One hundred years ago, war was the dominant topic in the minds of Yukoners as the “Great War” dragged on into its third year. Human life became an expendable commodity stalemate in the battlefields of France and Belgium.
The Yukon newspapers had reported upon the deaths of eight men who had volunteered from the southern Yukon: George Chapman, William Hare, Joseph Joyal, Harold Newton, Frank Polley, James Salvatore, Hugh Stewart, and Jack Taylor.
Another half dozen men from the south end of the territory would die in the brutal fighting that would occur in the final months of the war.
Germany had proclaimed open season upon American shipping to the Allies overseas, and the American public opinion had solidified against Germany after German submarines sank five American merchant vessels in March of 1917. After remaining neutral up to this point, the United States had finally declared war on Germany April 6, 1917.
To celebrate this new alliance, a Whitehorse committee decided to defer their Empire (Victoria) Day festivities until Saturday, June 2, so that Americans could participate. The White Pass and Yukon Route even put on a special excursion train to bring Yankees to Whitehorse for the joint celebration.
Speaking to this new alliance and the planned event in Whitehorse, the Skagway Daily Alaskan declared: “With British and Americans now allied in the war against Germany, the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes will float side by side with a new significance when Whitehorse, with the citizens of Skagway and Gastineau channel points participating, celebrates the King’s birthday, Saturday, June 2.”
Friday night, the committee was planning to put on a “home talent vaudeville show” in the North Star Athletic Association (NSAA) building at Third Avenue and Main Street, followed by dancing and a meal. Children’s sports were planned for Saturday morning on Main Street, followed by baseball games.
A grand ball was scheduled for the NSAA hall in the evening. The Skagway organizing committee had invited army officers and men from Fort Seward at Haines to participate, and was arranging for the Skagway home guard, 100 strong, to come to Whitehorse en masse. The Whitehorse Star noted that such visits had been going on between Whitehorse and Skagway since 1902.
The Star noted that cards had been received in Dawson from Robert Service and his wife announcing they were the proud parents of twins, Iris and Doris, who were born on Feb. 28. Posted beside this notice was the poem “Bob Smart’s Dream,” which had been penned by Service years before, when he was still “…a struggling cashier in the Canadian Bank of Commerce.” The poem forecast a rosy future for Whitehorse, 50 years hence.
Of greater note, perhaps, was the announcement by the Whitehorse Star, which celebrated its 17th volume of the newspaper in the April 20 edition. Under new management during the previous year, the Star was happy to announce that both its subscriptions and its advertising had increased.
Meanwhile, in Dawson City, the front page of the newspaper was filled, as it had been ever since the war began, with headlines about the conflict overseas. The largest headline for May 15 announced that the wharves in Petrograd (Russia) were in flames. Fighting on the Balkan Front at Salonika were reported to be taking some of the pressure off the Western Front.
The United States, now in total war mode, announced plans to impose a luxury tax for the duration of the war. All German mails have been terminated for the duration of the war, reported one article in the May 16 edition of the News, while another brief item stated that the total Canadian dead and injured had reached 90,000.
This last article was of particular interest to the people of Dawson, who had been reading about the mounting death tolls in the newspapers. To date, at least 30 Yukon volunteers had died serving their country. The total would increase by twice again that number by the end of the war.
One of the by-products of the industrial-scale bloodshed, the wounded, were starting to come home. Frederick Wright, a returning soldier, would be back in Dawson soon, reported the Dawson News May 14, 1917. He would be the first returnee of more than a hundred of the thousand Yukoners who volunteered during the war.
“Wright was in some of the hardest fighting on the western front,” reported the Dawson Daily News, “and was wounded and sent back to Vancouver, where he was in a convalescent hospital for a time.… He was injured in the leg, and has considerable of a limp and some pain yet, but he says he can work and that he is not looking for anyone else to support him so long as he can get about.” Wright was already in Whitehorse, where he would be a fireman on the steamer Selkirk, once the Yukon River was open to transportation.
The break-up of the Yukon was late in coming in 1917. On May 14, ice moved down from above the mouth of the Klondike and piled up in huge ice bergs just below the mouth, while the ice broke up and flowed away gently from opposite St. Mary’s hospital, at the north end. But the ice in front of the business section of Dawson held fast.
Early that morning, Dr. Faulkner had crossed the Yukon on the ice opposite Klondike City. Another man crossed opposite King Street, falling through the ice twice in doing so, but Charley Payson, the town “weatherologist,” crossed safely without even getting his feet wet.
The ice finally went out early in the morning of May 15, but the exact time could not be determined. The wire that ran from the ice up to the clock at Vincent Vesco’s jewelery store, had failed to stop the clock as it was supposed to. Some bystanders watched the event, but could not swear to the minute that the ice broke, but it was believed to have been between 4 and 5 o’clock.
Meanwhile, ice from all the streams above Dawson City was running gently in the Yukon throughout the day. By days end, the riverbanks on either side of the river were jammed with icebergs, but Dawson had once again been spared from flooding. And that’s the way it was 100 years ago in the Yukon.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere