From the rails to the air to the water

This column is the last of a three-part series on the White Pass and Yukon Route company’s impact on the Yukon’s transportation history.

This column is the last of a three-part series on the White Pass and Yukon Route company’s impact on the Yukon’s transportation history.

In the late-1800s the Yukon was a remote, rough land. It was shut off from the rest of the world by tall mountains and vast areas of uninhabited wilderness.

Little was known about it in the rest of Canada or in the United States, but when gold was found in Rabbit Creek in 1896, everything changed.

All of a sudden the word ‘Yukon’ was on everyone’s lips. In the minds of depression-weary southerners the Yukon turned into a Shangri-la where fortunes in gold could be found floating loose in the creeks.

The lure of the dull yellow metal caused thousands to try to come to the territory, and that was a problem.

Without a veritable fortune to spend on a ship’s passage into Alaska or packers for the long hike over the Chilkoot Trail, the journey was a backbreaking slog that could drag on for months.

Enter the White Pass and Yukon Route Company. The company stepped in to make the journey to the Klondike a little easier during the gold rush and it remained an innovator in Yukon’s transportation system for more than 75 years.

To keep that kind of a record the company had its fingers in many pies. Past columns have dealt with the company’s supremacy in travel and transportation by train, plane, stagecoach and container ship.

This week will cover the company’s river fleet of sternwheelers.

By 1901, the White Pass had purchased all of the Canadian Development Corporation steamers to create its own river division, the British Yukon Navigation Company. With that purchase came the contract to carry mail from Skagway to Whitehorse and Dawson.

Later it bought out all the assets of John Irving’s Canadian Pacific Navigation Company and its major rival the Northern Navigation Company.

Over the years the company tried various innovations to lengthen the short amount of time each year that sternwheelers could travel on the Yukon River, and increase profits. In 1925, the company constructed a dam below Marsh Lake that could artificially control water levels in the river and flush out ice in the spring.

It also blasted out rocks to widen channels and remove obstructions along the river’s edge. At Five Finger Rapids it installed a cable that allowed boats to winch themselves along during their upstream run.

The company was granted waterfront steamboat landing privileges in Whitehorse on the condition that it allow other companies to use the facilities free of charge for five years, after which it could charge a fee.

Whitehorse was a White Pass town for years. In fact, it held so much control that in the early 1900s the company tried to change the name of the town to Closeleigh, after its financiers, the Close Brothers. (Then-commissioner William Ogilvie put a stop to the change.)

The company soon realized the importance of using its infrastructure to bring tourists to the territory.

By 1909 the company had 11 boats on the Dawson run and three on Atlin Lake. White Pass boasted of its modern electric lights, wonderful meals and excellent service.

Even in the lean years tourism in the Yukon kept growing. Tourism practically supported the company through the 1930s.

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.

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