The above is the first verse and chorus of a song written for a John Wayne movie in the early sixties. Given that I am writing this 60 years later, it surprises me that I could recall those words direct from old memories; ‘ear-worm’ songs last a life-time.
When asked if I wanted to visit Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada to see the Northern Lights, it wasn’t so much interest in celestial sights that made me agree, I realised that that this would be my first and last chance “to cross the Yukon River”! Also, if I chose, I could head north to Alaska along the Alaskan Highway that runs along the outskirts of Whitehorse.
I discovered before we caught our flight out of Vancouver that Whitehorse was actually the capital of the Yukon state. I also read that the city had got its name from the rapids of the Yukon River that ran very roughly at the site of the original settlement, reminding the early miners of the flying mane of a white horse. That’s about all I knew about the city apart from the fact that the nights were very dark there and so a great place to see the Aurora Borealis. On arrival at the Whitehorse airport, I picked up a pamphlet with the following ‘self-description’.
“Welcome to Whitehorse, the Yukon’s capital, and our home. Few cities in the world offer such a rich access to pristine wilderness, yet still provide all the amenities of a modern city. Hugged by the banks of the Yukon River and surrounded by the peaks of Grey Mountain, Haeckel Hill and Golden Horn Mountain, Whitehorse is a cosmopolitan community with easy access to trails, rivers, lakes and mountains.” (Whitehorse City Map/Guide 2020)
After settling into our hotel, the destination for my first walk around town was to gaze upon the Yukon River. Our hotel was conveniently on Main Street and the river was just four blocks away. Whitehorse clearly liked to commemorate their famous fellow citizens who had ‘done good’ and so on every corner of every block on Main Street, there were brass busts of these worthy folk. The only one I was familiar with was the bust of Jack London, the famous writer from the 19th century who wrote such great outdoor classics as White Fang and Call of the Wild. London spent time around Whitehorse as a young man working for gold miners and this experience is believed to be part of the inspiration for his novels.
My image of the Yukon River from my ‘North to Alaska’ memories was a wild broad rugged raging river, storming along at great speed to reach its destination in the wide ocean, the Bering Sea in Alaska. It was a little anti-climactic to discover that it had stopped for the winter in Whitehorse…or that’s the way it looked. It had frozen over and the ice itself was covered with snow so it looked like it was rushing nowhere. The signs on the edge of the river demanded that we not disturb the sleeping river by walking on it. There were footprints in the river’s snow blanket, breaching the river walking rules but we were told that these were the footprints of coyotes, crossing the river to raid the garbage bins on the town side of the river. Coyotes!?! The only coyote I ever saw was the bedraggled Wiley Coyote in ancient Bugs Bunny cartoons!
The Yukon River, frozen or free flowing, is the reason for Whitehorse’s existence. It starts in the mountains around Altin in British Columbia and flows through Whitehorse on the way to Alaska. It flows for over 3000 kilometres and is the longest river in the Yukon. The Klondike area and the Yukon River came to world prominence at the end of the 19th century when gold was discovered along its banks, further down stream towards where Dawson City is today. This discovery of gold prompted a mass migration of over 100,000 people between 1896 and 1899 looking for instant wealth. These were mainly American miners out of the USA where poor economic times prompted gold-seekers to head towards the Yukon, mainly via Seattle. The settlement of Whitehorse developed as it was geographically located on the Yukon River and this river was a major section of what was called the ‘Poor man’s Route’ to Dawson City, the centre of the gold-rush. Whilst many miners made and lost their fortunes, the majority came away with little result for their exhausting efforts. The stories of the hardship of gold-rushers are many, particularly along the ‘Poor Man’s Route’ around Chilkoot Pass between Skagway and Whitehorse. Miners had to have with them a year’s supply of food which amounted to about a ton in weight. They had to get this up the mountain pass before they even reached the awkward travel route down the Yukon River. The image above left shows a traffic jam on the trail up to Chilkoot Pass.
Whilst mining is still a big industry in the Yukon Territory today, there is not much gold left in them there hills. What is left in Whitehorse are the remnants of the transport systems that were developed to assist not only miners travelling north but the return of these same people along with the mining exports from the region. The first of these is the old railway that ran through Whitehorse. At the end of the main street in Whitehorse today, the old railway station sits as a memorial to the gold rush days. There is plenty here for old railway enthusiasts to inspect as the station and much of its support buildings are still standing. The railway was originally envisaged as a support for gold miners but it reached Whitehorse in 1900, just as the boom was ending. However it became a great success for business who set up in the wake of the gold-rushes.
The railway station area on the banks of the Yukon River is more important today for its memorials to the first nation people whose society and environment were devastated as a consequence of the late 19th century gold-rushes. There is a ‘Healing Totem’ raised here beside the old railway station, traditional territory of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation. There are many similarities to the history of Canadian First Nations and the story of the Indigenous people of Australia. This totem is not highlighting issues from Gold Rush times, but twentieth century issues around family separations, similar to the ‘Stolen Generation’ issues of Australian Indigenous people. The plaque on site explains…“The pole symbolizes the reunion of separated families. From the bottom to top are the representations of Mother, children, Father and Wolf and Crow, predominant Yukon First Nation clans, all together once again.”
The other memorial nearby is of nine stools in the snow, overlooking the frozen Yukon River. “This monument honours the former students and families of the Whitehorse Indian Mission School (1947-1960). There are nine stools in the circle, one for each of the indigenous languages of former students. Be aware that the stools rotate and represent a place where people can now move and think freely.”
The other transport system associated with trade between the Yukon and cities down south is the ‘Stern Wheeler’ that sits marooned on the edge of the river further down from the railway station. It is the SS Klondike II. This steamer was built around 1937 so is relatively modern. However it is the descendant of the many boats that took the dreaming miners down the Yukon once they had survived the trauma of getting here from Skagway. The distance downriver to Dawson City is 740 kilometres. This comparatively modern boat took two days for the journey down. It took 4-5 days on the way back up against the river flow to Whitehorse with 5-7 wood-stops to fuel its engines. This trip description was for summer travelling in a 1930s steamer. One of the issues that killed so many dreams (and people) back between 1896-99 was the slow boats and the fact that come winter, the river freezes over and many miner’s journey was spent at frozen way stations in the forest, waiting for the river to unfreeze. Not all survived this part of the ordeal of getting to Dawson City.
If you are walking the town of Whitehorse and you have finished viewing the SS Klondike II (only open for inspection in Summer), its probably time for morning tea or even lunch. All is not lost; note the map on the right with the arrow pointing from paddle-wheeler to the #10 red spot. This is the Deli (Café and eatery) that we chose to go to each day either for lunch or any hungry time. Its clearly famous for its smoked meats but we were happy with everything we tried…a town gem.
From the Deli it’s just a walk around the block to the next recommended site.
Whitehorse was a busy place after World War two with the continued building of the Alaska Highway and the airport and in 1951 it was declared a city. In 1953 it was promoted and became the Capital of Yukon and poor old Dawson City, its glory days long gone, declined in importance. With all the building going on, there was a high demand for accommodation and one long term citizen decided he would solve a few issues by combining the needs of the city with some old frontier know-how. Martin Berrigan was 70 years old when he designed and built the log cabin skyscrapers that the visitor can inspect on Lambert Street today. They are still lived in and we noticed one of them was up for rent if we required long term accommodation.
From the skyscraper cabins it’s just a right turn at the next street to find the last site on our walking tour. This is the Old Log Church that was designed and built in two months by the new pastor, Rev. R.J. Bowen, in 1900. The Old Log Church served many roles in the community, it was even the Anglican Cathedral for Yukon for 7 years. The town needed a more expansive church and so this one was retired in 1962 and became a museum. It is still a museum today. We were however unable to enter as it was closed, like all the other museums in Canada due to the Coronavirus.
APPENDIX 1: The Murals of Whitehorse
One of the things I noticed during my time in Whitehorse was the number of impressive murals that adorned the available walls of the city. There are not just a few, in 2012 there was a mural tour of Whitehorse that took in 37 separate murals. The topic for the murals seems to centre around Whitehorse history or culture but the quality of the art work on these murals is outstanding, a fantastic addition to the life of the town. Here are my six favourites. Quoted information used with each mural comes from the excellent website…
Left image: “In the alley behind Mac’s Fireweed Books at 203 Main Street is this wrap-around mural painted by Lance Burton and the Youth of Today Society”. This mural has a First Nations theme with an elder reaching out and the clan image of the Crow behind her.
Right Image: “NorthwesTel’s main office parking lot is the beneficiary of this grand piece. This is one of 5 murals painted by Lance Burton and a crew of 10 talented young assistants from the Youth of Today Society in 1998.” This mural’s topic is the 1896-99 miners struggling up Chilkoot Pass.
The two murals cover the history of the train line and the steam ships that brought the miners to the Yukon.
Left Image: “The lower floor of the north wall of the RBC Royal Bank building…hosts a mural by Lance Burton, showing a White Pass & Yukon Route steam locomotive behind men building the new railway.”
Right Image: “Located facing the parking lot at Triple J’s Music at 308 Elliott Street, this mural by Colin Alexander shows the sternwheelers ‘Australian’ and ‘William Ogilvie’ at Canyon City, on the Yukon River just above Whitehorse.”
Left Image: The eagle and the Bears. “One of the most colourful of the murals is the huge one that was painted on the side of the Wood Street Centre, facing onto 4th Avenue. The beautiful gardens and picnic tables help to make it a very popular spot. It was painted by Lance Burton and the Youth of Today Society.”
Right Image: “This scene of dog sledding at sunset is on the 3rd Avenue wall of The Claim, at 305 Strickland Street. It was painted by Colin Alexander.” I find this image quite striking…I am not sure that it is as peaceful as the comments above claim.
The image below is of one of the largest memorial pieces that has been installed on Main street, Whitehorse. It has a plaque on it that states… “This statue is dedicated to all those who follow their dreams”. While I don’t want to critique this frontier philosophy, it comes across as a little simplistic in the 21st century. Quite often, some folks’ dreams become other folks’ nightmares.