Historic telegraph office re opened after many years

More than 200 enthusiastic guests turned out Wednesday evening at the MacBride Museum despite wind, rain and low temperature, for the celebration of the old, the new, and one Whitehorse family's contribution to the history of the Yukon.

More than 200 enthusiastic guests turned out Wednesday evening at the MacBride Museum despite wind, rain and low temperature, for the celebration of the old, the new, and one Whitehorse family’s contribution to the history of the Yukon.

The telegraph office is the oldest surviving building in Whitehorse that remains on its original site, at the corner of Steele and Front Streets, overlooking the Whitehorse waterfront.

When the Klondike Gold Rush occurred in 1897-1899, the Yukon was a remote and isolated district where news was slow to travel the long distances from the Outside. The first telegraph line built in the Yukon in 1899 ran from Dawson City hundreds of kilometres south to Bennett, B.C.. There, it connected with an American telegraph line that followed the route of the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad line to Skagway.

Whitehorse, at this time, was located at the foot of the Whitehorse Rapids on the east side of the Yukon River, near where the Robert Campbell Bridge spans the river today. A telegraph office was built there, and another within the North West Mounted Police post located at the head of Miles Canyon.

This telegraph line had its drawbacks: first, there was no direct link with the rest of the continent, and any message still had to be transported from Skagway to Victoria, Vancouver or Seattle by boat. The second drawback was that any messages had to be dispatched over a telegraph line that ran through American territory.

All of that changed in 1900 when the railroad reached Whitehorse on the west bank of the Yukon River. The new telegraph office, housed in the two-storey log building that survives today, was constructed in its current location and the old site across the river was abandoned.

This building served both as a telegraph office and as living quarters for the operator. A telegraph line following an all-Canadian route over the old telegraph trail between Ashcroft, B.C., and Whitehorse, was finished in 1901, and a tenuous link between the Yukon and the Outside, the longest such telegraph line ever constructed, was finally established.

The telegraph office continued to serve in that capacity for 27 years, until it was replaced by a more advanced radio system. After that, it served as quarters for the Mounted Police. In 1952, stated Keith Halliday, the master of ceremonies for the evening, the building was taken over by the museum society, and served as the community museum. Halliday added that in the early days, a 10-word telegram cost $4.25, at a time when a labourer made only a dollar a day.

If the building served as a communication hub in the early days, it now serves as an exhibit hall, commemorating telecommunications during the latter half of the twentieth century. In this regard, homage was paid to Rolf and Marg Hougen and family, and the Hougen Group of Companies, who were one of the sponsors that supported the development of the new exhibit.

In turn, Halliday, Yukon Commissioner Doug Phillips, Premier Darrell Pasloski and Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis paid tribute to the Hougen family, both for its commitment to the arts and heritage of the territory for seven decades, and for its advancement of the Yukon through its innovative business practices. Rolf Hougen was instrumental in bringing radio and television and finally satellite communication to Whitehorse.

Phillips recalled the Queen’s visit to the MacBride Museum when he was “small.” On another occasion, he remembered running down to the Hougen’s store on a cold winter day to stand in front of the store window with other youngsters and watch cartoons on a black-and-white television. Back then, the adults would place wagers with gullible newcomers to Whitehorse on the outcome of the Saturday night hockey games. The new arrivals didn’t know that they were watching games that were recorded the week before.

Pasloski noted how, in the early days of cable television, the programs were recorded in Vancouver, and each day, 90 kilograms of pre-recorded material was flown to Whitehorse to be rebroadcast on WHTV. This is hard to imagine today, when we can connect to anywhere in the world on a small hand-held device.

Ten years ago, Rolf Hougen wrote to local museums about the obvious absence of recognition for the role of telecommunication in their messaging. This new exhibit, he stated, is just a beginning.

Hougen spent a few minutes recalling the development of cable television in Whitehorse, and then the first efforts to link to satellite. He saw the potential of satellite communications for the North and was instrumental in establishing the Canadian Satellite Communications Company, or Cancom.

A number of people were singled out for their contributions to developing this new exhibit, including Patricia Cunning and Colleen Dermitis of the MacBride Museum. Tim Kinvig, Ron McFadyen, Doug Bell and Ken McKinnon were recognized for their volunteer contributions.

After the speeches were complete, Rolf and Marg Hougen cut a large cake, which was then shared with guests, and tours of the telegraph office began. Various pieces of telecommunications equipment are displayed in two rooms on the main floor of the building, and in a third room on the second storey.

Ron McFadyen and Tim Kinvig were both viewing the exhibit when I entered the building. Ron had earlier been acknowledged by Rolf Hougen for being at CKRW when it began broadcasting, for his many years working for CBC, and finally, for his return to CKRW in recent years. Kinvig, who worked on the technical side of broadcasting at CBC for many years, now works on the digitization of the audio collections of the Yukon Archives.

They pointed out one of the objects now on display – a wire recorder, which was the precursor of the tape recorder. They posed for a photograph in front of pictures of pioneer Yukon broadcasters, including colleagues Bill “Wee Willie” Anderson, Les McLaughlin, Terry Delaney, and Yukon troubadour Al Oster. Oster, Hougen mentioned earlier, is still a going concern at age 92.

Just before I left the telegraph office, Ron McFadyen had seated himself in front of a radio key that was on display, and was demonstrating Morse Code to one of the guests. His enthusiasm and love for the historical technology was obvious.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing as book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net.