Yukon pioneer built a legacy, three storeys high

Whitehorse was a boom town during the Second World War. Construction on the Alaska Highway and the Canol Pipeline meant that the budding city was crammed full of people, and as construction hadn't yet caught up with demand, those people had nowhere to live.

Whitehorse was a boom town during the Second World War.

Construction on the Alaska Highway and the Canol Pipeline meant that the budding city was crammed full of people, and as construction hadn’t yet caught up with demand, those people had nowhere to live.

Like many urban planners before him, Martin Berrigan had a lofty idea to house the masses while saving space: build up.

Berrigan was the brains and the brawn behind one of Whitehorse’s most unique attractions, the Log Cabin Skyscrapers.

The two buildings—one a whopping three-storeys high and the other a double-decker—sit on Lambert Street between Second and Third avenues.

More than 50 years later they are still a testament to Berrigan’s ingenuity.

Berrigan was born in Ontario in 1871, and like many others he came to the Yukon to try his luck at prospecting during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.

The only difference between Berrigan and many others was that Berrigan stayed long past the time that the rush of gold seekers had left with their eyes on Alaskan gold.

He prospected in the Klondike for more than 30 years and worked on the dredges until he moved to Whitehorse, exhausted, in 1939.

According to Berrigan, he “began to get headaches and generally felt run down, so he moved to Whitehorse because life is too short to allow for getting sick.”

Berrigan began small, with one-storey cabins, three of which are still located in the first block of Lambert Street.

Then he set his sights towards the sky and piled one log cabin atop another to create his first two-storey creation.

A friend challenged Berrigan to go even higher, and he took the bait.

He cut logs from the east bank about 15 kilometres down the Yukon River and used horse teams to transport them to the building site.

There, he notched the logs and fit them into place by himself, pounding one-foot spikes between them to keep the structure stable.

Berrigan devised an innovative pulley system to help him lift the logs in place reaching a height of 58 logs at the top.

Each log weighed in at about 200 kilograms.

Then, in traditional log cabin style, he chinked the spaces between the logs with moss and oakum.

The 12-metre building measured 4.8 metres square, with a veranda running along each side.

Berrigan completed the skyscrapers at age 78 in 1949, and after they were completed he reportedly said to a friend, “I think I’m done for.”

He died on February 26, 1950.

“As a bachelor he lived a simple and industrious life as a result of which he owned several cabins in town erected by his own hands,” read his obituary in the Whitehorse Star. “The three-storey structure on Lambert Street achieved most notoriety as an oddity and was much publicized in various national magazines.”

In the late 1970s, the skyscrapers were in danger of demolition when the lot was put up for sale; however, the demolition was not carried out and a new owner was found.

Over the years, the skyscrapers have changed owners several times over the years and have been rented for residential, office and retail purposes.

In 2000, they were designated as an official municipal historic site. And today they are some of the most photographed buildings in the territory.

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.

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