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 firstname.lastname@example.org.