Picture this: Whitehorse, circa 1900.
Dirt roads snake around a bustling tent town.
A handful of storefronts – the Pioneer Hotel, Trading Co., Goods Bought and Sold – face onto Front Street.
A long train chugs along a narrow-gauge track, delivering freight and passengers to the White Pass station at the head of Main Street.
Nearby, three grand steamboats ply the choppy waters of the Yukon River, heading towards the still booming town of Dawson City.
And it was those grand steamboats that helped build the small tent town into the Yukon capital city.
For almost 100 years, the sternwheeler was a pillar of the Yukon’s transportation system.
Steam-powered boats were first introduced onto the lower Yukon River in 1869.
And with the great Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, the upper river between Whitehorse and Dawson City became the major water route into the Yukon interior.
The completion of the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, in June 1900, between Skagway and Whitehorse confirmed the importance of the upper Yukon route.
It also confirmed the importance of Whitehorse as a transportation hub.
White Pass employed a number of agents who bought up most of the property in the new townsite, thus, gaining control over most subsequent land transactions in Whitehorse. Land for businesses or residents had to be purchased from the British Yukon Land Company, a subsidiary created in 1900.
The British Yukon Navigation Company, another subsidiary of White Pass, was formed over the winter of 1900-1901.
White Pass set up the shipyard to build and maintain sternwheelers which would operate along the Yukon River.
By May 1901, 400 to 500 shipwrights were working in the Whitehorse shipyards, located north of the downtown core.
“This work attracted a pool of skilled labourers and craftsmen who made a valuable, if seasonal, contribution to the economy of the town,” according to Ninety Years North: The Story of the Yukon Electrical Company Limited.
The company now controlled the entire rail and water system for moving goods in and out of Whitehorse.
As a result, Whitehorse served as a major operational base and became a company town tied to White Pass.
The commercial and industrial core grew naturally.
People who worked in rail or shipping built homes on the waterfront at Whiskey Flats, Moccasin Flats and Sleepy Hollow.
Though sternwheeler traffic ended in 1955 with the construction of an all weather highway, Whitehorse’s economy had diversified through mining, prospecting, government and tourism.
Whitehorse was incorporated as the Yukon’s capital city in 1950.
“After incorporation as a city … Whitehorse administrators began to look unfavourably on the waterfront area and its more than 700 residents,” according to the Yukon Historical Museums Association.
“This was a time when Whitehorse was experiencing a severe housing shortage, and the waterfront did provide some alternative to the privately owned, and unavailable, housing in town.”
A change to the Territorial Lands Act in 1957 meant that squatters had to move from the waterfront areas.
By 1960s, the warehouses and docks located near the railway station were also dismantled.
Today, Whitehorse is working to restore some of the heritage buildings in Shipyards Park, including Hatch House and Miller House.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.