New book remembers the squatters of Whitehorse

A new book was launched at the MacBride Museum last evening, which focuses on the history of Whitehorse. Titled The Squatters of Downtown Whitehorse, it was written by Pat Ellis and friends. 

A new book was launched at the MacBride Museum last evening, which focuses on the history of Whitehorse. Titled The Squatters of Downtown Whitehorse, it was written by Pat Ellis and friends.

Squatters have had a long tradition in Whitehorse. They occupied land around the perimeter of the small community of a few hundred that existed before the construction of the Alaska Highway. The residents of these areas included First Nation families. Angela Sidney, later a highly respected elder, lived here intermittently in 1914-1915 when she was a young girl, along with other families accustomed to a mobile seasonal round of activities.

The main squatters’ areas included Whiskey Flats (today, Rotary Park and the area where the S.S. Klondike rests beside the Yukon River), the Whitehorse waterfront (including Moccasin Flats and Sleepy Hollow), and areas along the foot of the escarpment below the airport (most notably the “Wye” area at the very south end of downtown, below the Two Mile Hill, and above Sixth and Eighth Avenues in between).

Seasonal ship and train workers found inexpensive accommodation here. Some train employees built small shacks on White Pass land, a practice that was tolerated by the company.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as Whitehorse expanded, these marginal properties became more visible in the community, especially when the Robert Campbell Bridge was built across the Yukon River. Each day, commuters from the new middle class suburb were reminded of the squatters as they drove past them when traveling back and forth across the river.

Eventually, the squatters in Whiskey Flats were moved out, with some assistance from the government, and the area became scenic waterfront parkland. Squatters in Sleepy Hollow and Moccasin Flats, who weren’t so visible to the public, remained for two more decades before they scattered to other places.

Today, it is remembered in the colourful art of Jim Robb, in the memories of former residents, and in family photo albums. Jim Lotz, a community planning officer in the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources determined that the squatter community at one time comprised a third of the population of downtown Whitehorse, but his reports do not detail the personal and human elements of squatter life.

The squatter communities along the waterfront had an undeserved reputation for bootlegging and partying. However, it is worthy of note that several members of the legislature, as well as two future mayors, at one time lived in squatters’ areas of Whitehorse. Other former residents remain scattered throughout Whitehorse today.

“The Squatters of Downtown Whitehorse” goes a long way to putting a human face on places like Whiskey Flats and Sleepy Hollow. In fact the strands of the squatters’ lives are now woven into the broader fabric of modern day Whitehorse. What Pat Ellis does, with the help of numerous friends, is present the story of the people who lived there in their own words.

Former senator Ione Christensen remembers living for a short time in a small one-room cabin in Whiskey Flats; the airplanes were taking off and landing in the river just a few metres from their front door. She also recalls later when her father, a former mounted policeman, while serving as public health inspector, had the painful duty to see that the squatters, many of whom he knew, were relocated.

Pat Ellis remembers living in a little cabin rented from old-timer Shorty Roils that she shared with another young girl. The chemical toilet was hidden behind a curtain in the porch. They had a temperamental oil cook stove and a small cupboard, but no refrigerator.

Those who did not have outhouses had “honey buckets” within a toilet container that Jimmy Murphy emptied into his hand-made honey wagon once a week. They had running water: you ran down to the river with your bucket and ran back to the house. In the winter, water would be drawn from a hole chopped in the ice.

Some remember rooms so cold in the winter that the bedding froze to the walls and meat didn’t spoil when stored inside as it never thawed. Others talk about the water delivery and being able to dispose of grey water by draining it or simply dumping it into the river. Many of the squatters lived in these areas because it was all that they could afford, but others even paid property tax and had water delivered and garbage removed.

Henry “Shorty” Roils lived in North Whiskey Flats, the area now occupied by Rotary Park. A veteran of the First World War, Roils called himself a gardener. He owned a cabin, a garden and a greenhouse. When he wasn’t working on the longshore gang, he raised and sold vegetables.

Andy Hooper, renowned for moving houses using his World War II vintage 4X4 truck, lived in Sleepy Hollow, as did iconic Yukon artist Jim Robb, who lived with a pioneer squatter family for several years.

Former Sleepy hollow resident Jerry Bruton remembers that his mother, who presided over a family of eight, took in many kids who weren’t hers but raised them as if they were. There was much drinking going on among the adults and they would be left on their own: “…she would say, ‘you stay the night.’ The night would turn into a couple of days, then weeks to months. The house was always full.”

These areas were homes for families. Cabinet minister Doug Graham recalls growing up in Sleepy Hollow where the Harley Davidson dealership used to operate. As a child, he remembered it was a safe place for children to play. The older kids watched over the younger kids.

Ellis and friends have captured the memories and the circumstances of life as squatters in vivid and poignant fashion. It’s an interesting read.

The first 15 pages provide some background context, using a timeline and maps, followed for the next 38 pages by the squatters’ own accounts. The final five pages contain photos of former squatters’ homes that have been demolished, followed by images showing what these areas look like today.

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

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