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Archie Gillespie

Joanie Mitchell said it best. "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got til it's gone." Prophetic...that line from the song Big Yellow Taxi.

Back in the 60s, I often met up with Archie Gillespie, an old-time news hound who was writing a column for the Yukon News called the Roving Reporter. It was that brilliant 'run of the mill' stuff that characterized the Yukon and Yukoners of the time. I didn't really know much about Archie except that he enjoyed talking about writing and reporting. Now I wish I knew more. Archie was born on Bonanza Creek in 1901. Though he had no formal training as a writer, it became his lifelong love. At one time, he was reporter and editor of the Dawson Daily News, that famous paper which got its start at the height of the gold rush. Later he worked for the Vancouver Sun and for Ma Murray's brash newspaper out of Fort St. John.

His stories, if put together, would form a unique history of the Yukon. Stories like the one he wrote for McLean's magazine in October of 1927 when he described the first flight of an aircraft from Skagway to Whitehorse. On board the Queen of the Yukon that day were pilot Andy Cruickshank and his new bride Esme, and Yukon businessmen Clyde Wann and James Finnigen. They were transporting their Ryan Broughman monoplane north to begin the first mail and passenger service in the Yukon. Archie Gillespie wrote...

When the Queen took to the air near Skagway, the skies were clear and there was no trace of storms. Five minutes out from the gateway port, a heavy fog was encountered blocking out the valley. It was impossible to turn back for already the tide would have crawled up over the take off field. Suddenly a formidable mountain top loomed vaguely through the heavy fog and the aviator shot his machine straight up into the heavens. Every heart beat with uncontrolled emotion. Could they make it. Could he guide his trim ship through that white darkness or was the honeymoon voyage and the Yukon airways first venture to crash on the pinnacle of unrelenting snowcrested mountain crags.

Gillespie 1
Panorama of Grand Forks community on Bonanza Creek in 1900.
Yukon Archives. Anton Vogee fonds, #121.
Click for larger view.

Twenty minutes, long nightmarish minutes which seemed to know no end. And then salvation. The Chilkoot Pass had been conquered. Once above the highest peak, 12 thousand feet in the air, day dawned on the far side of the valley. The tenseness was broken. The pilot's wife sitting in the wicker chair directly behind her husband leaned forward and patted him on the back.

A news account on the flight of the Queen of the Yukon from Skagway to Whitehorse on October 25th, 1927. Great stuff from a great Yukon writer ... the late Archie Gillespie.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Yukon Electric

The Yukon has always been a land of opportunity for visionaries. And because of them, residents of Whitehorse saw the light when on July 2, 1901 the newly formed Yukon Electric Company was awarded a franchise to provide power. It was a startling story since most North American towns didn't have electricity.

The company's first steam-generated power plant was located north of the White Pass train station and produced power with a piston-engine driven by a wood-fired boiler connected to two electrical generators.

But in 1905, a fire destroyed much of Whitehorse, including the train station and power plant. Yukon Electric quickly rebuilt on the south side of the new station and local lawyer Willard Phelps took over management of the company.

In 1913, with two partners, Phelps, bought out the shareholders and became the owner of Yukon Electrical.

By the 1930s, the arrival of new fangled household appliances hiked the demand for electricity. In 1935, Yukon Electrical replaced their steam-driven generators with diesel-operated engines that dramatically increased power production. Not for long.

In the 1940s, the diesel plants were badly overloaded in the growing town. Black-outs in the dead of winter were becoming all too common. The company decided the time had come for hydroelectricity. With sixty thousand dollars and little experience, Willard Phelps' son, John, and his brother-in-law, John Scott, planned to build the first hydro plant below Fish Lake.

In 1949, they applied for a licence and in one year, the hydro plant was producing power. Phelps and Scott increased hydro capacity in 1952 with a new turbine generating engine.

Between 1950 and 1958, Whitehorse was growing so fast that the company's electrical load increased by almost 25 percent each year. The little Fish Lake power plant could simply not keep up and the end was in sight for the company that had provided power for half a century.

The turning point came in 1957 when the newly created Northern Canada Power Commission announced that it was going to build a big hydro dam at the Whitehorse Rapids. John Scott and John Phelps decided that their small enterprise could no longer survive. They sold to Canadian Utilities, Alberta's second-largest electric utility company. The new firm became Yukon Electrical Company Limited and continued to operate the Fish Lake power station.

In 1959, The Northern Canada Power Commission began delivering power from the Whitehorse Rapids dam while the new Yukon Electrical company generated diesel-produced power in outlying Yukon communities.

In 1980, ATCO Alberta Power Limited bought Canadian Utilities and Yukon Electrical Company became a wholly-owned subsidiary. In 1987, the territorial government took over Northern Canada Power Commission in the Yukon, through a new entity called the Yukon Energy Corporation.

Yukon Electrical would continue to operate Yukon power production along with its own properties. Today, the little company that delivered electricity to just a few homes and businesses in tiny Whitehorse in 1901, serves fourteen Yukon communities and has almost fourteen thousand customers.

Willard Leroy Phelps certainly started something big a long time ago.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



The SS Islander Story

The SS Islander left Skagway at 7:30 p.m. on August 14th, 1901. Nothing unusual there. This impressive CPR vessel had been built in Scottish shipyards back in 1888 specifically for the inside passage run. At 240 feet, it was longer than the SS Klondike. For its time, the ship was luxurious.

As a Canadian flag vessel, she often carried a large share of the gold bullion that had been checked through the Gold Commissioner's office in Dawson.

At 7 p.m. on the night of August 14th, 1901 the Islander left Skagway and headed south for Vancouver with a crew of sixty-two and over eighty passengers. She also carried a substantial cargo of gold.

By midnight, the passengers were snug in their beds as the ship sailed gently through still waters - unusually still for the stormy inside passage.

Sometime after 2:00 a.m. on August 15, while sailing in the narrow Lynn Canal south of Juneau, she struck what was reported to be an iceberg. Investigators later found that she had struck heavy ice that punched a large hole in the bow. Captain Foot tried to steer the stricken vessel to nearby Douglas Island but it was hopeless. Like the Titanic, the Islander had a mortal wound. She would not float for long.

Within five minutes, the tremendous weight of the water filling the ship's forward compartments had forced her bow underwater. The stern, rudder and propellers were raised completely out of the water. After drifting for about fifteen minutes in a strong southerly outbound tide, the Islander began her final plunge to the bottom.

Sixteen crew and twenty-three passengers went to an icy grave that had claimed so many lives over the years. But many survivors, including Charles Ross, gave an account of the sinking.

He and his wife were in bed when he felt the shock. He leapt up, but an officer passed by and told them there was nothing the matter. A few moments later he heard something like chopping, going on above, and went on deck.

The largest and best lifeboat was in the water with eight of the crew on board, The lifeboat, said Ross, would have carried forty people. He hurried to his room and told his wife there was danger.

SS Islander
SS Islander Click for larger view.

Dressing quickly, they went on deck to witness the lifeboat leaving, not thirty feet away. Ross said he called to the men to return but they would not. They stood on the water-covered deck and put on life preservers, but the vessel went down so quickly they had no time to jump.

Ross was in the water for almost four hours before they rescued him, nearly dead from cold. The body of Mrs. Ross was found floating in the wreckage.

Other survivors reported that a 'whoosh' of escaping air and steam from the boilers blew the wooden upper works from the sinking ship. Debris rained down on the passengers.

Then the Islander slipped to her final resting place in 175 feet of frigid water, taking sixteen crew and twenty three passengers to their deaths.

Among the victims were Mrs. James Ross and her daughter, the wife and child of the Yukon's Commissioner and Charles Keating, a multimillionaire and Director of the Commerce Bank of Canada, and the ship's Captain, H.B. Foot.

No sooner had the Islander sunk than efforts to find the shipwreck began. Finally, in 1934, an ingenious engineering feat resulted in raising part of the wreck.

However, when cleared of muck, the ship would yield just seventy-five thousand dollars worth of gold nuggets and dust. Her reported tons of gold bullion lay undisturbed on the bottom of Lynn Canal.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Pelly River Ranch

It's a stunning oasis, looking more like something you'd find in Wyoming or Colorado. Yet not far south of the arctic circle lies the most northerly mixed farm in Canada. When I first visited the Pelly River ranch in the mid 70s, it was like traveling in a time capsule, going to a place which really shouldn't exist in the rugged, untamed Yukon. It's almost four hundred acres of rich farmland on the flat plain banks of the Pelly River. A narrow, winding dirt road running 35 miles from Pelly Crossing is one access to the farm. The other is up the Pelly river six miles by boat from Fort Selkirk. The laneway which enters the farm is covered with a colourful canopy of poplar trees.

The farm was first worked back in 1901 by Edward Menard who was a telegraph operator at Fort Selkirk. When I visited, it was owned by Hugh and Dick Bradley, who had bought the place from J.C. Wilkensen in 1954. An amazing site to see, this flat rich land which is back-dropped by rolling tree-covered hills. Here the Bradleys raised Hereford cattle - as many as 50 at a time. More than 200 chickens roamed at large and provided eggs which were sold all along the Klondike highway. The waving wheat fields made me want to sing the title song from the Broadway play Oklahoma, "where the waving wheat can sure smell sweet as the wind rolls gently on the plain." Oats and barley are also part of the grain mix. Cows and horses couldn't go hungry here.

And the gardens. Nothing like them anywhere in the north land. Literally tons of potatoes grow along side other root vegetables like turnips, carrots and beets. The original cabin, built in 1901 by Menard, is still there, as are other buildings typical of a farm anywhere in southern Canada.

Pelly River Ranch 1
Pelly River Farm.
Yukon Archives. Richard Harrington fonds, #7661.
Click for larger view.

And the Bradleys were friendly folk, even to an unannounced visitor who was probably interrupting the many daily chores. Majorie Bradley estimated they might get about a thousand visitors a year down that old dirt road. Imagine if there were a sign on the Klondike Highway pointing the way. Probably, nothing would ever get done.

The Pelly River ranch. Nothing quite like it anywhere in this country.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Murder in the Yukon - part two

On a Christmas day we were mushing our way, over the Dawson trail. When poet Robert Service wrote those lines, he was not referring to three men murdererd on the Dawson trail.

However, on Christmas day, 1899, that's what happened to three men who were leaving the Yukon. Fred Clayson was a gold buyer from Skagway; Ole Olsen, a telegraph lineman and Lynn Relfe, a bartender from Dawson. They had banded together to help each other on the overland winter journey to the coast.

The three had stopped at Minto Roadhouse, signed a guest book, and continued down the frigid Yukon River trail. At Hootaliqua Post, Corporal Ryan, of the NWMP, had been expecting his friend Olson for Christmas dinner. When Olsen did not arrive, Ryan began a search and made a gruesome discovery. The three men had been shot, robbed, and dumped into a hole in the ice. Ryan also found some of the stolen goods hidden nearby.

NWMP Constable Pennycuick, who had been patrolling the Yukon River, remembered seeing a man named George O'Brien in the area where the bodies of the three men were found.

O'Brien had spent time in a British jail for shooting a man. And, in the Yukon, he had spent time in jail for theft.

They took O'Brien into custody and his trial took place in Dawson in June 1901. With more than four hundred pieces of evidence, the Mountie's case against O'Brien was ironclad. He was convicted and hanged in Dawson City on August 23, 1901.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Bennett Church

Anyone fortunate enough to travel the length of Lake Bennett from Carcross is travelling a voyage of incredible history. Down this 35-mile long lake came cheechakos hell-bent for the gold fields. Their boats were crude crafts made from lumber that they whipsawed on the shores of the lake where a city called Bennett sprang up in 1898.

The Bennett townsite did not last long for no one wanted to stay here between the rugged coastal mountains where sometimes the wind whipped down the long waters like a banshee calling them to certain catastrophe. But stay they did - long enough to head north.

Long enough to build a tent town that is no more. Long enough to build a church that has defied the elements and stood for more than one hundred years.

The church is the work of Reverends Andrew Grant and A.J. Sinclair who arrived in Skagway in 1898. Reverend Dickey had established a church and hospital in the lawless American town the previous year, but had then turned it over to the American Episcopal Church. Grant and Sinclair climbed the steep slopes of the Chilkoot pass and struggled on to Lake Bennett . Here they built a church from the scraps of whipsawed lumber left over from the boat-building activities of the stampeders. The two men had packed stained glass over the Chilkoot trail. The glass which had been hand blown, was donated by a church in Victoria , B.C.. These pieces of glass were fitted into the church windows in solid squares.

By the time the Church was finished in 1901, the town of Bennett was also finished. By now, the White Pass Railway passed by on its way to Whitehorse . And while people tore down or moved the buildings of Bennett to other locations, the church stood alone on the shores of the lake.

Old Log Church
1957 photo of the Church at Lake Bennett
Click for larger view.

Nevertheless, a few stalwarts remained. In February 1901, James Russell conducted a service in St. Andrew's Church and the Bennett Sun, which soon became the Whitehorse Star, was still publishing weekly.

I was fortunate one summer Sunday to travel from Carcross to Bennett in the company of my chum, Willard Phelps. He knew the lakes and the history. That was not surprizing since his Granddad, also named Willard Phelps, has been at this very spot with the other cheechakos on their way to the gold fields so long ago.

Oh what a story Willard and the Bennett church could tell. And did!


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Bank of Commerce in Dawson

Bankers were no different from everyone else who trekked to the Klondike goldfields. They too made the tough trip by boat, trail, dog team and sled to reach the most amazing gold strike in North American history.

As prospectors flooded into Dawson City in 1898, the Canadian Government had two problems. How to collect royalties from mostly American miners? And how to keep the money secure?

Send in the Mounties and the bankers, of course! Well, some Mounties were already there and the feds contracted the Canadian Bank of Commerce to handle the cash or gold dust. In April 1898, two groups of specially trained Bank of Commerce employees set out from Toronto bound for Dawson.

In February 1899, the New York times reported that "a Canadian Bank of Commerce is to be started in Dawson City." The bank, the story said, has been appointed agent of the Government for the Yukon district and will receive all royalties on gold mined in the Canadian territory. The gold received by the bank will be sent to the coast under the escort of the Mounted Police provided by the government."

All was well until the winter of 1900, when yet another fire burned an entire downtown block of buildings including the office of the Bank of Commerce. The bankers moved in with the Mounties, but they now needed a new building.

In 1901, the Bank of Commerce leased land on Front Street and constructed a state of the art building. It was classy. A spiral stairway connected an assay office on the second floor to the main floor. A fireproof vault of stone was lined with brick. An upstairs apartment boasted the first flush toilets in Dawson. Robert Service, who arrived in 1908, probably found these digs much more comfortable than the rustic cabin with outdoor plumbing on Eighth Avenue that he rented when he quit the bank in 1910.

Bank of Commerce 1
Canadian Bank of Commerce - June 16th, 1901 - Bank under Construction.
Yukon Archives. Dawson City Museum & Historical Society collection, #1. Click for larger view.

The new Bank of Commerce building opened for business on May 20, 1901, advertising prime rates for gold dust and the services of an assayer. This was a major expansion for the Bank of Commerce, which today is known as the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. The Government of Canada owned the land but the Bank of Commerce held a lease from 1901 until 1988, when the lease was transferred. Today, the bank building is a key element in the historic character of Front Street in Dawson, though most agree that a facelift for the historic edifice is long overdue.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



John Hislop

The first mayor, of the newly incorporated city of Skagway, was a Canadian. John Hislop was born in Galt, Ontario, and graduated from McGill University in Montreal as a civil engineer. At one time he taught highschool in Galt.

In April of 1898, Hislop found himself in Skagway, working as an assistant to the White Pass Railway construction engineer, Erastus Hawkins.

Both were there to determine if a railway could be built through the White Pass. When it was decided the railway could be built, Michael Heney became Superintendent of Construction while it was up to Hislop to survey the very treacherous route.

The railroad connected Carcross and Whitehorse in June 1900, and the entire line was completed on July 29, 1900, with a golden spike celebration at Carcross.

By then, Skagway had become the first incorporated city in Alaska, beating out Juneau by one day. The vote for incorporation and the civic election were both held on June 28, 1900 at the "City Hall," a cabin on 5th Avenue. More than twenty residents ran for seven city council seats and the elected council then selected John Hislop, chief surveyor of the White Pass and Yukon Route, as its first mayor.

Hislop was a landed immigrant, born and raised in Canada, but he had worked on American railroads before coming north to help build the White Pass. The local newspaper was enthusiastic.

"The ability that a liberal education and a wide experience of men and large affairs gives to a man eminently fit Mr. Hislop for a wider and more important field of duty, but he accepted the call of the citizens of Skagway to be the president and lent a modest dignity to the position."

Yukon History Hougen Group
Click for larger view.

With the railway now running and Skagway in good hands of elected officials, Hislop requested a year’s leave of absence from the White Pass. He had toiled long and hard in the mountains and saw the most difficult engineering job through to completion. He also helped Skagway convert from a lawless outpost to a tame town.

In December 1900, he left Skagway, bound for Chicago, to marry his fiancé Mary Young on January 1st, 1901. A month later, Hislop left the home of his brother-in-law to attend a business meeting in downtown Chicago.

He arrived at the Rock Island Line railway station just as the train was pulling out. As he ran forward to catch a coach handrail, his coat caught on a protruding trestle beam. He was yanked from the train and flung under the wheels. John Hislop who had survived the most difficult railway construction project in the mountains of the White Pass, was dead. He was 45.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




The AJ Goddard

There may have been 300 steamboats in the Yukon in the heyday of river transport. Few remain today and none ply the river anymore. But in 1898, river was the only way to get from the coast to the Klondike in a hurry. And there was money to be made especially if you were first in line and first in Dawson. Thus it was that a mechanical engineer from Iowa sailed into the history books by being the first to navigate a steamboat from Lake Bennett to Dawson City.

AJ Goddard and his wife packed parts for two steamboats over the White pass during the winter of 1897-98 when gold-crazed souls headed for the goldfields near Dawson.

The iron sternwheeler named the AJ Goddard and her sister ship the F.H. Kilbourne were built in San Francisco in 1897 and shipped in pieces to Skagway, hauled inland and assembled at the tent city at Lake Bennett. The boat, christened the AJ Goddard, was forty feet long, about one quarter the length of the SS Klondike and weighed in at 15 tons - about the size of fifteen one-ton pickups.

The AJ Goddard left Lake Bennett on May 29, 1898, ran Miles Canyon and the notorious Whitehorse rapids and arrived in Dawson on June 21. Passengers on the boat included the famed Oatley singing sisters. Actually another so-called steamboat named the Bellingham beat the Goddard into Dawson by ten days, but it was - according to many - too small to be called a real steamboat. Engineer AJ Goddard’s feat was recognized by the rough and tumble crowd in Skagway who realized he had done something special and held a civic parade in his honour.

Goddard's determination paid off as he established the first steamboat link between the gold fields and the Pacific coast.

For three years, the A.J. Goddard served as a ferry for stampeders on their way to Dawson City. The craft was self-sufficient and it had its own repair shop, a blacksmith's forge, and a workbench. She operated on the river until October 1901 when she was wrecked in a storm on Lake Laberge with the loss of the Captain, Charles McDonald, cook Fay Ransome, and fireman John Thompson. They were buried nearby by the North-West Mounted Police after their bodies washed ashore in 1902.

As the vessel sank, two other men, the engineer Stockfedt and crewman Snyder, hung onto the pilothouse and they were spotted and rescued by a trapper camping nearby.

Today, the AJ Goddard can be seen, on a calm day, resting peacefully on the bottom of the famous waters of Lake Lebarge. The boat is largely intact. A piece of land on the northeast side of the lake is called Goddard Point.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin