As we sat at the table of her tidy apartment, we could look across Second Avenue at the Whitehorse Public Library. Gudrun “Goodie” Sparling told me she was born in the hospital that used to stand at this location long before the library was built.
Back then, Whitehorse was not the busy place it is today; it was a small community of maybe 300 people, sleepy and quiet in the winter, but busy in the summer when the riverboats ran on the Yukon.
Main Street was not the focus that it is today; it was First Avenue, or Front Street, as it was called back then, and faced the river that was the centre of town. Everything focused on the point where the railroad ended and river navigation began.
A few blocks back from the river was nothing more than brush back then. The Baxters had a farm approximately where Builders Supplyland stands today and north up First Avenue was the Shipyard, where the sternwheel river steamers were constructed, repaired, and put up for the winter. There were a few homes down that way, a bunkhouse for White Pass employees, and a laundry.
Downtown was a small cluster of businesses that included the White Pass Hotel (later the Edgewater) and the Whitehorse Inn, the Northern Commercial Company store and Taylor and Drury’s. There was only one bank, and that was the Canadian Bank of Commerce.
The streets were unpaved and boardwalks fronted the buildings along the avenues.
It was a small, close community, where the children could explore the streets in safety, and visit a neighbour without suspicion.
In fact, when Gudrun Erickson was a little girl, she would conveniently drop in on the next door neighbour, a shoemaker, Mr. Snider, about the time he was cooking up a delicious meal of fried potatoes, or visit the Coghlans, her godparents, up Wood Street when it was time for dinner.
Sometimes she would fall asleep at the Coghlans’ and the visit turned into a sleepover.
Of course, Sparling had an unusual upbringing. She didn’t live the way the other kids did. She lived in a hotel, the Regina, which her parents, John Olaf and Kristina Erickson, purchased in 1925, and which operated as a family business for the next 72 years. The lobby was her living room, where she practised on the old piano, and where her birthday parties were held.
The hotel had 16 to 20 rooms on the second floor, each furnished with a double bed, dresser and small closet. The lobby, which was an important social area, contained a large wood stove, which when fired up, offered comfort against the winter cold.
Near the stove was a table; there was always a cribbage board there, and Sparling remembers learning to play cribbage at an early age. In fact, she said, it helped her with her math when she went to school.
Her father used to twiddle the dials on the big radio which was always present in the lobby, and with any luck, they could listen to the news from KNX in Los Angeles.
There was also a beer parlour, which was always popular, a dining room, and the infamous “snake room” in back, where her father and his cronies would gather for a shot of hard stuff and lively conversation.
The building was heated with a large woodÃfired heater in the basement. She remembers that the hotel always had electricity; the water was pumped from the river through a pipeline that her father dug and installed himself.
The hotel established a base of loyal repeat customers who would stay there whenever they came to town. Many of these left city clothes at the hotel that they could wear while in town.
By its very nature, running a hotel was a very social business. Despite living in a small remote town in northern Canada, Sparling gained a unique view of things through her contact with people from all over the world.
A glance through the registers from the hotel reveals the diverse and widely scattered backgrounds of the people who passed through their doors. Goodie remembers one who stood out: a tall gentleman from India, who, instead of signing the register, used a special stamp.
During the war, they had another prominent guest: Joe Louis, the world heavyweight boxing champ. Sparling remembers that when he signed in to the hotel, certain lodgers from Texas were outraged and moved out, rather than stay in the hotel while Louis was registered. This was the first time that she encountered racism of this sort.
The Second World War brought about changes from which the small riverside community would never look back. Sparling said that there were rumours that troops would be coming into Whitehorse, but everything was kept hush-hush. Then one day there were rumours that they would start arriving on the train that day.
It was April; Sparling, then 16 years old, accompanied her father to the train station to witness the arrival. Instead of the single passenger car that was sufficient to accommodate the usual number of travellers, they saw a “sea of humanity” disembarking. She had never seen that many people in town before.
She felt sorry for the new arrivals. Many were black Americans from the deep South who were ill prepared and ill equipped to cope with the intense cold of a Yukon winter.
Business picked up at the hotel with the arrival of the men to construct the Alaska Highway. Because there was a shortage of accommodation for all the people arriving in town, the hotel was booked with administrative personnel and their families.
In addition to being fully booked, their beer parlour did a brisk business with all the thirsty soldiers freshly arrived in town. Sparling remembers that the bottles of beer, which were shipped into the Yukon in large wooden barrels, had to be removed from these containers and placed in sacks by the half dozen for sale to the thirsty throng. When word got out that more beer had arrived in town, the crowd lined up outside the door and the beer sold like crazy.
While the rest of the country was subjected to rationing, such was not the case in the Yukon. Sparling remembers going to Vancouver to attend university, loaded with sugar, coffee and butter for the family she roomed with.
The war and the construction of the Alaska Highway transformed Whitehorse from a quiet little transfer point on the way to Dawson City, into the busy northern metropolis that it has become today.
And what does Goodie Sparling think of the changes in Whitehorse as a result of the war? I think she feels fortunate to have grown up in a quiet time when the doors weren’t locked and you knew practically everyone in town.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer
based in Whitehorse.