toe.

Robb said his late friend’s creative mind perennially brimmed with novel ideas to experiment with.

Years ago, whenever Stevenson was driving back to the Yukon from a southern destination, Robb recalled, his friend would call from Teslin.

He’d ask Robb to ensure that two or three cold beers were faithfully awaiting his arrival at the former Fort Yukon/Roadhouse/Bamboo Lounge upon his return to Whitehorse.

“He was a major character in The Colourful Five Per Cent; one of the first characters in my book,” Robb said of the two volumes he produced in the mid-1980s.

“He was one of the most colourful.”

Stevenson first migrated to the territory in 1956. Previous vocations had included time in the country’s air force, logging, mining and ranching.

After snaring work as a fish warden in Dawson, Stevenson acquired a boat and began offering Yukon River tours in the Dawson area. He did that for a living until retiring in the 1990s.

“Dick did some amazing things for the Yukon,” Robb said.

“He was always thinking of ideas that would help promote the Yukon.

“The sourtoe cocktail went from a small thing to a world-famous idea.”

“Stella by Starlight introduced me to Captain Dick when I was working as a guide on the Alaska Highway,” Patrick Wolfe, of Wood Mountain, Sask., wrote to the Star this morning.

“He was upset because a large customer had swallowed his original toe, and a woman’s toe replaced it.

“His gimmick had worked, and he showed me his book with (former prime minister) Pierre Trudeau’s signature.

“I doled out the dollars for the obligatory champagne and he plopped the blackened toe into the glass,” Wolfe recounted.

“I swirled it around and drank it. All eyes in the bar were on me, including the guy who ate the first toe.

“When I put the glass down, complete with the digit, Dick shook my hand and put my name in the book. Stella and I continued on to Gerties.

“Condolences to all.”

One evening this past September, the Sourdough Saloon at the Downtown was teeming as folks gathered ’round to see Nick Griffiths reunited with his own big toe.

Griffiths, a former British marine commando, had lost the toe, and pieces of the next two, after having contracted frostbite while competing in the Yukon Arctic Ultra in 2018. That extreme winter marathon follows the Yukon Quest sled dog race trail.

Griffiths had first learned of the sourtoe cocktail from a nurse while receiving emergency treatment in a Yukon hospital – and generously made his special donations to the cause.

In August 2013, an American worker on his way out of Dawson deliberately swallowed the saloon’s last toe, reportedly for “bragging rights”.

In June 2017, a customer made off with the toe. He did so after persuading one of the bar servers to let him take the drink after the usual time for the evening ritual had passed.

“We are furious,” Terry Lee, the Downtown’s toe captain, stormed at the time. The wayward digit was eventually returned.

Stevenson had lived in care facilities in Whitehorse in recent years, but still visited friends, dispensed autographed copies of a book he had written, and scurried around on a motorized scooter.

His will has directed that his toes be donated to the cocktail cause at the Downtown. No funeral service is planned.

As Robb wrote in the latest edition of his 18-month calendar (January 2020 to June 2021), “It seems Dick Stevenson came from humble beginnings, but has arrived in a Cadillac in the publicity department....Dick has to be credited for his bringing the Toe and Yukon to the world.”

– With a file from Dan Davidson

Comments (9)

Up 0 Down 0

margaret [Maggie ] davies on Nov 26, 2019 at 10:21 am

Hello Dick we have so many fun memories of you coming to BC & joining us for Turkey Dinner at my Heritage house. Yes you & our old friend Lothar pulled the wool over my eyes in 1984 when I drank the sour toe Drink & you gave me my certificate. Our friend Lothar from Berlin got his wings in 2014. Hope you two meet up & can enjoy all the fun old times. God Bless, Maggie & Shannon,

Up 1 Down 0

tobi austin on Nov 23, 2019 at 1:43 pm

In the 1980-90's I was in Dawson many times - as a tour guide destined for Alaska with a great two day stop. One of the very best was Dawson with a group of 44 people from Canada, and quite often from foreign countries, not believing my story about Capt. Dick and the Sourtoe cocktail. Some of us were full of bologna - but not this time...
Some - not all - would get that certificate, which I know became the highlight of the whole venture, and would proudly wave it around when we crossed the Yukon River for the Top of World highway.
He was personality plus - talked to everyone, some tall stories, but did know the history of the area. I asked him once on the River cruise, what would happen if that motor gave out - and he told me it would be a great trip all the way to the Bering Sea.....
Rest in Peace, dear man - you will be missed by many.

Up 11 Down 0

jc on Nov 18, 2019 at 8:28 pm

Certainly a color character alright. Will miss him. And I'm sure glad it was a toe he found. LOL

Up 10 Down 0

yukoner2019 on Nov 18, 2019 at 10:30 am

So sad to hear about his passing.. I surely hope that someone carries on his legacy with the sourtoe cocktail.. RIP Captain Dick

Up 11 Down 2

Sandy Jamesen on Nov 16, 2019 at 8:23 pm

Back in the late 70’s early 80’s, a miner I worked with by the name of Gary Younger swallowed the toe in the bar at the Eldorado Hotel in Dawson City. Those were the days! RIP Captain Dick.

Up 2 Down 1

patrick wolfe on Nov 16, 2019 at 4:29 pm

I just found Stella Arent Zimmerman's sad story and obit from Florida. So sad..

Up 17 Down 0

Donna Clayson on Nov 15, 2019 at 10:03 pm

I have photos of the cabin (inside and outside) where the original toe was found. I already miss our chats Dick.

Up 29 Down 4

Dave on Nov 15, 2019 at 6:09 pm

Miles you are probably a newcomer and didn’t live here back in the day when bouncing a toe off your lip courtesy of Captain Dick wasn’t an uncommon event. Read his biography if you want to learn his history.

Up 9 Down 47

Miles Epanhauser on Nov 15, 2019 at 4:03 pm

The seems so weird is it even legal?
Did this tradition come from a witch culture?

Bye Dick you made many people's day with your antics.

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