Atlin was the Switzerland of the North

My visits to Atlin, BC, have always involved history, one way or another. On June 26th, I was scheduled to give a reading from my new book, History Hunting in the Yukon.

My visits to Atlin, BC, have always involved history, one way or another. On June 26th, I was scheduled to give a reading from my new book, History Hunting in the Yukon.

My recollections of Atlin are from an earlier era, and I wondered as we drove there if the many old buildings that I remembered would still be standing.

On a trip to the Yukon, back in the 1970s, I was a young man with a purpose. With a limited budget, I augmented my visit with some heritage recording work. I had worked out a deal with The Canadian Inventory of Historic Building (CIHB) in Ottawa in which I would gather information about northern heritage buildings on their data sheets, and take reference photos. They didn’t offer to pay much, but anything at all would help to cover the expense of my travel from Ottawa.

Atlin had a good concentration of buildings that I could record for the Inventory. Sue Morhun was the curator of the Atlin Museum at the time, and I couldn’t have had a better guide. We talked at length about the history, and she showed me around. Carefully, I photographed each building and filled in the boxes on the record sheets.

This was the first time that I had used these recording forms, and I had been instructed in how to apply the most appropriate terms to describe the buildings I was documenting. The details of filling in the boxes on the form were also explained to me.

What do I do, I asked, if the details of the building don’t match the data fields on the data sheet? “Use your best judgment,” I was told, “and apply the category that most closely fits what you are trying to describe.”

Things worked well until I arrived in front of Aurora House, on a quiet street on the south side of town. The old building had been badly overgrown by aspen and was in derelict condition. Once, it had been a brothel, operated by a madam named Carrie Walker, who had relocated from the thriving mining town of Discovery, a few miles from Atlin.

I was able to fill in most of the information by applying the instruction I received back in Ottawa, but I was flummoxed when I reached the box in which to enter the function for the building. There was no code for a brothel.

Remembering the advice I was given if this situation was to crop up, I scanned through the various functions listed on the master recording sheet, and zeroed in on the one that best fit: Non-Athletic Recreation!

I felt smug at my success in resolving an obviously confusing designation, but I wonder today if anybody dipping into this massive database would know in which functional category to look to find Aurora House!

The old brothel was now even more overgrown than I remember; however, many of the other buildings in town had fared better over the years. The Globe Theatre has been restored and entertainers once again mount the stage to perform. The Old Courthouse has been revived; on one side of the main floor is an art gallery, on the other is the community library.

The Old School House proudly houses the local museum, in whose yard an amazing array of machinery has been assembled. An old Keystone Drill is slowly settling into soft earth, but beside it, a steam shovel has been lifted onto a gravel pad and given a coat of paint to help preserve it. I didn’t have time to look closely at its inner workings.

Across the street from the museum/school is St. Martin’s Anglican Church. Built in 1900, the building has been given a structural stabilization, thanks to financial support from the British Columbia Heritage Trust.

At the foot of Trainor Avenue is the MV Tarahne. Built in 1916, she plied the waters of Atlin Lake for years and took tourists to view the Llewellyn Glacier.

The White Pass and Yukon Route made Atlin an attractive and successful tourist destination in the teens and twenties, but all of that came to an end with the Great Depression, and the Tarahne was pulled up onto the ways for the last time in 1936. In recent years, however, it too has been given a new lease on life.

After the decline of the gold rush, Atlin became a premier tourist attraction where famous film stars and prominent figures went to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery. It has been labelled the “Switzerland of the North.”

The Atlin Inn, a large three-storey Hotel built by White Pass and Yukon Route to overlook the lake, once dominated the town, but Depression killed it too. In later years, Tom Kirkwood salvaged the windows, doors and lumber to build Kirkwood Cottages, where my family stayed during a visit in 1994.

Down on First Street, across from Kershaw’s Hardware store is Eggert’s Jewellery Store, a two-storey building with a distinctive gambrel roof. I noted the attractive pressed tin exterior was marred by Canada Post, who have slapped on some unattractive wood siding – but only on the portion occupied by the post office.

I hope that the original tin siding remains hidden beneath this modern veneer. The old clock standing proudly in the street in front of Eggert’s, still keeps decent time.

Finally, we took a trip out to the Pioneer Cemetery, where again the efforts of the community to preserve its history are evident. Most prominently featured in the centre of the graveyard is a memorial to Fritz Miller, who died in 1904 at age 31, only a few years after he and his partner Kenneth McLaren discovered gold nearby. The yard is filled with plots occupied by those, young and old, who died in this community so long ago.

As my wife Kathy and I drove up and down the grid of streets laid out along the shore of the lake, we noted the abundance of empty lots that signalled better times and a larger population. Optimistically, the town is ready for urban expansion, should it ever reach this enchanting town. Plaques, mounted on many of the old buildings in town, revealed their historic significance.

Later, after giving my reading in the old courthouse to an enthusiastic audience, I marvelled at the enthusiasm of Atlin’s citizens. Atlin is an historical gem set in the wilderness which has survived because, over the years, people weren’t in a rush to tear the old buildings down to make way for the new. Much of the restoration and revival can be attributed to the dedication and efforts of a small platoon of volunteers.

Though it is south of the Yukon border, the town of Atlin shares a common geography with its northern neighbour. Atlinites shop in Whitehorse, and if they travel, they fly out of Whitehorse too. They also share a spirit of enthusiasm and drive typical of many other northern communities.

I was delighted to revisit this marvellous little town.

Michael Gates is a local historian

and sometimes adventurer

based in Whitehorse.

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