saving the ss klondike

The SS Klondike was the last operating vessel in the White Pass fleet when it was beached in the old shipyard in the fall of 1955.

The SS Klondike was the last operating vessel in the White Pass fleet when it was beached in the old shipyard in the fall of 1955.

In 1958, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada determined that lake and river steamship transport was of national significance and the following year recommended that one of the surviving steamers in Whitehorse be purchased and preserved. In 1965, the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources announced that the Klondike was to be preserved as a national historic site.

On June 10, 1966, the move of the 1,300-ton Klondike commenced. Kunze and Olsen were contracted to do the job. Using a special 64-metre-long cradle of steel I-beams, pulling it with a team of four caterpillar tractors, and lubricating it with eight tons of Palmolive Princess Snow Flake soap, they moved the Klondike from its location in the shipyard, down First Ave., up Hanson Street and along Second Ave. to a site overlooking the Yukon River, just above the Ogilvie Bridge.

It took five weeks to complete the move. On July 15, mayor Howard Firth honoured foreman Chuck Morgan and his crew, presenting Morgan with a certificate of merit, a gold miniature of the Klondike and “liquid tokens of esteem.” The ship’s whistle blew again thanks to Bobby Jacobs.

The Klondike rested high on the bank until 1974. At that time, it was moved down to its current location, which provides a more authentic setting for the vessel. To complete the move, timber cribbing was set up on a cement slab beside the Yukon River. The 30-ton sternwheel was lifted from the stern of the vessel before the ship was slid down a specially prepared skid onto the new foundation.

The only damage occurred when the weight of the wheel was miscalculated, and the crane hoisting it back onto the stern overbalanced, breaking one of the stern wheel support beams on the Klondike. Nevertheless, the Klondike was open for tours by June 1, 1974.

It was decided to furnish the interior of the vessel to period, so from the mid-1970s onward, a team of curators, historians and conservators gathered historical photos and other documents, interviewed former crew members, acquired, restored or reproduced thousands of artifacts. These were installed aboard the Klondike during the spring of 1981, recreating its appearance during the period 1937 to 1943.

At the official opening on Canada Day, 1981, several former crew members including Captain William Bromley attended, and agreed that nothing seemed to have changed much since they worked aboard her in the early days.

The Klondike has been open to public tours ever since. Hundreds of thousands of guests have experienced the ship in the 30 years since she was refurnished. But in the 40 years since she had last run the route to Dawson, rain, snow and exposure to the elements had taken their toll. The decks leaked, and the furnished staterooms were often filled with buckets to catch the water. Plastic sheets were placed over the bedding and artifacts to keep them dry.

Rot had taken hold in the dark, damp interior of the hull. Bob Lewis, former superintendent of the national historic site, said that some of the timbers were so badly decayed that you could stick a 15-centimetre screwdriver right through them. These had to be replaced, or the bow was at risk of collapsing. Oakum, a tarred hemp product was used to caulk the seams, held the moisture and was the origin of much of the rot. The Klondike was sagging sadly from old age and decay.

A crew was assembled from the team that worked on a similar project at the SS Keno in Dawson. Shipwrights Wayne Loiselle and Greg Foster led a crew of five craftsmen who had gained their proficiency working on the Keno for several years.

The $2-million project started in 1999 and was to last six years. The rotting ribs and planks in the hull, as well as the decking above, had to be replaced. This was an intricate and challenging job: there was a balance to be met between saving as much of the original fabric as possible, while ensuring that there was no rot in the material that was retained.

I watched the crew at work one day in the third year of the project. The hull ribs had been repaired, and now they were installing new planking. The planks had to be bent to fit the curvature of the hull. The only way this could be achieved was by steaming them first. All the tools and clamps had to be pre-positioned because the planks would only remain flexible for a few minutes once they came out of the steam chamber.

As soon as a plank was removed from the steam chamber, the clock started ticking. Everybody knew his positioning and his responsibility. When the end of the plank was fixed to the bow, they started twisting the plank. Once the desired angle had been achieved, the plank was clamped to the first rib, and they moved on to the second rib, then the third, fourth, and so on.

Aided by a large custom-built wooden wrench, they were able to apply enough torque to the plank to impose the appropriate twist from one rib to the next. After a few minutes of quietly organized teamwork, the plank was clamped firmly in position, ready to be bolted onto the ribs. The bottom plank at the bow had nearly a 90-degree twist over its four metre length.

Each of the planks had to be custom cut, and the bevel could change dramatically from one end of the plank to the other. Fortunately, the crew were able to use an old ship’s-head saw that was borrowed from the large artifact collection Parks Canada keeps in Dawson City. “It’s in absolutely perfect condition,” said Loiselle in an interview in 2001, “and is the finest piece of machinery I’ve ever had the chance to work with.”

The decks were repaired, the sternwheel was rebuilt, and a dry sprinkler system was installed, the latter a result of lessons learned from the burning of the Whitehorse, the Casca and the Tutshi. It may seem that they have done a lot of work, but as soon as one thing gets fixed, another problem emerges. With the SS Klondike, preservation is an on-going job.

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 msgates@northwestel.net