The Carcross Airport during busy times in 1947. (R.B. Cameron Coll/Submitted)

Aerodrome society planning on opening Northern Airways museum in Carcross

The museum had been scheduled to open this spring in anticipation of attracting cruise ship tourists

A group devoted to preserving Carcross’s aviation history is hoping to get a museum devoted to a once-active local airline off the ground.

Like many things though, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench in those plans.

Bob Cameron, a longtime aviation buff and the historian for the Carcross Aviation Society, has spent decades building a collection of “hundreds and hundreds” of photos of Northern Airways, which he described as the first reliable commercial air service in the territory.

The airline was established in Carcross by George Simmons in 1933, carrying passengers, mail and cargo across the Yukon as well as to Atlin. Northern Airways’ planes and pilots served a key role in a National Geographic expedition to the St. Elias icefields in 1935 as well as in surveys and the construction of the Alaska Highway and Canol pipeline through the 1940s before ultimately ceasing operations in 1950.

“You can almost say half of our Yukon aviation history back in the ‘30s was Northern Airways,” Cameron said in an interview May 13.

The building that housed the Northern Airways office is still standing, unused, in Carcross — a perfect place to house a museum dedicated to the airline’s pioneering role, he said, and another attraction for tourists coming in on day trips from Skagway-docked cruise ships to visit.

While discussions about turning the old office into a museum have been happening for “several years,” it was only about a year ago that the building’s owner gave the go-ahead for the project, according to Cameron.

The building was in relatively good shape and only required “quite minor” renovations; the plan was to have the museum in it open this spring, just in time for the beginning of the cruise ship season. As the space is small, the displays would primarily feature Cameron’s photos, which he’s collected over the years from former Northern Airways pilots and other sources, as well as small artifacts.

“We’ve got all of the Northern Airways paperwork — 17 years of operating, they never threw away a piece of paper, so we have flight tickets we can display, we’ve got their air schedules, their fares and rates, they got a telegram from (American actress) Lana Turner wanting them to fly her to Dawson,” Cameron said.

The Carcross Aerodrome Society also has the “remains” of some airplanes, including frames and engines, that it was hoping to display on a deck behind the museum, accompanied with more photos and interpretive signs for visitors.

The museum was almost ready to go, pending the clearing up of some “red tape” like permitting and zoning, when the COVID-19 situation began to worsen and cruise ships began cancelling tours.

“Obviously a lot of things have changed with the pandemic,” Cameron said of the plans around opening.

“I guess if things start changing by say, mid-summer, maybe it could be opened by the second half of the summer, but the sounds of the cancellations we’re hearing about with the cruise ships … there really won’t be much of a tourist attendance in Carcross this summer.”

While there’s been some interest from locals around the museum, Cameron said that, even if recommendations to limit travel within the Yukon are eased as the summer comes around, he wouldn’t expect Yukoners to be showing up to Carcross to visit the museum “in very big numbers.”

“I can’t imagine Whitehorse people particularly driving down there just to do that, so without the tourist flow from Skagway, I don’t think it would be worth it to open,” he said.

Cameron said that, realistically, he expects the museum to open next spring, when things are hopefully back to normal.

In the meantime, the Carcross Aerodrome Society is focusing its attention on the preservation of the community’s airport and landing strip.

The airport area, according to Cameron, has never actually been officially surveyed, and the society is concerned that without formal boundaries, there’s a possibility that development in nearby parts of Carcross could encroach on the aerodrome. Paired with that are safety concerns; the runway isn’t fenced in, in part because, again, it’s unclear where the aerodrome’s boundaries are.

“This has been ongoing forever, is safety with regard to the aerodrome … For decades, people and animals have just been able to race back and forth across the runway,” he said.

Those issues, he said, were part of the reason the Carcross Aerodrome Society formed in the first place and are one of the society’s two objectives — safety and preservation.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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