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Celebration highlights our remarkable heritage

The weather in Dawson City last weekend was wet and grey, so the celebration took place indoors. We gathered in the council chamber on the second floor of the Old Territorial Administration Building.

The weather in Dawson City last weekend was wet and grey, so the celebration took place indoors. We gathered in the council chamber on the second floor of the Old Territorial Administration Building, which in earlier days was fondly referred to as the “Big Cabin” by local residents.

It couldn’t have been a better place to hold the ceremony.

The event was the unveiling of a plaque recognizing the building as nationally significant. Built in 1901 by government architect Thomas W. Fuller, the building was designed to acknowledge the permanence of the newly established Yukon Territory and the community of Dawson.

It was also a symbol of Canadian sovereignty in the North. While this structure was being built, the governments of Canada, Britain and the United States were duking it out over the precise location of the international boundary between Canada and her southern (and western) neighbour.

The building housed such functions as the mining recorder’s office, the Yukon territorial council chamber and the office of the commissioner. As the population dwindled, other public services were relocated into this building as well. The territorial court was moved into the Old Territorial Administration Building in 1910, and the post office also moved in permanently in 1925.

The administration building served as the seat of the territorial government until the capital was relocated to Whitehorse in 1953. After that, the building continued to house the post office. The local radio station operated out of the building for a number of years, and after the Dawson School burned down, classes were relocated to empty rooms on the second floor until a replacement structure could be built.

In 1962, the Dawson Museum Society also moved in and became the main and permanent tenant after a fire destroyed the original museum in the old fire hall on Front Street.

After decades of neglect, the building was restored and rededicated November 6, 1986 by then government leader Tony Penikett, minister of Tourism Dave Porter, and Dawson Museum Building Committee chairman Robbie Van Rumpt.

After being piped into the spacious council chamber, the official party, presided over by Rod MacLeod, Alberta member of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, praised the building in a series of short speeches, after which those who attended joined them for refreshments.

In turn, Elaine Taylor, deputy premier of the Yukon, Laura Mann, executive director of the Dawson City Museum, and David Rohatensky, superintendent, Klondike National Historic Sites, praised the building and the event. I had the pleasure of giving a short historical account of the significance of the building.

The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada consists of representatives from every province and territory, and meets regularly throughout the year to discuss the merits of recognizing people, places and events as being significant to the nation. Citizens, rather than bureaucrats are responsible for the vast majority of nominations submitted to the board for its consideration.

If you are thinking of submitting a nomination, check out the following website:

The Yukon has its fair share of designations, with the majority of them located in Dawson City. Martha Black is recognized for being the second woman elected to Parliament in 1935. William Ogilvie was a government surveyor who also served as the territory’s second commissioner. J.B. Tyrrell, government geologist and Father William Judge, the “Saint of Dawson,” both have brass plaques prominently displayed in their honour.

Joe Boyle, who launched one of the biggest dredge companies in the Klondike, then distinguished himself in the First World War, is acknowledged in this way. Skookum Jim (Kesh) is recognized for discovering the gold that started the Klondike Gold Rush, while Chief Jim Boss is recognized as the First Nations leader who initiated the first land claim.

The Alaska Highway, the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway, and the Canol Road are recognized as important transportation accomplishments, while the sternwheel steamers SS Klondike and the SS Keno are also designated as national shrines.

Dredge Number 4 on Bonanza Creek has also been given the nod and reminds us of the era of corporate-scale industrial mining that dominated the gold mining and the Yukon, for 60 years.

The discovery of the Klondike (including the Discovery Claim) and the Dawson Historical complex are both recognized, as are ancient Bering-Yukon Refugium, Herschel Island, the First Nation site of Tr’ochek, and a cluster of historic buildings in Dawson City.

If you are interested in learning more about what has been designated by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, then go to the following website:

The federal government also evaluates all the buildings it owns for their heritage value through a program known as the Federal Heritage Building Review Office, and anything deemed to have heritage value is afforded some protection for its character-defining features.

The Federal Heritage Building Review Office is a program that is intended to lead by example, and a number of federal Yukon buildings are singled out for their heritage value by this program. Building 200, also known as the former Northwest Highway System Headquarters, located on Range Road, near the Takhini Arena, here in Whitehorse, is an example of a federal building very closely associated with the development of the North by the federal government after the Second World War.

Designating and commemorating history is not restricted to Ottawa. The territorial government also has a commemoration program, whose decisions on designation are made by the Yukon Heritage Resources Board. Included in the growing register of territorial historic sites are the Caribou Hotel in Carcross, the Yukon Saw Mill in Dawson City, and the Mabel McIntyre House and Legion Hall in Mayo.

Inclusion as a registered building provides the owners with access to special funding that assists in the protection of the heritage character of the structure. Who can complain about financial assistance?

Of course, municipalities and First Nations are also interested in developing inventories of historic sites within their jurisdictions. Whitehorse has a listing of heritage properties with 14 buildings currently listed. A municipal designation also opens the door to potential financial assistance. The details are available on the city of Whitehorse website.

Perhaps the best location for looking at heritage properties listed in the Yukon is the Canadian Register of Historic Places.

The web address is:

Here you can see an extensive list of federal, territorial and municipal listings. The location and appearance, the historical background and the significant heritage-defining characteristics of all the designated heritage buildings are described.

Designating, commemorating and preserving our past are important to us all. Past places, people and events remind us of where we have come from and how our society has changed materially, socially and politically.

Without a formal means of recognizing the historical places, people and events in our communities, many of them could easily slip from our consciousness, and that would be a sad state of affairs.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, History Hunting in the Yukon (Harbour Publishing), is now available in stores throughout the territory.