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Memories of the early day riverboats

Long ago, before highways bisected the Yukon, the rivers were the main arteries of transportation and the steam-powered paddlewheel river boats were the lifeblood of the community.

Long ago, before highways bisected the Yukon, the rivers were the main arteries of transportation and the steam-powered paddlewheel river boats were the lifeblood of the community.

Last week 75 people came out to the MacBride Museum to learn more about the days of the riverboats. The attentive crowd spilled out into the lobby of the museum, and I saw some disappointed latecomers turn away.

If you weren’t there that evening, you missed out on a remarkable gathering of memories.

David Neufeld, former Parks Canada historian, acted as the master of ceremonies and introduced all of the speakers. He commenced by recognizing the efforts of Pat Ellis, who suggested the idea for this event, and drew together the speakers.

Ellis, who often writes articles remembering the early days in Whitehorse, recently produced a small book in partnership with the MacBride Museum about the remaining riverboats, The Survivors.

The first speaker of the evening was Kristin Innes-Taylor, whose father Alan Innes-Taylor, first entered the Yukon in the early 1920s. First as a Mountie, then as a purser on the Steamer Whitehorse, he travelled the rivers of the Yukon and fell in love with the North.

While working for the British Yukon Navigation Company, an affiliate of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway, Innes-Taylor travelled more than 40,000 kilometres on the Yukon River, which, as pointed out by Neufeld, was the equivalent of circumnavigating the Yukon at the equator. That, he said, using river boat parlance, represented a lot of wood camps.

Goodrun Sparling shared her memories of a trip to the garden showplace of the North, Ben My Chree on Tagish Lake. Her parents operated the Regina Hotel on the Whitehorse waterfront when she was young, and she remembered the riverboat men who stayed at the hotel.

Captain Joe Matthews, who ran boats into Alaska, would stay at the Regina when passing through town. He always had a bag of peanuts for her, as well as a special gift. One year, it was a tennis racket (nobody in Whitehorse played tennis at the time). Another year it was an expensive skipping rope with ball bearings in the handles that made her popular with all the other girls.

She spent one summer on Captain Coghlan’s farm in the Fraser valley, and lived with the Carson family when she went out to Vancouver for schooling. Another riverboat man helped her with her homework. Her family became fast friends with many of the men who came north each spring to work on the river steamers.

Phyllis Lepage Simpson was six when her family was shipwrecked on the steamer Klondike in the summer of 1936. She was perched precariously at the stern of the Klondike when the wreck occurred, and a quick-acting waiter saved her from falling into the river, thus sparing her from becoming the only fatality.

They were rowed to an island in the middle of the Yukon River in a leaky lifeboat by crew, who she noted were the only ones wearing life jackets. They spent a cold, wet day on the island. To this day, Simpson stated that she still doesn’t like pork and beans or the smell of wet wool.

Maxine Lindsay gave an emotional, but often humorous, sketch of her grandfather, Frank Slim, a self-educated man who eventually became the most qualified First Nation River pilot in Yukon, Alaska and the Northwest Territories. During his storied career, he piloted nearly every ship on the river, including those of the Taylor and Drury fleet, and later became the first captain of the Schwatka, which still carries tourists through Miles Canyon today.

Slim navigated the Dease River during the construction of the Alaska Highway, piloted the Keno on her last voyage to Dawson City back in 1960, then did the same thing five years later aboard the George Black ferry.

Ione Christensen was the last presenter of the evening, and gave a slide show that included images of the shipyards, the launching of the Keno for her last voyage to Dawson City, and the moving of the Klondike from the shipyard to its current location beside the Robert Campbell Bridge. Using soap flakes to lubricate the move, the Klondike was taken through the streets of Whitehorse. A couple of tricky corners had to be negotiated en route.

Her slide of the tragic fire that destroyed the Whitehorse and the Casca in 1974 brought an end to the presentation.

Christensen remembered how important the riverboats were to life at Fort Selkirk, where her family lived from 1934 to 1949. They brought in everything that the family needed. Their winter supplies had to be delivered by the arrival of the final steamer of the year.

The recollections of the riverboats were a collage of events where different speakers’ memories meshed at many places and times. Kristin Innes-Taylor talked about her father’s admiration of Frank Slim’s skills, while Maxine Lindsay remembered that Innes-Taylor nominated Frank Slim for the Order of Canada before her grandfather passed away.

Ione Christensen referred to one of her slides, noting that this was the bend in the river near Carmacks where Kristin Innes-Taylor’s father contrived to dupe the tourists on the Whitehorse into believing there was a cross-breed Holstein moose there.

Christensen and Simpson laughingly remembered once hiding the Mountie’s hat on a riverboat trip to Fort Selkirk.

During the evening, there were many joyous moments when memories were shared, events were verified and facts corrected. Many questions were asked, and answers were often provided by members of the audience.

The evening was full of energy and shared moments, and the audience was rewarded with an outstanding historical experience. It was an event well worth repeating.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at