Bill MacBride was a saviour.
But he wasn’t interested in men’s souls. He focused his efforts on their stories, their objects and their photographs.
MacBride used an old beat-up typewriter to tap out the history of the territory using the people and the landscape for inspiration.
“There is a fascination about the Yukon River as it implacably glides 2,000 miles to the Bering Sea,” MacBride wrote in the Yukon Jubilee in 1958. “I have lived beside it for 40 years or so, to some extent, have used its iridescent ribbon as a tape recorder of events — interesting, tragic, comical or peculiar.”
As the namesake of Yukon’s first museum, (the MacBride Museum of Yukon History), his passion for Yukon’s history earned MacBride a venerated place in it.
“He was known far and wide outside the Yukon by historians, writers, publishers, and broadcasters, none of whom would think of passing through Whitehorse without contacting Bill MacBride,” wrote White Pass historian Roy Minter.
“He spoke with authority and compassion, but never without the joyful touches of humour that were his trademark,” wrote Minter.
“Indeed he was a most attractive man whose energy, creativity, and determination were the driving forces behind the early acquisitions of northern documents and artifacts.”
Although now regarded as a Yukon institution, many oldtimers considered MacBride to be a cheechako during his 47 years in the territory because he didn’t settle in the Yukon until 1914.
Born in Butte, Montana, in 1888, he followed a winding road north.
Orphaned at the age of two, MacBride was raised by Frank and Nellie Miles, whom he referred to as Uncle Frank and Aunt Nellie.
His uncle was a character straight from an old-time film about the Wild West. He wore made-to-order 18” Stetsons — a white one for daytime and a black for funerals and state occasions.
“One time while hunting deer on a mountain side, someone took him for a deer and shot him twice,” MacBride wrote of his uncle. “He promptly emptied his Winchester 40-82 at the area from which the shots had come.”
Frank had gold fever and left the US to seek his fortune in the Klondike in 1898. A year later, he came back to Montana to fetch MacBride and his aunt, and the three travelled on the SS City of Topeka from Seattle to Skagway.
“This was my first ‘big trip’ and it was a lovely one,” wrote MacBride years later. “Yes, we saw the whales, the porpoises, and with the assistance of the chief steward of the Topeka I caught some cod under the docks in Juneau…”.
They made the trip to Whitehorse with his uncle Murray Miles, who was the first conductor on the new railroad.
“Since I was rather young at the time, my memories of that trip are somewhat vague and confined to small incidents,” wrote MacBride.
“I particularly recall that near a camp at the summit there was an evergreen tree literally covered with chunks of bread and hotcakes, which had been cached by pine squirrels to keep their hoard safe from the ground squirrels.”
After a short stint working as a teacher and a business clerk in the south, MacBride took a job with the Northern Navigation Company in Alaska in 1912.
Two years later, when the White Pass and Yukon Route bought the company, he was transferred to Whitehorse.
And soon after arriving he began to collect the books, objects and research that would form the basis of the MacBride Museum’s collection.
Years later a group headed by MacBride and immigration officer Fred Arnot began the Yukon Historical Society, and in 1952 the museum opened to the public in the old telegraph office, which still sits on the corner of Steele Street and First Avenue.
“The best place in town for a history lesson is W.D. ‘Bill’ MacBride’s office at the White Pass depot,” reported the Whitehorse Star in 1957.
“Surrounded by pictures, Indian handcrafts, snowshoes and maps, the durable founder of the MacBride Museum is an amusing (and occasionally ribald) raconteur on Yukon history and people.
“For anyone who takes advantage of the ‘Please come in’ sign on his office door, Mr. MacBride has a wealth of information on northern lore.”
In 1967, the Centennial building, the log structure which sits on the corner of Wood Street and First Avenue, was officially opened to the public.
(Unfortunately, MacBride could not be there on the day it officially opened. Due to health reasons, he and his wife unwillingly left the Yukon for Vancouver in 1961.)
As soon as the Centennial building opened, museum officials realized that it wasn’t big enough. It had space to display just five per cent of the MacBride’s collection and the remainder had to be placed in storage.
Now, more than 40 years later, the museum will expand again.
On May 16, it will open its new building and exhibition, which chronicles the colourful characters and groundbreaking events that built Yukon’s modern history.
This story begins in the 1890s when surveyors such as William Ogilvie and George Dawson scoped out the territory’s mineral wealth.
It continues through 13 separate exhibits and more than 70 years to the growth and development of Whitehorse as a capital city in the 1950s and 60s.
This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history until the museum opens its new expansion on May 16.