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Moving the SS Klondike

There are strange things done in the midnight sun, perhaps none stranger or more spectacular than, back in the June of 1966, when the old sternwheeler SS Klondike made her final voyage.

Back in the the summer of 1966, the Klondike sat in the shipyards alongside the Whitehorse and the Casca, aging, rusting hulks of the once proud fleet of boats which plied the Yukon River. The Klondike, however, would begin a new life on June 10th of that year.

Kunze and Olsen Construction had been contracted by the federal government to move the boat through the streets of Whitehorse to its present site at the south end of Second Avenue. But how to move a 1300 ton, 210-foot-long sternwheeler? No problem. Chuck Morgan had the answer. Chuck was in charge of the project. He designed a cradle of steel beams to be fitted underneath the flat bottom boat. Then he placed large wooden planks in front, attached heavy steel cables to the ship, and pulled it along with three TD 24 Caterpillars.

The boat wasn’t about to get any speeding tickets. It moved at a snails pace, but move it did - down First Avenue to Taylor and Drury’s car dealership, across their parking lot to Second Avenue and along Second to the final resting site. It arrived safe and sound on July 16th, 1966.

There were many oddities in this project. To ensure the boat and its cradle would move smoothly, Palmolive soap was spread over the wooden pads. The workers used so much soap that the whole town prayed that it wouldn’t rain or Whitehorse would have been the cleanest capital in the world. The steel girders, used as the cradle, came from the Peace River bridge which had collapsed in 1958. Hydro lines had to be taken down so the ship’s smoke stack could move safely through the streets.

A classic picture shows the Klondike parked at the corner of First and Main beside the old Taylor and Drury department store… a stop sign in clear view. The movers obviously obeyed the law. An informal ceremony was held on the deck of the Klondike on July 16th. Mayor Howard Firth presented Captain Chuck Morgan with a gold miniature of the sternwheeler and, thanks to the work of Ed Jacobs, the old riverboat whistle blew once again.

The Klondike has become a major tourist attraction over the years as millions of dollars have been spent to ensure the boat looks like it did back in the 50s when it plied the river from Whitehorse to Dawson.

So next time you pass by or visit the Klondike, think back to that warm July day in 1966, with the boat parked on First Avenue and the townsfolk praying for clear skies.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.


L to R: Erik, Karen, Kelly, Greta, Maureen, and Craig Hougen. Photo taken along Front Street in July 1966.
Click for larger view.

In the photo is Eric Weinecki, founder of Yukon Travel, and the 'moving force' behind the effort to save the Klondike and to have it moved to a new location (as required by White Pass). He lobbied the Minister of Northern Affairs, Arthur Laing and eventually the Government funded the relocation.
Click for larger view.

The Klondike in it's new location in Whiskey Flats showing one of the Caterpillar tractors used for towing the Paddle Wheeler.
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Bear Creek

It was the largest industrial complex the Yukon had ever seen. This operation, near the mouth of a little Klondike Valley Creek, was home base for one of the world's richest gold mining companies.

When the townsite was built in 1905, Bear Creek, just six miles from Dawson City, was a community like no other. It had everything a modern industrial town could want. The huge machine shop was state of the art, able to build the complex parts and equipment needed to keep the big gold dredges running, as they turned the Klondike Valley upside down in search of gold. The garage had enough gear to repair the myriad of machines which supplied the dredges.

Joe Boyle's VIP house was used to house only the most important visitors - usually people with money to invest in the Canadian Klondike Mining Company, and later, Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation's many holdings. Most of the seasonal workers lived in Dawson, but many full-time employees lived in Bear Creek and considered their community far superior to that of Dawson City.

And the dredges around Bear Creek employed a lot of people. As many as three hundred would work the dredges from April to November, and at times there were as many as eight dredges digging the ground around the community.

When Big Joe Boyle's enterprise collapsed in 1917, Bear Creek entered what would be called today a recession, which would last until 1932. When YCGC was refinanced and reorganized, it became one of the largest gold mining companies in the world. Bear Creek was an island unto itself in those halcyon days when gold by the ton was taken from the creeks which ran into the Klondike river. The largest wooden-hulled dredge in the world was part of the Bear Creek operation. It was built on Bonanza Creek in 1899.

So rich was the ground it worked that in a single day, while dredging on claim 67 below discovery on Hunker Creek, its huge buckets dug up 800 ounces in gold nuggets.

In November of 1966, the last of the great Klondike dredges ceased operations. Bear Creek's days as a thriving community were over. Today, this entire little town is a museum filled with memories of those days when Bear Creek was the real heart of the Klondike.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


Bear Creek 1
Five miners and a woman pose by one of the gravel dumps on No. 17 Below, Bear Creek.
Date: ca. 1901.
Yukon Archives. Adams & Larkin fonds, #9074.
Click for larger view.

Bear Creek 2
Miners pose with shovels near a sluice box on No. 13, Bear Creek. Date: ca. 1901.
Yukon Archives. Adams & Larkin fonds, #9054.
Click for larger view.

Bear Creek 3
Gold dredge at Bear Creek. Date: ca. 1920.
Yukon Archives. Claude & Mary Tidd fonds, #7074.
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The Klondike Defense Force

It wasn't the first time the Yukon had established a defense force, but it was the first time such a force would be used against another Canadian city.

In 1966, the Yukon formed a defense force. Its goal was to do battle with the city of Edmonton. In trying to counteract the tremendous tourist attraction of the Calgary Stampede, Edmonton would stage its own summer festival. They called it Klondike Days. Yukoners called it outright theft of the territory's birthright.

The first volley fired in the battle came in the form of a gala Yukon folk festival ro raise funds for the defense force. Songs and poems were written about Yukon heritage and of the war with Edmonton. Victory bonds were sold at two dollars a piece. On that warm June evening back in '66, the Elks hall was so full the fire marshall had to turn a blind eye to the proceedings. Nearly 300 people gathered outside the hall to listen to the songs and speeches over loudspeakers.

Speakers like Yukon Bud Fisher, Erik Nielsen, Roy Minter, and Jim Light spoke in glowing terms about the Yukon's heritage and the damage Edmonton was doing to its history. Entertainers included Hank Karr, Al Oster, Judy Parkin, the Hackney family, and many others.

There was little in Yukon history that united Yukoners more than the battle with Edmonton back in 1966. And the outcome. Well Edmonton still stages Klondike Days, but the Yukon had realized the value of the Klondike theme and began to promote it with renewed vigour. The many folk festivals now held in the Yukon had their beginnings in the Elks Hall in Whitehorse back in the summer of '66. Oh yes, if you still have a victory bond, a dealer would surely be interested.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



The Klondike's One and Two

When you visit the SS Klondike at her final resting place on the banks of the Yukon near Second Avenue, consider that this marvel of a riverboat was not the first to bear the name. But it was the last to be built for service on the river.

There were two riverboats named Klondike. The first was built in the Whitehorse shipyards in 1929, and represented a new era in riverboat design. She could carry almost twice as much cargo as any other ship. Yet she still had a shallow draft - about four feet - and was able to navigate the most treacherous portion of the Yukon river.

That is, until June of 1936, when something went wrong with the steering system just below the Teslin river. Loaded with over 250 tonnes of freight and many passengers, the helpless boat cruised merrily down the river until she came to a shuddering stop on a large gravel bar. Though no-one was injured, the boat was a complete wreck except for the engine which was salvaged.

The White Pass needed the Klondike for its growing freight and passenger business to Dawson. The company immediately set about to build a replacement, the Klondike 2, which now sits high and dry on the riverbank near Second Avenue. The Klondike 2 went into service in June of 1937.

She could make the downstream run in 36 hours, stopping only twice to take on wood. The upstream trip back to Whitehorse took five to six days and required six wood stops. She would also stop at the mouth of the Stewart River to pick up ore from the Mayo mining district.

By the late '40s, the boats could not keep up with ore production. A road was built from Mayo to Whitehorse in 1950, so that trucks could haul ore year round. The riverboat era - and the work of the Klondike - was coming to an end. In 1955, the road was connected to Dawson, and the years of hauling freight and passengers ceased.

In 1954, the White Pass formed a partnership with Canadian Airlines and attempted to operate the Klondike as a tourist attraction bringing passengers from all over North America to travel the famed Yukon River. But by the end of August of that year, the Klondike steamed into Whitehorse for the last time.

The restored Klondike #2, which was moved from the shipyards to her present site in 1966, is a glowing reminder of those fabulous days when riverboats ran the fabled Yukon.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


The Klondike paddlewheeler resting on the bank of the Yukon River at the sight of the former 'Whiskey Flats'.
Click for larger view.

Click for larger view.

Klondike 1
The Klondike pulls up to the dock in Whitehorse ready for loading. Date: ca. 1940.
Yukon Archives. Claude & Mary Tidd fonds, #8280.
Click for larger view.



James Smith

When Gordon Cameron resigned as the Yukon's very popular commissioner in May 1966, the hunt was on for a successor.

Unlike today, the office carried with it a lot of power back then. The elected Territorial Council had little clout and most often merely rubber-stamped decisions already made by the department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa.

The Liberals under Lester Pearson were the government of the day. Arthur Laing was the Minister responsible for everthing so far as the Yukon was concerned.

Though it would be more than a decade before any substantial political redirection would occur, change was in the wind.

Meanwhile, the guessing about who would assume the number one political position in the Yukon was on everyone's mind. Guessing, betting, arguing, pleading - the job was important and Yukoners really cared who would get it.

The Whitehorse Star ran pictures of likely candidates under the heading "Guess Who?". One of those pictures was of Jimmy Smith, the well-liked manager of prosperous Tourist Services. He was born in New Westminister, educated in Burnaby, and moved to Atlin in 1940. In 1947, he and his wife, Dorothy Matson of Atlin, moved to Whitehorse.

Tourist Services was an all-in-one shopping and service stop which thrived under Jimmy Smith. He was a hands-on boss in the modern operation which included a supermarket, motel, restaurant, gas station, cocktail lounge and a wholesale grocery business.

Sort of a Walmart Plus of its day. Smith had attended the Banff School of advanced business in the late fifties and knew the details of running a complex business organization. On October 17, 1966, the all-powerful Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, Arthur Laing arrived in Whitehorse carrying, in his briefcase, the name of the new commissioner.

The only surprise when he announced the name 'James Smith', was that the popular businessman would take the job. Many thought he was doing just fine where he was, but the appointment was a popular choice.

It had to be, because outgoing Commissioner Gordie Cameron had - to many - been the most popular leader the Yukon ever had.

In his introduction, Laing told Smith that "We all want the same things, to bring the Yukon into some degree of self-government as soon as possible."

Smith, who was President of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce, had served two years as city alderman and three years as a Territorial Councilman. He knew the frustrations that elected Yukoners felt in dealing with an appointed head of state - the Commissioner - dictated to by a federal government three thousand miles away.

During his term as Commissioner, from 1966 until 1976, the elected council was most often in a belligerent mood. Members of the Yukon legislature vigorously lobbied the Minister of Indian Affairs to form an executive council that would include elected members in the policy-making process. The Minister, Jean Chretien, eventually accepted the appointment of a five-member executive committee, a kind of cabinet, consisting of the commissioner, two deputy commissioners, and two elected members. Not good enough for council.

In the early 70s, they flew en masse to Ottawa to demand constitutional change. Though they were generally on friendly terms with Commissioner Smith, they wanted his position and powers abolished. Nothing personal, they often said to Smith. The council just doesn't agree that an appointed commissioner should have the power to dictate policy, power that is rightly held by elected representatives.

Chretien went some distance to appease the disgruntled council in a letter which required the commissioner to give "the advice of elected members fullest possible consideration in determining the course of action to be followed in any given situation."

Thus, the commissioner was to be guided by the advice of the committee, but was not required to follow it.

Commissioner Jimmy Smith was expected to be a leader, a mediator, and a messenger, in an increasingly complex and hostile environment of party politics and land claim negotiations.

When his term ended in 1976, the winds of change continued to roll across the Yukon, but the office of Commissioner was still a power to be reckoned with.

James Smith and Ted Harrison 2008
A 2008 photo of former Commissioner James Smith with Yukon artist Ted Harrison. Click for larger view.

Yukon History Hougengroup
Commissioner Smith with Gov Gen Leger on the Schwatka June 1976
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Yukon History Hougengroup
Commissioner James Smith and Dorothy at Dawson City June 1976
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Yukon History Hougengroup
Photo taken at the Commissioners Ball, Dawson City, June 1976
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A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



First Day of Spring

It’s spring. New life begins popping up everywhere. Goodbye darkness – hello sunshine. And welcome back to the feathered harbingers of spring - the robin.

In the Yukon, these birds usually begin to arrive in early April, and leave in September. But in the fall, there are always stragglers. Back in 1966, a Yukon robin made international headlines as a straggler and what a story the bird had to tell.

On November 10th 1966, Bill Drury was looking out his living room window and spotted a robin munching berries from a mountain ash bush. Now Bill had lived in the Yukon long enough to know that this guy had better get mobile and head south in a hurry.

As the days dwindled down, the robin Bill was now calling Rupert, was still flitting around the yard. Within a week, the temperature had dipped to -17°F with a bitter wind chill.

Rupert’s days were numbered. But not if Bill Drury had anything to say about it. First he snared Rupert in his hat, brought him inside to thaw out, fed him melted snow in a tablespoon and cranberries impaled on broom straws. But now what?

Bill phoned the local wildlife office. No way Rupert would survive the winter, he was told.

So Bill phoned the local agent for Canadian Pacific Airlines. Highly unusual he was told, but maybe something could be arranged. By now, Rupert was comfortably living in a budgie bird cage. Next day he was booked on CPA flight 22 to Vancouver.

Bill Drury delivered Rupert in his cage to stewardesses Virginia Marshall and Autumn Bell, who would take him on this unusual migration. Bill also brought along a handful of cranberries to tide Rupert over during the seven-hour flight.

In Vancouver, Rupert the Robin was met at the airport by Bill Bell, chief inspector for the SPCA. He spent the night at Bell’s home, where he dined on some mountain ash berries picked from a bush on the nearby street.

On November 20, 1966, Rupert the wayward Yukon robin was released into Stanley Park. Zoo curator Alan Best said he should do very well because the mountain ash bushes in Vancouver were filled with his favourite berry.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Watch this story on video


A Yukon video by Les McLaughlin