Wartime invasion of the Yukon reshaped the territory

Five-hundred-and-sixty-one Yukon volunteers served with distinction in the trenches of France during the First World War. Many came home decorated for their bravery in combat.

Five-hundred-and-sixty-one Yukon volunteers served with distinction in the trenches of France during the First World War. Many came home decorated for their bravery in combat. Sixty-three died in service of their country and most lie in graves scattered throughout Europe. The remains of some were never found.

The Yukon gave its men and raised money far beyond its small population. In fact, Yukoners raised 10 times more money per capita than any other jurisdiction in Canada. The loss of these men led to a diminished work force in the already tiny Yukon population. On top of this, the federal government cut back its financial support for the territory, abolishing, among other things, the post of commissioner.

To compound this decline, the Princess Sophia sank in October of 1918, taking down nearly 300 prominent Yukon and Alaskan citizens. By 1921, the population of the territory was half of what it had been 10 years before.

The Yukon sank into a somnolent state for the next two decades, remote and forgotten by Ottawa. Dawson had become a ghost town with empty buildings everywhere and a population one-tenth of its gold rush proportions. Whitehorse was a quiet village with a few hundred souls, many of them only seasonal residents.

All of that changed in the spring of 1942. America entered the Second World War after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1942. Shortly after that, the Japanese invaded two tiny American Islands in the Aleutian chain. Marine supply lines were threatened, so the American government resolved to build the long-talked-about highway to Alaska. This would provide a more secure link to Alaska while connecting the chain of airfields of the North West Staging Route.

While worrying about the invasion of the tiny Alaskan Islands, the Yukon was subject to its own invasion. By spring of 1942, thousands of military and civilian personnel invaded the sleepy little village of Whitehorse, setting off a chain of events that would forever change the face of the territory. Within months, the local population ballooned to four times that of the entire Yukon before the war.

The U.S. Army took over the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway for the duration of the war. Whitehorse was flooded with goods and services only dreamed of before. Change occurred rapidly.

Mines in the Mayo region shut down and the massive dredging operations in the Klondike were reduced by two-thirds. Many men were lured into new jobs by higher wages.

Construction of the Alaska Highway commenced from two separate staging points. Whitehorse was the more northerly of these. At the same time, Bechtel, Price and Callahan began construction of the Canol project, a costly pipeline from Norman Wells to a refinery in Whitehorse that was later called “a junkyard monument to military stupidity.”

In addition, a military road was built from Haines, Alaska, to the Alaska Highway.

The invasion of American troops was both a boon and a bane. The massive influx of personnel to Whitehorse was good for business. The town blossomed. Within a short time, the one local restaurant had become 10. There were long lineups at the liquor store.

The local authorities seemed helpless to deal with the mob of intruders, who first established a tent city near the Whitehorse airport, then slowly constructed more permanent facilities.

The newcomers brought an unwanted gift with them: disease. Previously isolated communities were stricken with epidemics of measles, mumps, whooping cough, meningitis and influenza, against which they were defenceless.

Reports of overhunting in the southwest Yukon brought protests that led to the government setting aside land west of the highway. This area later became Kluane National Park.

The RCMP moved its district headquarters from Dawson to Whitehorse and never went back. George Black, Yukon’s MP, and his wife Martha moved to Whitehorse, along with other civil servants, who were never to return to the city of gold.

The old administration in Dawson seemed incapable of accepting that the changes were anything but temporary. George Jeckell, the senior territorial official, refused to move from Dawson City, thinking that things would eventually return to the way things were before the war. They didn’t.

The centre of power permanently shifted south to Whitehorse. After the war, the American tide left town, leaving behind a new highway, a system of airfields spanning the territory, and many public facilities, including a water and sewer system. The population stabilized at 6,000.

The much feared post-war collapse of the civic economy never occurred. When the U.S. military left, they were replaced by Canadian forces that remained in the community for three decades. The Cold War ensured that they would stay. The capital was moved to Whitehorse in 1953, along with an army of new civil servants from Ottawa who came to administer the post-war welfare state.

Dawson City did not die. Connected by road to Whitehorse in 1955, she was made over into a tourist town, bolstered by the never-ending supply of placer gold nearby.

The American invasion during the Second World War set in motion a cascade of events that led to the Yukon as we know it today. It was a peaceful invasion during a time of war. The community lost nine men to the war while growing to become the centre of commerce and transportation for the territory. Let’s not forget these men on Remembrance Day.

Special event this Saturday

Mark this event on your calendar. Bob Cameron, a local aviation historian, will be launching his new book, Yukon Wings, this coming Saturday, Nov. 10, from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Yukon Transportation Museum next to the airport. It will be your opportunity to talk to him about Yukon’s fascinating aviation history, and buy an autographed copy of this well-illustrated book.

Bob writes with authority; he has been involved in aviation in the Yukon since childhood, and was a commercial pilot here for more than 30 years.

While you are at the museum, be sure to walk through the galleries and visit the Transportation Hall of Fame.

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

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