Down North
A Dependent's Notes of Interest
© Jean Watts 2002


Page 14: Whitehorse

Whitehorse was a different experience from our other postings in many ways. Its physical surroundings were reminiscent of Jasper and Banff - rushing rivers, picturesque lakes, mountain ranges, and forests of fir and spruce trees. But its people were different. Between 1896 and 1904 $100 million in gold was extracted from the Klondike creeks' placer deposits. Memories of the gold rush days were still vivid to the people of the Yukon. In Whitehorse itself, many reminders of those days remained.

The Sternwheelers

Sternwheelers, Whitehorse
Sternwheelers beside the Yukon River, Whitehorse, 1959.

Downtown, laid up along the riverbank not far from the railway station, were four old stern-wheel steamers: the Casca, Klondike, Whitehorse, and Keno. Before the Highway was built, they had been the main method of transportation for people and goods to and from the settlements along the rivers. As well as prospectors, other travellers, and stores, they carried mined ores to be processed in the south. When the improved route south created by the Highway made river transport obsolete, the ships' owners, the British Yukon Navigation Company, laid the Casca up on shore in 1952 and the Whitehorse in 1955. They presented them to the federal government in 1959.

Last voyage of the Keno
Last voyage of the Keno, August 25, 1960.

Much excitement was generated in August 1960, when the Keno, the smallest of the sternwheelers at 613 tons, was re-floated and steamed downriver to Dawson City. It was the last voyage by a sternwheeler until the Klondike was re-floated to make the trip in 1966. Most of the population of Whitehorse gathered to watch the old-timer start the journey down the Yukon River.

The Keno, built in 1922 and originally used to haul silver, lead, and zinc ores down the Stewart River, was chosen to make the journey because it was the smallest of the ships and the one considered most up to the task. It was the other, larger steamers, the Casca (1898) and the Whitehorse (1901), that had once shuttled between Whitehorse and Dawson City, but in 1960 they were not in good enough condition to make the trip again. Unfortunately the Casca and the Whitehorse were destroyed by fire in 1974, but the Klondike and the Keno still survive in Dawson City.

Reminders of the Past

MacBride Museum, Whitehorse
MacBride Museum, Whitehorse, August 26, 1960: Ian, Chris, Jill, Dick, Trixie

The little MacBride Museum held many relics of the Trail of '98 housed in a log building, built in 1900, that had been the first government telegraph office in Whitehorse. The museum, managed by the Yukon Historical Society, was on First Avenue, almost opposite the White Pass and Yukon Railway station. It was also not far from the sternwheelers laid up on the riverbank.

Around the building stood a number of interesting objects that had played a part in the colourful history of the Yukon. At one of the corners of the lot stood an immense sheet of copper standing on end, looking rather like a modern sculpture. It was an apt reminder of the discovery of the Whitehorse copper belt in 1897, just west of Whitehorse, and of this mineral's great importance to the territory.

The Pride ofDawson - Fire Engine
"The Pride of Dawson City F.D. 1898" (1961)

At 17 Works Company area we saw another relic, a wonderful old fire engine that the Royal Canadian Engineers had repaired and reconditioned. In the country around Whitehorse were many other vivid reminders of the overwhelming task it must have been for those long-gone cheechakos to get themselves and their supplies to the land where they hoped to make their fortunes. At Carcross, southwest of Whitehorse, the SS Tutshi was laid up on dry land. This sternwheeler once conveyed prospectors of the nineties across Lake Bennett, en route to the goldfields. Beside the Tutshi was another relic of those past travellers, a locomotive named The Duchess.

SS Tutshi at Carcross 1960
SS Tutshi, Carcross, Yukon Territory, 1960

The Duchess, steam locomotive, Carcross 1960

The Duchess, Carcross, Yukon Territory, 1960

Beside the railway engine was one more example of a means of transportation in the nineties: a wagon used for carrying the Royal Mail, its inscription revealing that it was part of the White Pass and Yukon Railway route.
Royal Mail Wagon, Carcross 1960
oyal Mail wagon, Carcross, Yukon Territory, 1960

Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral - old and new
Christ Church Cathedral, new and old, Whitehorse, 1960 (The Edmonton Journal, May 28, 1960)

Although Camp Takhini had the usual complement of army padres, we were encouraged to join a local church, should there be one of the appropriate denomination, in Whitehorse. We duly joined Christ Church Cathedral, which was in the process of replacing its charming old log building with a new brick-and-glass edifice. The new building's design was reminiscent of its predecessor, and it would eventually replace the decaying older structure.

The first Anglican services in Whitehorse were held in a tent in August 1900, during the gold rush years, when a mission was established there. By October of the same year, enthusiastic local inhabitants had built the log cathedral. The present-day version was completed and dedicated in 1960. Although we appreciated its splendid modernity, we missed the comfortable old charm of the log version.

The Protestant army padre, although no longer responsible for the spiritual welfare of those who had joined local churches, was able to provide an invaluable service whether we were still in his flock or not. He was an expert on mushrooms, and as these grew in vast quantities around the neighbourhood, we were all avid mushroom hunters - "shaggy manes" being a favourite variety, as they were particularly good eating. If we were unsure whether what we had picked was safe to eat, Padre Alfred's invaluable expertise could provide the answer. Even when not engaged in saving our souls, he possibly saved quite a few lives!

Miles Canyon
Upper end of Miles Canyon, 1898 (E.A. Hegg)
Miles Canyon

At Mile 911.8 on the Highway, a small secondary road led visitors to Miles Canyon, through which the Yukon River rushes with great force. It was another place with strong connections to gold rush days and, incidentally, a pleasant place to take the children for a picnic.

The canyon was part of the route downriver to Whitehorse from Lake Bennett, where the gold-seekers bought or built the boats and rafts in which they would attempt the river passage. By June 1898 nearly three hundred boats had been wrecked along the Yukon River between Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids, and five people had been drowned. The turbulent water of the river, as it rushed through the narrow space between the high, rocky canyon walls, must have been a daunting sight to the men in their small craft. As we stood on the little white bridge that recently had been built across the narrowest part of the canyon, it was easy to realize just how perilous the trip must have been for those hopeful voyagers.

So dangerous was the river trip that Inspector Sam Steele of the North-West Mounted Police issued an order that, if boats were used on this stretch of the Yukon, skilled pilots had to be hired to run the passage. To overcome the difficulties of the dangerous waters, a log tramway was built to move the miners and their supplies, running from Canyon City, above the canyon, to Whitehorse.

Next Posting

In August 1961 Dick was promoted and posted back to Winnipeg, to his former unit at HQ Prairie Command. In the usual way of army life, although pleased to be returning to old friends and familiar places, we could not help but feel regret for loss of the friends we had made in Whitehorse. And we could not help but miss the town itself and the wonderful country of the Yukon.

Living in furnished quarters made moving an easy matter. The few things that we had brought with us and did not need on our journey were soon packed and dispatched to the warehouse in Winnipeg where our own furniture was in storage. We were officially "marched out" of our quarters and set off, not in a southerly direction but quite the opposite - towards the north. There was one more place in the Yukon that we wanted to visit before we left.

[Next Page]

Pages: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16]

Return to top of page
Return to the Watts Family page