New Whitehorse book a Christmas winner

If Dawson City defined the character, spirit and politics of the Yukon for first half of the 20th century, then it was Whitehorse that defined the second half.

If Dawson City defined the character, spirit and politics of the Yukon for first half of the 20th century, then it was Whitehorse that defined the second half. While the history of Dawson City, which was born out of the Klondike Gold Rush, was documented in detail, that of Whitehorse was not – until now.

Whitehorse: An Illustrated History, published by Figure 1 Publishing of Vancouver, has just been released – and just in time for Christmas. Put this book on the top of the list of gifts for those you love because it is going to be the hit of the holiday book season.

It was only a year and a half ago that Ione Christensen, former mayor of Whitehorse, and long-time resident of this town, addressed a gathering at the Robert Service art piece at the Corner of Main Street and Second Avenue. She announced the plan to produce a book on the history of Whitehorse. Now the project and the dream have become a reality.

Christensen’s husband Art gets credit for dreaming of a book on the history of Whitehorse. In March of 2011, a group of seven residents met in the Whitehorse library to form the Whitehorse History Book Society. Quickly they received support from the city, the territory, business, and private benefactors. All they needed was a team to create the book, and they found it in Linda Johnson and Helene Dobrowolsky.

Both Johnson and Dobrowolsky are Whitehorse residents, accomplished historians and authors with credit for nearly a dozen books on Yukon history between them. Johnson moved to the Yukon in 1974 as an archivist, eventually serving as territorial archivist for 18 years. Dobrowolsky has operated a heritage consulting business with her partner, Rob Ingram, since 1988. Their work has included research, planning, writing, exhibit development and interpretation.

Supported by a team of writers and specialists in various areas of Whitehorse history, they have assembled a remarkable account of the development of Whitehorse from its geological origins, First Nations occupation, genesis as gold rush entrepot and finally, as commercial, administrative and transportation hub of the territory.

The story of Whitehorse begins with an account of its geological origins. Imagine lava flowing across the valley six to eight million years ago. Imagine the land being covered by glaciers a kilometre thick. Imagine Whitehorse at the bottom of a lake – this happened as the glaciers receded only 10,000 to 14,000 years ago. It wasn’t long before the first peoples occupied the land, and continued to do so, despite catastrophic volcanic events that occurred 1,900 years ago, and then again about 1,200 years ago.

The first European intruders did not arrive until the second half of the 19th century, and then only sporadically, until the Klondike Gold Rush exploded upon the Yukon between 1897 and 1899. At that time, Whitehorse was a stopping point where stampeders rested long enough to dry out their belongings after braving the violent waters of Miles Canyon and Whitehorse Rapid, or portaging around them.

The White Pass and Yukon Route Railway arrived in 1900, and Whitehorse became the transfer point from rail to river en route to Dawson City. It remained a quiet village until the American invasion during the Second World War when both the CANOL pipeline and the Alaska Highway were constructed. The highway changed everything, and the community thrived and grew, causing Horace Moore, editor of The Whitehorse Star in 1946, to predict that “We might grow to be a city of 3,500.” How wrong he was!

Whitehorse: An Illustrated History, is divided into nine chapters, arranged chronologically from the city’s origins to the present day. In 364 pages, it traces life before the arrival of Europeans, and the coming of the “Cloud People.” An underlying theme of the book is the impact the “Cloud People” had upon the First Nations who lived and utilized the area, and the problems and challenges they faced when overwhelmed by an invading culture.

With the onset of the gold rush, and more particularly, the completion of a rail line to the western shore of the Yukon River below Whitehorse Rapid, Whitehorse grew and survived. It became the transportation hub for the southern Yukon. It was a company town, had a copper boom for a while, then endured fires and haphazard growth for decades.

Whitehorse: An Illustrated History covers many of the defining events and moments in the history of the community. It characterizes the early development of the town, and covers fur farming, early tourism, disasters and murders. It describes the impact of the construction of the Alaska Highway and the transfer of government from Dawson City. It details the growing pains of a town that had trouble keeping up with its own success.

Later chapters include sections on sports, aviation and cultural developments. The growth of various institutions and organizations is charted; prominent personalities are presented, and significant places and events are described. From its incorporation, the mayors of Whitehorse are profiled, and then listed in an appendix at the end of the book, as are prominent aboriginal leaders from the Whitehorse area.

Endnotes and photographic credits are neatly tucked away at the back, where they don’t intrude on the text, but are easily accessible for anyone interested in where the images, and the information, came from. A selected bibliography running almost two pages is followed by the profiles of the contributing authors: Bob Cameron, John Firth, Michele Genest, Ty Heffner, Rob Ingram, Marilyn Jensen, and Ingrid Johnson. The index is 11 pages long.

One of the strongest features of Whitehorse: A Illustrated History is the quantity and quality of the illustrations. There are 11 excellent maps and, by my count, 323 fascinating photographs. All are well chosen (including such photographers as James Quong, Ephraim Hamacher and E.A. Hegg). Many are in colour, and all are of a decent size and sharpness which is enhanced by the glossy format of the pages.

This book is a fascinating journey through the history of Whitehorse, and a remarkable accomplishment to have been taken from inception to publication in such a short time.

When I spoke to Ione Christensen about the birth of this brainchild, she expressed regret for the many topics that were not included in the book, but I don’t think she has to worry. This book is a stunning summary of the life of the community, and fills a long overlooked gap in our history.

The official launch for Whitehorse: An Illustrated History will take place at the Old Fire Hall on Front Street next Friday, November 29. The doors will open at 4:30 p.m. and the program will run from 5:30 to 6:30. Books will be available for sale and signing until 9.

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

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