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History Hunter: Every picture tells a story in early Whitehorse

My wife Kathy keeps an alert eye for interesting photos and documents related to Yukon history. One that recently came to her attention was a rare albumen photo said to be Dawson City, in the Klondike gold rush ca. 1880. We both recognized that the description was not accurate.
This rare photo was taken of the Whitehorse waterfront south of Main Street. Several businesses were captured by the unidentified photographer which could be linked to other historical records. (Courtesy/Gates collection)

My wife Kathy keeps an alert eye for interesting photos and documents related to Yukon history. One that recently came to her attention was a rare albumen photo said to be Dawson City, in the Klondike gold rush ca. 1880. We both recognized that the description was not accurate.

It was possible that the person who had put the photo up for sale didn’t know her Yukon history, or thought that she would stimulate more interest in it if was labelled as having been taken in Dawson.

The photo arrived in due course, and I eagerly examined it. In the foreground is a horse-drawn sled with a driver and several passengers. Others are standing around the sled. A dog in the foreground seems unconcerned about what is going on.

Closer scrutiny of the sled shows that it has two sets of runners. On the side is painted “J.K. Smith Stage No. 2.” A platform has been appended to the rear of the main body of the sled, upon which various pieces of freight and luggage are secured. The bench at the front, upon which the teamster is sitting, also appears to have been added. Part of the seat consists of a wooden packing crate.

Behind the sled is a row of buildings, the largest of which is a two-storey structure with corrugated metal siding, and a sign proclaiming Fred MacLennan as proprietor. Beside that is a one-story building with a sign that reads “Post Office” over the front entrance. Beside that, is a smaller building with a sign attached to the false front, over the door. “George W. Woodruff,” it announces, “Stationery, Cigars, Candies & Notions.” Below that, another sign that reads “Customs Broker.”

Behind the sled is a banner that announces “Dawson Stage/ Four Horses/Leaves Friday/ J.K. Smith.” There is snow on the ground, but the people in the photograph are bare-handed, suggesting that the temperature is mild. The passengers and the driver are wearing fur coats and fur-lined caps with ear flaps.

A little research has revealed that the businesses shown in the photo are Whitehorse establishments. But there are many questions: where and when the photo was taken being the most obvious. What can we learn about the various businesses and people shown? Can any of the people in the photo be identified?

There were four businesses visible in the photo: MacLennan’s Hardware, the post office, Woodruff’s variety store, and Smith’s transportation company. I begin with the post office, as it is critical to establishing when the photograph was taken. Consulting various books on the history of Whitehorse, I learned that the first post office opened July 1, 1900, and that the more elegant permanent post office building, located on Front Street, was open by the summer of the following year.

The building identified as the post office in this photo could only have been used in the brief window of time between July 1 of 1900 and the summer of 1901. Given the light and snow conditions, I concluded that the photo was taken during the late winter of 1901.

J.K. Smith, who had been employed on the Miles Canyon tramway the year before, is reported in The Whitehorse Star in March of 1901, as running a stage line to Dawson from Whitehorse. Aside from several brief items in the newspaper, there is little else said about Mr. Smith, and he appears to have vanished from the scene shortly thereafter.

George Woodruff appears to have entered the Yukon in October, 1899, and had established his stationery and notions business by 1901, when this photograph was taken. He is listed as such in the 1902 Polk’s Directory. After that, there is little mention of him. There are references to a George Woodruff working for the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, as well as a Woodruff being mayor of Skagway. Could this be the same man, or someone who shares the same last name? More research might clear that up.

More is known about Fred MacLennan, who was operating a hardware business when the photograph was taken. There is a photo of the bearded MacLennan in the First Anniversary edition of The Whitehorse Star. I note that the “L” in his name is capitalized at first, but is not in later newspapers and directories. According to the article that accompanies his photo (and another of his store), he was one of the first businessmen to open a store in the fledgling community the year before, having opened it as a branch store to the first one he operated in Bennett during the stampede.

By 1901, the Nova Scotian was a veteran of 30 years in the hardware business. In addition to carrying a complete line of heavy and shelf hardware, he also supplied the needs of those working in various trades (builders, blacksmiths, steam engineers, painters and boat builders).

Like Woodruff, MacLennan was involved in the community, and both men supplied goods from their businesses as prizes for various events. He brought his wife and children to live with him in Whitehorse, and shortly after the photo was taken, he was reported to be building a small residence at the corner of Steele Street and Fourth Avenue. He was also the chairman of the Whitehorse General Hospital Society. His children participated in various school events, and his daughter Jeanne received a gold medal from the Whitehorse schoolteacher for her “proficiency in studies and good deportment.”

In 1903, Fred MacLennan’s brother, R.P. MacLennan, was elected mayor of Dawson City, where he too ran a hardware business, in partnership with another man, named McFeeley.

By 1904, Fred apparently abandoned the hardware business and was appointed customs collector in Whitehorse, a position that he held for more than a dozen years. During World War I, he was president of the local branch of the Red Cross, while his two sons, Jack (Royal Flying Corps) and Fred, Jr. (Canadian Expeditionary Force), served overseas.

My shallow dive into the early days of Whitehorse yielded useful information about each of the businesses, and the people who ran them. It was enough to build a picture of a rapidly evolving business sector located on the Whitehorse waterfront. Sadly, I could find no good photos in the Yukon Archives of the section of Whitehorse where these businesses stood, but there were enough to confirm that they were located on Front Street, south of Main Street, and the Windsor Hotel (now the location of the Edgewater Hotel).

Whitehorse did not receive the extensive photo documentation that its larger neighbour downriver did in the early days. This photo is significant because it illustrates Whitehorse in a place and time that was not well recorded by any other photographer.

Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Gold Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. His next book, “From the Klondike to Hollywood,” is due for release in September. You can contact him at