Yukon bard turned firefighter to help douse blaze of 1905

Robert Service was many things: a storyteller, a poet, a banker and, one day, he was a firefighter. Service was one of the many townspeople to raise a bucket against the great fire of 1905...

Robert Service was many things: a storyteller, a poet, a banker and, one day, he was a firefighter.

Service was one of the many townspeople to raise a bucket against the great fire of 1905 that demolished much of the Whitehorse waterfront.

It was nearly 4 a.m. on May 23 when the fire started in a small barber shop run by Eddie Marcotte in the back of the Windsor Hotel, which was on the corner of Front Street (now First Avenue) and Main Street (the current location of the Edgewater Hotel).

At that time the fire hall was located right across the street.

But, at that time there was only one fire engine in town.

The engine responded to the call and had the fire contained to the barber shop, well… it was almost contained. Then the real disaster struck: the fire truck ran out of water.

The fire flared up and burned the Windsor Hotel. A strong wind blew the flames across the street and caught the Whitney and Peddlar department store and the original White Pass station.
“So quickly did the fire spread, many complete and extensive stocks were lost entirely, not a scrap being taken out of the stores before the buildings were completely enwrapped in flames,” reported the Daily Star in 1905.

The blaze also half-destroyed the fire hall, which was the first built in Whitehorse in 1901.
“Ironically, the volunteer fire department had received its new fire-fighting apparatus the day before but did not have much success operating it,” according to the Yukon Historical Museums Association. “The fire engine broke down after only a few minutes of operation.”

When the engine proved impotent townspeople picked up buckets filled with water and tried to help douse the flames.

One of the spur-of-the-moment firefighters was Yukon bard Robert Service.

He and many others helped to save the Bank of Commerce building at Second Avenue and Main Street. The Post Office was spared, as was the Telegraph Office at First and Steele.

By the end of the destruction the hub of downtown Whitehorse lay smouldering from Front Street to Second Avenue, and between Elliott and Steele.

It was a dismal sight to those surveying the damage.
“This has been a terrible terrible day and night; Whitehorse has burned I believe the store has gone but I don’t know. I can’t write anymore,” store owner Anna Puckett wrote in her diary on May 23, 1905.
“Everybody was just walking around the ruins trying to find something when we left. Nobody spoke much, but they were pitching tents on cleared spots, so I suppose the city will build again,” she wrote on May 27.

No lives were lost in the disaster but material losses totaled more than $300,000, which would be in the millions in today’s dollars.

At the time Whitehorse was a new and growing town, and the blaze was a big setback. It destroyed most of the commercial buildings — five hotels, shops, restaurants, a drug store and a bank.

The original White Pass station on the waterfront at the foot of Main Street also went up in flames. The building that stands there now was rebuilt the day after the fire.

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Crystal Schick/Yukon News
Calvin Delwisch poses for a photo inside his DIY sauna at Marsh Lake on Feb. 18.
Yukoners turning up the heat with unique DIY sauna builds

Do-it-yourselfers say a sauna built with salvaged materials is a great winter project

Wyatt’s World

Wyatt’s World for March 5, 2021.

Yukonomist: School competition ramps up in the Yukon

It’s common to see an upstart automaker trying to grab share from… Continue reading

The Yukon government responded to a petition calling the SCAN Act “draconian” on Feb. 19. (Yukon News file)
Yukon government accuses SCAN petitioner of mischaracterizing her eviction

A response to the Jan. 7 petition was filed to court on Feb. 19

City councillor Samson Hartland in Whitehorse on Dec. 3, 2018. Hartland has announced his plans to run for mayor in the Oct. 21 municipal election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillor sets sights on mayor’s chair

Hartland declares election plans

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley receives his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Public Health Nurse Angie Bartelen at the Yukon Convention Centre Clinic in Whitehorse on March 3. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
State of emergency extended for another 90 days

“Now we’re in a situation where we see the finish line.”

The Yukon government says it is working towards finding a solution for Dawson area miners who may be impacted by City of Dawson plans and regulations. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Miner expresses frustration over town plan

Designation of claims changed to future planning

Team Yukon athletes wave flags at the 2012 Arctic Winter Games opening ceremony in Whitehorse. The 2022 event in Wood Buffalo, Alta., has been postponed indefinitely. (Justin Kennedy/Yukon News file)
2022 Arctic Winter Games postponed indefinitely

Wood Buffalo, Alta., Host Society committed to rescheduling at a later date

Housing construction continues in the Whistle Bend subdivision in Whitehorse on Oct. 29, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Bureau of Statistics reports rising rents for Yukoners, falling revenues for businesses

The bureau has published several reports on the rental market and businesses affected by COVID-19

Council of Yukon First Nations grand chief Peter Johnston at the Yukon Forum in Whitehorse on Feb. 14, 2019. Johnston and Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn announced changes to the implementation of the Yukon First Nations Procurement Policy on March 3. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Third phase added to procurement policy implementation

Additional time added to prep for two provisions

Crews work to clear the South Klondike Highway after an avalanche earlier this week. (Submitted)
South Klondike Highway remains closed due to avalanches

Yukon Avalanche Association recommending backcountry recreators remain vigilant

RCMP Online Crime Reporting website in Whitehorse on March 5. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Whitehorse RCMP launch online crime reporting

Both a website and Whitehorse RCMP app are now available

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is preparing for a pandemic-era election this October with a number of measures proposed to address COVID-19 restrictions. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City gets set for Oct. 21 municipal election

Elections procedures bylaw comes forward

Most Read