Some Yukon history books for Christmas

This Christmas we have a good selection of new northern history books to choose from. I have already reported on the new history of sports in the Yukon. Here are three more that you might be interested in.

This Christmas we have a good selection of new northern history books to choose from. I have already reported on the new history of sports in the Yukon. Here are three more that you might be interested in.

Published earlier this year by Lynn Canal Publishing, The Arctic Brotherhood: The Story of Alaska-Yukon’s Most Influential Order, by Ashley Bowman, is a modern-day account of the now-vanished fraternity of the North. Bowman appears to have been inspired to write this book because one of her ancestors, Henry Bowman, was a member.

The Yukon Order of Pioneers may have been the first northern fraternal order constituted in the north, in December 1894. However, the Arctic Brotherhood, founded by 11 revellers during a trip up the Pacific coast in February1899, aboard the steamer City of Seattle, grew to embrace 10,000 members. Within 30 years, the Arctic Brotherhood had vanished.

All that remains today of the order are the buildings they left behind; most notable of these being the A.B. Hall (better known as Diamond Tooth Gertie’s) in Dawson City, which is being considered for designation as a territorial historic site. The other structure of note is the A.B. Hall on Broadway in Skagway, which today houses the visitor information centre.

Bowman provides an account of the origin of the fraternity, and some of its achievements, most notably the instigation of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific world exposition in Seattle in 1909. She charts the establishment of the 32 orders that were established throughout Alaska, the Yukon and British Columbia. Bowman also suggests a reason for the demise of the order which had died out by 1931.

Arctic Brotherhood contains 32 photographs, two maps, one detailing the 32 lodges scattered across the North, an index and an appendix listing charter members by camp.

The second book is A Rock Fell on the Moon, by Alicia Priest, published by Lost Moose, an imprint of Harbour Publishing. The text runs to 251 pages and comes with two maps at the front that pinpoint the setting of the narrative. A section placed in the centre, consisting of 31 glossy black and white and colour images add further substance to people and places that make up the story. The index at the back of the book is helpful to pinpoint people, places and things associated with the story.

Alicia Priest spent her childhood years, 1953 to 1963, in the tiny, now abandoned mining community of Elsa, where her father, Gerry Priest, worked as the chief assayer for United Keno Hill Mines for a dozen years. This is a story about life in a mining town – a company town. It is a revealing glimpse of an almost idyllic life growing up in the remote wilderness deep in the heart of the Yukon Territory. There aren’t many accounts that introduce this part of Yukon’s more recent history. That alone makes this an interesting read, but there is much more to the story.

Within this account is a deep, dark secret, and a childhood that was jolted into turmoil when the author’s father is charged with stealing rich ore from his employer. He had conspired with two other men to remove high grade silver precipitates, concentrates and ore from United Keno Hill. The ore was removed from an abandoned section of mine tunnel, which the conspirators later asserted originated on their nearby hardrock “Moon” claim.

After a protracted court battle that proved to be the most expensive case in territorial history, Priest was finally sentenced to four years in prison. The family dynamic became even more troubled and dysfunctional when he was released after serving his sentence.

This book was intended to be a personal memoir, based upon her own recollection of events as they unfolded, but Alicia Priest was able to flesh out the details with the court proceedings and a return visit to the community and places where the events took place decades before. All this serves to enhance the narrative.

This book is well written. I took A Rock Fell on the Moon with me to Vancouver on a vacation thinking that I would complete it sometime before returning to Whitehorse, but once I started, I couldn’t put it down. The prose is vivid in texture and context and the narrative is as smooth as silk. I enjoyed this personal narrative, and I think that you will too.

The third book, also recently released, is Polar Winds: A Century of Flying the North, by Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, published by Dundern Books of Toronto. The author is a historian and freelance writer who already had one book on aviation on her resume.

Polar Winds covers the history of aviation not only in the Yukon, but across the Northwest Territories as well. Starting with the balloonists of the Klondike Gold Rush, in 224 pages, Metcalfe-Chenail takes the reader on a long and fascinating journey through more than a century of flying in the North.

Early flights involved primitive aircraft travelling through uncharted regions of extreme isolation. She documents how, by trial-and-error, the hardy aviators of the North slowly improved their aircraft and adapted them to remote flying in adverse weather.

The book describes the first fleet of planes to tackle the Yukon in 1922, and the exploratory flights that followed. She describes how bush pilot Wilfred “Wop” May aided the RCMP in their search for Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper during the winter of 1932.

We learn how the Northwest Staging Route, a chain of crude landing strips spanning the northwest from Alberta to the Yukon, Alaska and Russia, aided our Soviet allies during World War II. After the Second World War, the author charts the role of aviation in fighting the so-called “cold war,” establishing Canadian sovereignty in the North and building and operating the facilities of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line in the High Arctic.

In Polar Winds you will read about the wartime crashes in the Million Dollar Valley, and the amazing story of survival by Helen Klaben and Ralph Flores. The couple crashed near Watson Lake in February of 1963 on a flight from Alaska to California, and grabbed headlines across the continent. The search lasted for 49 days before they were rescued; both survived to tell their story.

Metcalfe-Chenail chronicles flying missionaries and Mounties, women pilots, high-altitude glacier specialists, and modern-day tourists. She also presents the introduction of disease, the impact of residential schools and the social change that aviation brought to the North as the polar region was opened to the outside world.

All of this is presented in a well written, well paced narrative that even non-aviation enthusiasts should find engaging and informative.

There are 78 photographs in this book, some in colour, and one map, all of which help bring the narrative to life. The footnotes and bibliography are extensive, and a 14-page index will help you track down people and places easily.

Any of these books should make a great Christmas gift to read and enjoy.

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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