part of yukons river history went up in smoke

Two deaths in downtown Whitehorse sent shockwaves through the Yukon in 1974.

Two deaths in downtown Whitehorse sent shockwaves through the Yukon in 1974.

“Hundreds of people stood on the banks of the Yukon River yesterday morning and cried as the riverboats Casca and Whitehorse were engulfed in flames,” reported the Whitehorse Star on June 21, 1974.

“The dry wooden ships burned like tinder, with flames rising more than 100 feet in the air within minutes and giving off an intense heat.”

The blaze ignited on the Casca and quickly jumped to the Whitehorse, which sat a little more than three metres away.

And within a few short hours the enormous ships were reduced to a giant pile of ash.

The pair of sternwheelers was beached in the shipyards in the early-1950s, when the construction of the Alaska Highway eliminated the need for river travel.

The White Pass and Yukon Route Company sold the ships, along with the SS Keno and the SS Klondike, to the Yukon government in 1960.

Little had been done with them during that period of time.

In 1966, the government chose one sternwheeler for restoration and moved the SS Klondike down the waterfront to where it now sits, near the Robert Campbell Bridge.

The Casca and Whitehorse were left behind. They were re-painted and a security fence was erected to keep out vandals and squatters.

But the fence did not work well enough.

Though authorities could not track down the exact cause of the fire, it was commonly believed that some people had made their way beneath the fence and had taken up residence in the sternwheelers.

And, it’s thought that a cooking fire gone out of control lead to the ships’ demise.

Around 10 am on Friday, June 20, 1974, witnesses saw smoke coming from the waterfront.

Firefighters were called to the scene, but by the time they arrived the ships were engulfed in flames.

A large crowd gathered around as firefighters sprayed thousands of gallons of water onto the blaze.

That same day police escorted three young people from Ontario off the ship. They had been living on the ship for about a week.

The trio was questioned by the police and released without charges being laid.

The Whitehorse was built in 1901, in the Whitehorse shipyards, the same place it burnt. She was christened with champagne and spent 54 years travelling the Yukon River.

The Casca, the third ship to bear that name, was partially built in Vancouver and partially built in Whitehorse. She was known as the “plushest ship on the upper river, used mostly for BYN (British Yukon Navigation) tourist runs,” according to an article on Explore North, The Burning of the Sternwheelers Casca and Whitehorse.

“I’ve always thought of Dawson as the centre of the Gold Rush and of Whitehorse as the centre of transportation during those days,” historian Roy Minter told the Star at the time. “These boats were such an integral part of all that. Today they’re gone and the Yukon just lost a little of its soul.”

Today, only two sternwheelers remain to mark that era in transportation in the Yukon.

Both the Klondike and the SS Keno in Dawson City are National Historic Sites and are now operated by Parks Canada.

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 lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.

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