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Yukon Archives holds a treasure trove of territorial history

As a private records archivist at the Yukon Archives, Lesley Buchan's job is filled with surprises. On any given day she might be called on to find a wide range of historical records.

As a private records archivist at the Yukon Archives, Lesley Buchan’s job is filled with surprises.

On any given day she might be called on to find a wide range of historical records such as rare manuscripts, maps, photographs and more.

But it’s when people drop in to donate items unexpectedly that generates the most excitement.

Buchan recalls how an elderly man named Austin Bee showed up at the reference desk of the old archives building one day in 1989 claiming he had hundreds of old photographs from his family’s time in the territory.

“He told me a bit about his family’s history, and how they’d left the territory in 1921,” Buchan said.

“I showed him some of our collections and told him what information we needed in order to make this project worthwhile.”

Bee left the building and disappeared, leaving Buchan to wonder whether she’d ever see the pictures.

Eight months later, she received a large package in the mail.

Bee had gone through all 305 of his mother’s and grandmother’s pictures, identified the people and the locations in them, and even placed them in individual envelopes.

“I hope this is what you want,” he said in a note that was attached to the photographs.

Buchan said this is the type of information archivists consider “absolute gold.”

Bee had sent some of the earliest photographs ever taken in the territory.

They feature places such as Carmacks, Ross River, Nansen Creek, Big Salmon, the Pelly River and Dawson City.

One photograph shows a man named George Walker, a local trader at the time, posing in front of the Little Salmon Trading Post on the Yukon River, in 1916.

Another shows the police barracks in Carmacks floating away in 1912 following a massive flood in the area. “Things on the move in the spring when Yukon River gets mad,” wrote Lois Austin Bee on the front of the picture.

Born in 1914, Bee was the son of Lois and Thomas Bee, who had served in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Kluane Lake and Carmacks.

According to information provided by Austin Bee, his father ran a general store in Carmacks from 1915 to 1921, as well as several fur trading posts in Ross River and Big Salmon.

Bee’s mother, an amateur photographer who developed and printed her own pictures, took most of the photographs.

The family left the territory in 1921 but he came back in 1963 and took pictures of several buildings in Carmacks, which are also part of the collection.

The photographs are a gateway to the Yukon’s past. But with decades of documents already stored in the vaults at the Yukon Archives, things are literally starting to burst at the seams.

Built in 1990, the archives had a project lifespan of 20 years, said territorial archivist Ian Burnett.

Vault A is made up of newspaper collections, library collections, maps and private records from corporations. Burnett estimates it’s between 95 and 100 per cent full.

A certain percentage of Yukon government records are sent to the archives each year, and space is becoming limited in vault B, too.

That’s why the recent announcement that the territorial government is moving ahead with plans to increase storage vault space at the archives is great news, he added.

Planning for the expansion began in 2005 but ramped up in 2008, Burnett said.

The $6.2-million project will see increased storage for paper records, a separate cold storage for unstable materials such as acidic paper and colour photographs, and a separate vault for digital records.

The current storage capacity is approximately 1,000 square metres, and the expansion project will increase space by more than 550 square metres.

Construction will be completed in early 2017.

Contact Myles Dolphin at