Whiskey Flats: gone, but not forgotten

It was the middle of the night when the man with the blue suede shoes walked into Bonnie Fordyce's home, leaned over her parents' bed and tried to kiss her mother.

It was the middle of the night when the man with the blue suede shoes walked into Bonnie Fordyce’s home, leaned over her parents’ bed and tried to kiss her mother.

Whiskey Flats, a squatter’s area with a population of 350 in the early 1960s, was a place where people didn’t lock their doors, Fordyce said.

When her dad woke up, there was a lot of yelling and he almost shot the man in the back.

“In those days, you had a gun,” she said.

As the man fled the home, he left his unique shoes behind.

Needless to say, when the police showed up, it wasn’t hard to track him down, she added.

Fordyce was born in Whiskey Flats and spent the first six years of her life there, living in two different homes with her parents and four siblings.

Half of the first home fell into the Yukon River after the riverbank eroded, her father once told her.

On Saturday and Sunday, Fordyce and her friend Arlin McFarlane are hosting a special interactive event at the S.S. Klondike National Historic Site where they will attempt to re-map Whiskey Flats South, the shanty town that was once located where the famous sternwheeler currently sits.

People can stop by and share their stories with the pair, contribute to the map by using chalk, sticky notes and measuring tape, or just sit by the campfire and have tea.

The event is part of the Nuit Blanche festivities, described as an “all-night pedestrian-accessible contemporary art festival.”

McFarlane said she’s dug up a lot of historical information on the area so far, obtaining aerial photographs and maps from Yukon Archives and the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources.

Through her friend Rob Ingram, she learned that cabins, houses and shacks once covered the area where the South Access Road currently stands.

“All of this is really a device for getting people hopefully down there and remembering and collecting stories,” McFarlane said.

“We’re inviting the audience to participate in this activity with us. When you walk around a location, the memories that come back are different than the ones you would remember sitting at home.

“Whiskey Flats was such an interesting place and we’re also looking at the concept of dispossession.”

Fordyce’s family, like many others at the time, was forced to move on two separate occasions.

According to Edge of the River Heart of the City, a book by Helen Dobrowolsky and Rob Ingram that details the history of Whitehorse’s waterfront, the situation reached a fever pitch in the late 1950s when city administration and White Pass – at the time the biggest company in town – agreed the squatters had to be removed.

Construction of the Robert Campbell Bridge meant the Whiskey Flats area was no longer on the town’s fringes, and Riverdale commuters were becoming annoyed with the view, the authors state.

Meanwhile, the federal government agreed to move a number of beached sternwheelers to Whiskey Flats South, and White Pass donated land from Whiskey Flats North to the Rotary Club for a city park.

“Whiskey Flats residents were quite unhappy and unwilling to move without compensation,” wrote Dobrowolsky and Ingram.

By the early 1960s, squatters made up one-third of Whitehorse’s population: approximately 340 people lived in Whiskey Flats, while roughly 770 lived in Moccasin Flats.

“Whitehorse was experiencing a housing shortage, rents were high and squatting was considered a legitimate option.”

Fordyce said she doesn’t remember too much from the time, but she still remembers the smell of wood smoke and the warmth of the fire.

“I think it’s an era that we look back on and realize how special it was,” she said.

“There was such a feeling of community, and pioneering spirit.”

When the city and government finally took a stand and decided to evict the squatters from Whiskey Flats South, Fordyce’s father formed a squatters’ committee and became its first president.

They rallied people together and there was a plan to purchase a piece of land the city had offered them. But the idea was voted down at two separate plebiscites in 1961 and 1962.

“Not all the stories are happy stories,” McFarlane said.

The event will be held from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m.

Check the Re-Mapping Whiskey Flats Facebook page for more information.

Contact Myles Dolphin at

myles@yukon-news.com

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