A blast from the past

With one hand on her cane, Phyllis LePage Simpson reached to pull down a green wooden lever attached to the ceiling. One of three guests of honour, Simpson had been invited to give some of the first toots of the S.S. Klondike's newly restored steam whistle.

With one hand on her cane, Phyllis LePage Simpson reached to pull down a green wooden lever attached to the ceiling.

One of three guests of honour, Simpson had been invited to give some of the first toots of the S.S. Klondike’s newly restored steam whistle.

While tourists sauntered about below, the S.S. Klondike’s wheelhouse was packed with guests and reporters waiting for a demonstration of the newly repaired horn.

The whistle had sounded once just moments before, with Mayor Bev Buckway sending a loud blast that sent everyone’s hands to their ears.

Bev Miller, granddaughter of the legendary First Nations steamboat captain Frank Slim, waited for her turn next.

Simpson stretched and pulled hard … but the thing wouldn’t budge.

The experience brought Simpson back to the first time she blew the steam whistle on a riverboat.

“I can’t remember if I was five or seven, but it was a rope and I couldn’t pull hard enough,” she said.

“So the captain grabbed my hand and squeezed hard and pulled.”

“It hurt me,” she added with a giggle.

It also brought back memories of another painful paddlewheel experience – the sinking of the first S.S. Klondike in 1936.

Simpson was just six years old.

She remembers hearing the captain ordering the crew to get the woman and children off the ship.

Simpson and her mother were lowered into the Yukon River’s frigid, fast-flowing waters in a lifeboat.

But that was where the true danger hid. The lifeboats had not been properly maintained and quickly began to fill with water.

“The water’s coming in and my mother and a nurse are standing there bailing with their hands – we didn’t have no buckets, nothing,” she said.

“Then the two guys who had life jackets on – none of the rest of us did – jumped off and that’s when I started to cry because I knew we were going to die.”

But there was an island that Simpson hadn’t noticed. The two men heaved the boat up onto the shore just in time.

The passengers stayed on that island all day. It poured rain, there were no fires and the mosquitoes were terrible.

Simpson had no food except for a bag of chocolates that her mother had rescued from the damaged ship.

“That night when we were rescued they put me down to sleep in these wet wool blankets and they stink,” she said.

“They fed us pork and beans and to this day I hate pork and beans and wet wool.”

The restoration of the whistle marks the 60th anniversary of the city of Whitehorse and the 125th anniversary of the establishment of Canada’s first national park, in Banff.

The steam whistle will now blast through Whitehorse every day at noon, throughout the 100-day period that Park’s Canada considers its summer season.

This will return a bit of the historic paddlewheeler-era sound to the waterfront after its decade-long absence.

The original steam whistle would have been powered directly off of the ship’s massive boiler.

Captains were able to blow the whistle as long and often as they wanted and developed a whole form of communication.

The ships would blow a series of long and short whistles when they were nearing a stop.

Once docked, three hoots of the whistle meant that the ship would be leaving in 30 minutes. Two hoots gave you 15 minutes and just one hoot meant you had five minutes to make it onto the ship.

The newly restored whistle doesn’t have the same oomph it once had.

It’s powered by compressed air and erupts with a loud, low blast, fading away into a weak hum as the air pressure runs out.

When the lever is returned to its ready position, the chamber fills back up with air and after a minute or so is ready for another blast.

Eventually, Parks Canada hopes to have the whistle run automatically on a timer but, until then, staff will have to sound the horn manually.

Simpson, whose 80th birthday was less than a week away, rode riverboats through much of her childhood.

Even though the steam whistle doesn’t sound exactly like it once did, Simpson is very happy to hear the song of the paddlewheelers return to the Yukon River.

“I think its wonderful because I think we’re losing a lot of the old Yukon stuff.”

On Friday at noon, those gathered in the cramped wheelhouse watched as Simpson hung from the lever with one hand.

Everyone was silent, wanting to help the struggling octogenarian, but not knowing how.

Luckily, Simpson was determined.

Dropping her cane, the feisty dame reached up and grabbed the lever with two hands, yanking with all her might.

A deep blast erupted from the whistle and resonated down the river, startling tourists and locals both and rekindling a few old memories.

Contact Chris Oke at