The Hougen Group of Companies - A Yukon Tradition
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Miles Canyon

For many, it's the most spectacular feature of the Yukon river. It is a canyon carved by thousands of centuries of swift-moving water. At one time, it was considered the most dangerous obstacle on the way to the Klondike gold fields. The next time you visit this landscape treasure, consider the future of the Yukon had it not been there.

Miles Canyon is just a few miles up-river from Whitehorse. It's a major tourist attraction for both Yukoners and new visitors to the territory. Yet in 1898, when the massive flotilla of boats carried gold seekers to the Klondike, it was not considered an attraction. Rather, it was the bane of their existence. It was dangerous - almost as bad as the Whitehorse rapids, which lay just below the canyon - a rapid which claimed numerous lives - especially lives of those who did not respect its power.

Miles Canyon was named the Grand Canyon by early-day prospectors. Then, when Lt. Frederick Schwatka of the U.S. army came along, exploring the Yukon River system in 1883, he named the canyon after General Nelson Miles, commander of the department of Columbia, which then took in Alaska.

Had it not been for the presence of Miles Canyon (and the Whitehorse Rapids), riverboats would have been able to travel between Carcross and Dawson City with no problem. As it was, a few small riverboats did run that route, but were forced to stop above the canyon, where a town called Canyon City sprang up. Had it not been for the canyon and the rapids, the White Pass and Yukon Railway would have stopped at Carcross. The company would have built riverboats there instead of a little place on the north side of the Whitehorse Rapids and Miles Canyon - a little place called Whitehorse.

Had it not been for Miles Canyon, Carcross would likely have become the transportation hub leading to the gold fields. The Alaska Highway would likely have gone through Carcross on its way north to Alaska. The American military building that road in the early 40s would not have needed to go through what is now Whitehorse because there would have been no rail or riverboat system based there. The military airfields, built along the route of the highway, would have concluded Carcross, not Whitehorse as a staging point. Cyr's woodlot on the clay bluffs overlooking Whitehorse, would still be just a wood lot, not the Whitehorse International Airport, as it is now.

Because Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids were there, the history of the Yukon was changed dramatically. Undoubtedly, Carcross, and not Whitehorse, would have been the Yukon's capital city today. Then sprawling bedroom communities now attached to Whitehorse would have bloomed down Lake Bennett, over to Crag Lake, up to Lewis Lake and beyond.

Miles Canyon
Miles Canyon Prior to the Dam, Click for larger view.

Miles Canyon 1
Freight hustlers standing in front of the Tramway building (river front side) at Canyon City near the entrance to Miles Canyon. Tram cars in the foreground. Date: September 1899.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4665.
Click for larger view.

So the next time you visit Miles Canyon, think for a moment about what that beautiful vista meant in shaping the Yukon's future.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Hockey in the Hangar

When the last of the war-year hangars burned down in Whitehorse in 1999, the tragic event ended an era that fills the memory banks of those of us fortunate enough to watch - or play - hockey in the hangar.

Four of these magnificient structures were built from 1942 to 1944 at the Whitehorse airport. They were used on the famed Northwest Staging Route when aircraft were flown from the United States through the Yukon and on to Alaska, where there were flown to Europe by Russian pilots to help in the Second World War effort against Nazi Germany.

When the final hangar, designated C, burned to a cinder in 1999, its value was set at $800,000, but to replace the Douglas Fir-laden structure would cost millions. Another hangar, designated B, had burned to the ground in 1993.

It was there that we kids of the fifties played our first organized hockey in Whitehorse. Hangar B was designated a hockey arena in 1947 since its role as a base for RCAF aircraft had diminished because of the winding down of military activity in the Yukon after the war.

How did a hangar become a hockey rink? Well, in 1947, a young Air-force corporal, Andy Gilpin, was posted to Whitehorse. There is no doubt that they sent Gilpin to Whitehorse because of his exceptional ability as a hockey player. In those days, competition between the Air-force and the Army in Whitehorse was fierce. Thus, both military outfits used their clout to make sure that they transferred good hockey players to the bases.

Gilpin, who had been a star forward in Junior A hockey in Quebec, brought considerable talent to the Air-force squad. So much so, that in 1948, he was selected as one of 17 players of the RCAF Flyers, Canada's entry in the 1948 Olympic Games in Switzerland.

But when Gilpin arrived in Whitehorse in 1947, they were playing hockey on an outdoor rink. Not good, he thought, in the extreme cold of a Yukon winter.

So he offered to get a crew together and build a hockey rink inside Hangar B - if the RCAF commander would agree. He did. Thus, indoor hockey came to Whitehorse.

In those days, the airbase was a long way from downtown - especially for a kid without a car - or a driver's license. I played midget hockey in the hangar for the Kiwanis team. To get there, I'd walk from Strickland Street, up Puckett's Gulch, dash across the end of the runway and make a beeline for the warmth of the hangar dressing room. One day, as I made my trek across the end of the runway, a DC 3 approached. As I lay prone on the edge of the runway, I discovered that the overhead sound of a nearby DC 3 is deafening. Today a chain-link fence prevents such runway crossings.

Hockey 1
Nine men shovelling and sweeping off a rink at the RNWMP post at Dawson. Date: 1917.
Yukon Archives. Claude & Mary Tidd fonds, #7616.
Click for larger view.

The senior men's games in the hangar were downright nasty. Hockey was king, and everyone had a favourite team or player. Me? Not so much. As a kid at the games, I spent my time looking for my older brothers and sisters in the stands so I could borrow some cash and hit the confection stand. Hockey was secondary to a hot dog.

The language I heard from some spectators, especially if the Town Merchants team was playing either the Army or the Air-force, was an education in words I did not know existed. I am not sure I ever witnessed a fight in the stands, but foul language was common.

There was also Sunday evening public skating to the modern sounds of Strauss waltzes on 78 rpm records played from the radio broadcast booth overlooking the ice surface. I rarely missed listening to a hockey broadcast during week nights when the dark, the cold and school prevented me from attending the games in person.

In 1953, the Whitehorse Civic centre - later called the Jim Light Arena - opened and the colourful era of hockey in the hangar ended.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does much about it - so the old saying goes. Well, back in 1947, Gordon O'Toole did something about it - and his work put the Yukon in the weather record book.

That winter was one of the coldest ever. A deep ridge of high pressure settled in over the Territory and just wouldn't move. Everywhere, from Dawson to Mayo to Whitehorse to Snag, the thermometer was motionless for weeks on end.

Temperatures were not metric then but, rather, were measured in Fahrenheit. For all of January, the thermometers around the Yukon had bottomed out. Frigid readings in the -60s prevailed for endless weeks.

Today such conditions might result in a declaration of emergency measures but, back then, the hardy Yukoners toughed it out. No one on the 'outside' knew what was happening until Gordon O'Toole took a reading in Snag on February 3rd.

At that time, Snag, near Beaver Creek, was an emergency military airstrip with a weather office consisting of 16 men.

It had been bone-chilling cold for weeks. Weatherman O'Toole telegraphed the head of Canada's meteorological operations in Toronto that if it got much colder, his equipment would quit and the thermometer reading would be incorrect.

The reply was that if the mercury should settle all the way to the bottom of the bulb, it would be colder than -80 Fahrenheit because that was as low as the readings would go. O'Toole was told to mark a line the outside of the glass with a file, exactly where the mercury lay. Then he was instructed to carefully wrap up the thermometer and send it to Toronto on the next available military aircraft.

At 7:20 on the morning of February 3rd, 1947, Gordon O'Toole did just that. He estimated the temperature was -83 degrees. When head office finally received the historic thermometer, they calculated a reading based on his line. It read -81.4&#deg; Fahrenheit or -63&#deg; Celsius.

It was the coldest that had ever been recorded anywhere in North America, and a record that remains until this day.

Snag 1
A thermometre reading colder than 60 below zero at Dawson. Date: ca. 1920.
Yukon Archives. Claude & Mary Tidd fonds, #7671.
Click for larger view.

What were conditions at Snag on that historic morning? O'Toole said that ice outside was so hard it took five minutes inside before a trace of moisture appeared on it. A glass of water tossed in the air made a hissing sound and fell as ice pellets; an ax head shattered as it bounced off a block of ice. Rubber had the feel of cement. Wood was petrified. So, it is said, were the guys at the isolated weather office.

This was Snag on February 3rd, 1947 when the Yukon entered a record-breaking deep freeze. The news was transmitted around the world and the Yukon's image of being a land of ice and cold was reinforced for years to come.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Streets of Whitehorse - 5

Our walk in the historic streets of downtown Whitehorse concludes as we tour the seven streets north of Strickland - a part of the city which came into being with expansion in the late '40s and early '50s.

The Governor General of Canada and his wife visited Whitehorse in 1947. A new subdivision was just being created in the growing town. To honour their visit, the new street north of Strickland was named Alexander after Field Marshall Viscount Alexander, who was the Canada's Governor General from 1945 to 1952.

Two politicians, both Yukoners, were honoured the same year when Black Street was named for George and Martha Black. Both had served as Yukon MPs in the House of Commons. George was Speaker of the House from 1930-1935. They had moved from Dawson to Whitehorse in 1946 and left their mark on both communities.

Wheeler, as we saw earlier in the series, was a White Pass street named for Herb Wheeler, president of the company in the '30s.

Cook Street has a special place in the memories of Yukon bush pilots and the American military. Les Cook was a bush pilot and fur trader. He once operated a trading post on Sheldon Lake. When the American military began surveying the route for the Alaska Highway, Les Cook was hired to conduct aerial reconnaissance. In the fall of 1942, as Cook took off from the Whitehorse airport, the engine of his small plane stalled. The plane plunged to the ground on Front Street near the Yukon river. Les Cook was killed. In 1944, the American military awarded him the U.S. Air Medal for several mercy flights he had made for them.

The Yukon's first commissioner was William Ogilvie. He had first come to the Yukon in 1887 as a Dominion Land Surveyor. In 1896, he surveyed the new townsite called Dawson City. Ogilvie Street is named for this Yukon pioneer.

Ogilvie and Watson
Ogilvie and Alf Watson
Yukon Archives. Finnie Family fonds, #98.
Click for larger view.

Ray Street is named for Irwin Ray, a long time Yukon prospector who mined around the Mayo district in the '30s and '40s. With the expansion of Whitehorse, Ray, and his mining partner Ed Barker, bought a piece of land and started Tourist Services, which included a bar, motel rooms, a garage and a restaurant. On a Friday night, after the dance at the YPA Hall, many of the Yukon teenagers of the 50s gathered at Tourist Services for the best toasted western in the Northwest.

Our tour of the streets of Whitehorse ends at Baxter. The land here was owned by Charlie Baxter, an American who came north in the '20s and built a place called Baxter's ranch. He rented horses for hunting parties, surveyors, and sometimes for us young riders in the '50s who, if we could scrape up the money, would rent a horse and ride past the old pond to the Yukon River and back. When I think of this short, almost forgotten Whitehorse street, I still think of Baxter's horses and the pleasure they gave us on a still summer Saturday afternoon in Whitehorse.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



The Indian Mission School

When I was a kid growing up in Whitehorse, I looked forward to summer vacation. Oh, what a lovely time - summer in the Yukon! But when the school year ended in June, I, along with a few classmates, first had to attend daily vacation bible classes held at the Indian Mission school. It was located in old army buildings on the lot between 4th and 5th Avenues, and between Hawkins and Lowe Street. The morning classes lasted two weeks. Then we’d do what kids do in the summer. Play softball or cops-and-robbers and, hopefully, snag a quarter for the Saturday matinee movie at the Capitol Theatre.

The Indian Mission school was the inspiration of Mr. and Mrs. Harold Lee, Baptist Ministers who came to Whitehorse from Alberta in 1946 to establish a Baptist Church.

When they got to Whitehorse, the Lees were struck by the sight of native children hanging around the downtown storefronts with, seemingly, nothing to do. So, in February of 1947, they established the Indian Mission School. Twenty-one kids were on hand for the first opening. It wasn’t long before the school had grown to forty-six students. By 1949, there were seventy-five students. The Lees, with financial aid from Baptist organizations outside, and a small grant from the Territorial government, had a tough job of making ends meet. The food bill each month was more than $1,000. The milk bill alone was $200 a month. That’s in pre-fifties dollars.

Two teachers were paid while the rest of the staff were volunteers. The Lees were proud of their pupils, and Reverend Lee often said that he would put his students up against any white children – anytime. They were, he claimed, outstanding in their school work.

Breakfast was often corn flakes and milk, but the treat was scrambled eggs. That is, until the parents brought dried moose and fish. This, he said, was better than candy for the kids.

The over-riding goal of the Lees and their Baptist Mission school was to see the day when the young native students could carry on the work as young adults.

Although, in the summer, I’d rather be playing ball than going to morning bible school, I was always struck by how neat and tidy the school was. It must have been a job to keep it that way. An early '50s photo shows twenty-five men and women who volunteered to help the Lees. A photo of about 100 kids shows them decked in neat uniforms for a school picture. The Indian Mission provided a badly needed service and it took strength of character to keep it going.

In 1952, when returning from a trip to Alberta, Reverend Lee’s car collided with a Canadian army truck near Morley River on the Alaska Highway. Lee was gravely injured and driven to the Teslin airport, where he was flown to Whitehorse.

He died in the Whitehorse Army hospital. More than three hundred people, including one hundred and seventy native students attended his funeral in the Army Theatre. Mrs. Lee and the Indian Mission school staff carried on their work until the school closed in 1962.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


Indian Mission School 1
R. Lortie photo.
Reverend Lee can be seen in back row centre (beneath the flag pole). Click for larger view.

Indian Mission School 2
Click for larger view.

Indian Mission School 3
Click for larger view.

Indian Mission School 2
Click for larger view.

Indian Mission School 5
Click for larger view.

Indian Mission School 6
Click for larger view.

Indian Mission School 2
Click for larger view.

Alaska Highway Opens - 2

The bitter memory of World War II was fading by 1947. North Americans were optimistic. TIME magazine carried a special feature on a new land of adventure and promise. The far north was on everyone's mind.

The magazine reported that by boat, plane and car, hundreds of Americans were moving toward the last great U.S. frontier - Alaska. Up the Alaska Highway through some of the world's most majestic mountains and the continent's most unpeopled wilderness, as many as twenty families a day were driving. Their earthly goods were strapped to their cars. Most of them were looking for a home. 'What would the new pioneer's find?' was the question posed by TIME.

The answer? A vast land - raw, primitive and barely scratched by civilization after eighty years of U.S. ownership. A frontier society - easygoing and vigorous.

It was a land of opportunity - but at the price of a stiff endurance test. To beckon the pioneers on was the promise of an economic boom begun by the war and protracted by the proximity of Russia.

Aviation was booming, thanks to the Army's frantic wartime construction, and to war surplus sales. In 1947, a used DC-3 sold for twenty-five thousand dollars. Alaska had twenty-seven major airports. Five hundred and eighty-two commercial airplanes were registered within the Territory where there had been only 157 in 1945.

Pan American Airways offered daily flights north from Seattle. The biggest boom was in military construction. Across Bering Strait Russia, is only 52 miles away, reported TIME. Arctic and Pacific defense loomed large in U.S. military thinking, and Alaska loomed large in both.

Alaska-based B-29s flew routine missions over the North Pole, and the Army and Navy were pumping men, and millions of dollars, into the Territory. At Mile 26 on the Richardson Highway near Fairbanks, the Army was rushing construction of one of the world's biggest airfields, to be called Elmendorf, while improving Ladd Field and repairing installations at Nome.

These huge construction jobs meant huge payrolls. Into Fairbanks alone, in June 1947, Pan American Airlines was flying 2,500 laborers, cat skinners, carpenters. Alaskans drink an ironic toast: "Here's to Joe Stalin - Alaska's best friend," and speculate endlessly on rumors of similar activity in Siberia.

Alaskans voted three-to-two in favour of statehood, which would come two years later in 1949. The most exciting news of 1947 came from the Navy's Petroleum Reserve Number Four in the Arctic.

TIME said that Texas roughnecks, toiling 180 miles from Point Barrow, sank a well and struck amazing oil that poured like beer and smelled like gasoline. Some geologists think that a great untapped pool of oil lies under this patch of the Arctic.

Yes, in 1947, when the Alaska Highway opened, so did the soon-to-become State of Alaska.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin