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History Hunter: A historic walk through downtown Whitehorse

Taking a look at old log buildings, who used them and how

The sky was clear and blue. The sun was shining; it was calm and pleasantly warm. In other words, a nice day for a walk. I was downtown, so I went to Shipyards Park, and my walk through history began there. My goal: to look at some of the historic log buildings in Whitehorse. I have always had a special interest in old Yukon log buildings.

The tradition of building in log goes back a long way in the Yukon. Scattered across the landscape, First Nation brush shelters can still be found if you know where to look for them.

Tucked in the southwest corner of the territory, at the most northerly point of the Tatshenshini River, along the edge of the St. Elias Mountains, was the village of Neskataheen. Here, at the end of the 19th century, stood a dozen magnificent log buildings, styled after the traditional longhouses of the coastal Tlingit people. The buildings have long since disappeared, but photographs taken 125 years ago give proof of their existence.

Many early trading posts in the Yukon adopted the traditional Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) style of construction. Many of the HBC posts were located among stunted forests. Shorter lengths of log were all that were available for construction, and to make use of them, the traders mortised short lengths of log and set them horizontally into vertical and intermediate posts.

There are examples of this kind of construction at Fort Selkirk and Rampart House. They are not to be confused with similar structures where short lengths of logs are butted together, or nailed into quarter-round logs at the corners.

I have seen several examples of this unstable form of corner construction, where there is little structural stability, and the buildings begin to lean to either side before collapsing.

But the most common style of construction, seen widely in the north, is the standard corner-notched or dovetailed log building. Among these buildings, one can find a wide variety of notching techniques.

Some of these log structures have become the most iconic buildings in the North. The Robert Service cabin in Dawson City is a national shrine, and they preserve Sam McGee's cabin at the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse. Dawson City’s Yukon Hotel was restored and is once again used as commercial accommodation.

Trappers’ huts, miners’ cabins and small log homes in various Yukon communities still survive today as testament to the utility and longevity of these buildings.

The best illustration of log buildings in a Yukon community is probably Fort Selkirk, at the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly rivers. At this historic site, traders, missionaries and even the Yukon Field Force employed log building techniques, showcasing a wide variety of construction styles.

Back in Shipyards Park, there are three restored log buildings: most prominent of which is the two-storey Chambers House, which was named after Harold “Shorty” Chambers. Chambers arrived in Whitehorse before the railroad, and was active in business in the early days.

Chambers also established a trading post and freighting business at Champagne, a First Nation community northeast of Whitehorse, just off the Alaska Highway. Chambers House was moved to Shipyards Park in 2005 and is presently the home of CJUC Radio.

Two doors to the north is the Pioneer Hotel. Formerly situated on Front Street, the building was relocated to the squatters’ area north of the old White Pass shipyards in 1955. John Hatch, well-known photographer and advocate to preserve the shipyard, was the last resident to live in this building.

The City of Whitehorse recognized the Pioneer Hotel as a historic site in 2000. The Yukon Literacy Coalition currently occupies it.

I walked south from Shipyards Park along the waterfront until I reached the MacBride Museum. Here, tucked under the southeast corner of the main museum building, is the old telegraph office. It was constructed in 1900 and used as a residence for telegraph operators until 1927.

On a bronze plaque mounted near the front of the building, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada acknowledges the importance of the telegraph office and highlights that it was a "key part of the 2,700 km Dawson-Ashcroft telegraph line, among the longest and most remote overland telegraph routes ever completed.”

The museum should be commended for preserving, recognizing and allowing the building to remain on its original site. The building looks striking at night when the museum turns on the lights above the roof.

Three blocks west of the museum, on the northwest corner of Steele Street and Third Avenue, is the T.C. Richards House, once the residence of Thomas Richards and his family, but now the headquarters of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce.

T.C. Richards was a prominent businessman who managed the Burns Meat outlet on Main Street. He became involved in other businesses, most notably, by acquiring the Whitehorse Inn, which was the most modern hotel in the North at one time.

Two blocks farther west, at the corner of Main Street and Fifth Avenue, is the Taylor House. Now the office for Yukon Commissioner Adeline Webber, it was built as the residence of William Taylor and his family in 1937. They made the building their home until 1969.

Mrs. Taylor designed the house and furnished it with fixtures and appliances purchased from Taylor and Drury Ltd., the family business. It was designated as a municipal historic site in 2002.

Just a block to the north of Taylor House, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Wood Street, is the Cyr House. Built a decade into the 20th century, this house was constructed of hewn and squared timbers by Antoine Cyr, who lived here until 1917.

After a series of different owners and users, the building was purchased in 1965 by Earle and Maggie Waddington, who covered the exterior with stucco. The stucco has since been removed, and the building is currently owned and operated since 1998 as The Historical Guest House by Bernie and Pam Phillips.

My walk was just about over, but as I returned to my starting point, I passed the Alpine Bakery, an example of a modern building constructed of logs.

These buildings serve as a reminder of the humbler beginnings of Whitehorse, which was born out of the gold rush and survived as a transportation transfer point, until the construction of the Alaska Highway turned Whitehorse into a major transportation hub.

It is gratifying to see that these log buildings have survived for many decades, have new uses and have been recognized as examples of the history of Whitehorse. I hope we will see these buildings survive for many generations to follow.

They can also serve as an entrée into local social history: who was the builder? Who lived here, and what did they do? How has the use of a building changed through time, and how does that reflect the evolution of the community? Get the answers to such questions, and one understands the broader historical context.

My walk was also a nice way to spend an hour in downtown Whitehorse.

Michael Gates was the Yukon’s first Story Laureate from 2020 to 2023. His latest book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Whitehorse stores. You can contact him at