terrorism in the klondike

Remember 9-11? Most of us do. We remember where we were and what we were doing. I was in Vancouver, staying with friends before catching a flight…

Remember 9-11?

Most of us do. We remember where we were and what we were doing.

I was in Vancouver, staying with friends before catching a flight back to Whitehorse, when I woke up to the horror of the World Trade Centre collapsing on television.

After the initial shock, which was followed by the cancellation of all flights and the frustrating three-hour waits on the telephone while hoping to get through to a booking agent at Air Canada, I realized life was pretty much going on as usual in Vancouver.

Not so in Whitehorse, where everyone was gripped by panic and confusion as two potentially hijacked jumbo jets were forced to land because the US wouldn’t have them.

My wife and daughter experienced that and I wasn’t there.

An act of terrorism was not a surprise in New York. There had been previous attempts to blow up the World Trade Centre; back in 1920, suspected Italian terrorists blew up a horse and cart containing 45 kilograms of dynamite on Wall Street and 39 people were killed.

The papers were filled with news about the event and the attorney general called for tougher laws on terrorism and a bigger budget to deal with the problem. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

In the Yukon, by contrast, the whole event was the product of confusion and miscommunication: the jumbo jets were filled with confused tourists, and there were no terrorists in the lot.

But the Yukon has not been exempt from its own brushes with tension, intrigue and terrorism; you only have to look further into the past.

By the 1880s, the British and the Americans had agreed upon a dividing line that would separate Canada from the United States. In the early days, nobody knew for sure just where this line ran.

The Yukon River basin started filling up with prospectors, most of who came from the United States. For a while, the US even financed a post office on Canadian soil, but mostly because the whereabouts of the dividing line wasn’t really clear.

That changed in 1887 when William Ogilvie, a Canadian surveyor, located the point where the boundary crossed the Yukon River.

A few years later, he came back to the Yukon and extended the line southward thus confirming that the Sixtymile gold fields were located in Canada.

In order to assert sovereignty over Canadian soil, the Canadian government dispatched 22 Mounties to establish a post near the town of Forty Mile in 1895. The American miners, who had been accustomed to having free reign in the Yukon valley didn’t like it very much.

Many of these prospectors retreated to the American side of the border when the Mounties arrived. In fact, the Alaskan governor, James Shakely, wrote the US Secretary of War asking for soldiers to maintain order in the infant American territory.

Many feared that the presence of the mounted police on the Canadian side would force the seedier individuals into American territory.

In 1896, mounted police Inspector D’Arcy Strickland and a dozen heavily armed constables confronted a mob of angry miners on Glacier Creek, and established that they, and not the traditional miners committee, would henceforth be applying the law in the Yukon.

There was continuing unease between Britain and the United States over territory until the boundary was established. Every once in a while, the newspapers would stir up patriotic feelings over the issue.

During the gold rush, the North West Mounted Police established posts at the summits of the passes leading into the interior.

That was where the boundary was eventually established, leaving Yukoners without access to a saltwater port, but depriving the Americans to the territory in the interior that they felt was theirs.

This arrangement was not satisfactory to some and led to Yukon’s first episode of intrigue and conspiracy. Nationalist passion over the location of the boundary did not sit well with many US citizens, who felt their government was entitled to more.

In the spring of 1901, Superintendent Philip Primrose, in charge of the mounted police in Dawson, heard rumours that a band of Americans in Skagway were plotting to seize the Yukon from Canada, by force.

A group of Yankees would invade Canada from Skagway and from Circle and Eagle, downriver from Dawson City.

The group behind the conspiracy was called The Order of the Midnight Sun. An article in the Seattle Daily Times later exposed the details of the conspiracy, which included plans to cut telegraph lines, capture the mounted police detachments, and create a “Klondike Free State”

The Mounties responded by sending an undercover agent to Seattle, and an officer to Skagway. At higher levels, Canada did receive some co-operation from the US government

Clifford Sifton, the minister of the Interior, decided to beef up the Whitehorse district by 50 officers, so that the number of men posted to the Dalton Trail could be doubled, and the number of men at Whitehorse increased to 100.

Time passed, and nothing happened. By the end of 1901, the supposed plot to overthrow the Yukon was defused, and the event slipped into the history books as nothing more than an interesting sidebar.

If the Mounties hadn’t taken a serious interest in the threat of attack, would things have turned out differently?

On February 21 of 1913, Yukon Gold Company Dredge Number 1 was dynamited. The dynamite had been stolen from Yukon Gold’s own nearby powder house.

Armed guards were then posted near the other dredges, and a $5,000 reward was offered.

A threatening letter was received by the company, warning them not to prosecute the case any further.

Ski tracks were noticed in the vicinity of the damaged dredge and since cross-country skiing was uncommon at that time, suspicion fell upon a group of Swedes, one of whom was seen in the vicinity of some of the dredges earlier in the season.

The efforts of the police to gather evidence against the main suspect, a Scandinavian known as “The Educated Swede,” proved fruitless. His story, that he had heard the explosion, and skied out to investigate, seemed plausible.

There was so little crime in Dawson City that the Mounties were a little rusty in the investigative area.

Here’s where the story gets interesting.

The Yukon Gold Company became impatient. R.E. Franklin, their electrical superintendent, was able to plant a primitive electronic eavesdropping device in the Swedes’ cabin.

While they discussed the matter inside the cabin, and laughed at how stupid the police and the mining company were, Franklin crouched outside in the dark with his notebook, copying down their confessions.

One of the Swedes, actually a Norwegian named Jacob Nielson, was arrested and convicted of the attack by a six-man jury.

He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. A combination of socialist ideas and a case of cabin fever combined to create this act of violence.

Despite these isolated events in the past, the Yukon, as a remote and sparsely populated area, remains an unlikely target for terrorist attack.

Should we rest easy with this knowledge?

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.