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History Hunter: Exploring Yukon’s history attic

Do you have some valued family heirloom — a photo album, a collection of letters, old maps or records of some past event — and wonder what to do with them? Read this before you throw them away.
Archivist Lesley Buchan recently laid out a selection of documents from the large Roy Minter collection held at the Yukon Archives. Similar collections, large and small from thousands of donors, are part of the Yukon’s “memory bank,” now carefully stored in climate controlled vaults on the Yukon University campus. (Gates collection/Submitted)

Do you have some valued family heirloom — a photo album, a collection of letters, old maps or records of some past event — and wonder what to do with them? Read this before you throw them away.

Archivist Lesley Buchan, who works at the Yukon Archives, took me where people seldom go — into the Yukon’s “history attic.” Rather than the attic, it was into the archive vaults, located on the campus of Yukon University. Here, in carefully monitored, climate-controlled storage are some of the Yukon’s historical documentary treasures.

There are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of documents: government records, corporate files, personal collections of photos and letters, maps, books, films and sound recordings related to the history of the Yukon.

I asked her if she would show me one of her favourite collections, and talk about the donor.

Buchan chose Roy Minter. When Minter passed away in 1996, he was described as a “Yukon Renaissance Man.” He was involved in many projects and had an eclectic range of interests. Born in England, he came to Canada as a child. He spent seventeen years in the military. He saw action in the Second World War and the Korean Conflict, but his final posting before leaving the army was in the Northwest Highway System headquarters at Whitehorse in 1955. He retained his ties to the Yukon for the rest of his life.

On impulse, Minter dropped in on a meeting of the MacBride Museum Society shortly after moving to Whitehorse, and was quickly hooked on Yukon History. His presentations to territorial council led to the foundation of the Yukon Visitors Association in 1957. He became involved in many of the activities of the Gold Rush Jubilee in 1958, and he co-founded the Dawson City Gold Rush Festival in 1962.

When the City of Edmonton tried to appropriate the Klondike gold rush for Klondike Days, Minter formed the Klondike Defense Force, to challenge the Alberta capital. He also wrote an extensively researched book on the construction of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, a company for which he worked for 16 years. He was working on a second book, about the Yukon River, when he passed away in 1996.

Charlie Taylor, from left, Roy Minter and Don MacWilliam in the beard growing contest at the 1958 (Klondike) Jubilee Celebration. Roy Minter was involved in a wide range of community activities. His large collection of documents now resides in the Yukon Archives. (Yukon Archives/Rolf and Margaret Hougen fonds)

Aside from that, he was a genuine and friendly individual who was as interested in people as he was with his work. He never married, and over the years, donated much of his personal collection to the Yukon Archives. The remainder of his personal papers came to the archives after he passed away. He also left a substantial endowment to the Yukon Foundation to further historical research.

Buchan had laid out a wide array of items from the Minter collection for me to look at, and what an impressive collection it is. Spread out on a long table were documents, some of which Minter had saved from going to the garbage dump. One of them was a photograph and a report, copied from the log book of the sixth voyage north of the Steamer Canadian in 1904, detailing the sinking of the steamer after hitting a boulder in the shallows of the Yukon River.

Also laid out for me was a massive bound album of photographs of the White Pass Railroad taken by company photographer H.C. Barley. Minter also arranged the transfer of 929 of Barley’s glass plate negatives to the archives the year it opened (1972).

Other items put out for me to examine were a typed manuscript of the book On the White Pass Payroll; estimates of cost and revenue for the construction of a highway to Alaska, dated 1931; stage and steamboat records for the period 1900 to 1904, and a register of employees spanning the years 1901 to 1937. Imagine if these gems had been thrown away! This collection contains a wealth of information about hundreds of employees who worked for White Pass over more than a half century.

Also included in the collection: reels of film, many of which Minter produced personally; technical drawings, promotional posters and original art. Together, these documents chart the history of one of the Yukon’s most important companies.

In addition to White Pass history, the collection reveals Roy Minter the man, the soldier, the worker, the volunteer and the author. It includes personal papers, diaries and day-timers that record his daily thoughts and activities.

His collection intersects with important events in Yukon history, and when archivists finish processing the collection (only 50 boxes to go), it will be posted on the Yukon Archives website. According to Buchan, “description and access points to files are not yet available on Yukon Archives’ website; but you can consult Yukon Archives’ reference staff for more information about this important collection.”

Not all donations to the Yukon Archives are as large as the Minter collection, but they too contribute to our knowledge of Yukon’s past. Some people donate small collections associated with their short stay in the Yukon, and which may be their only connection to the territory. One donor, who worked on Yukon riverboats for a couple of years, donated a photograph album related to his time in the north, and was thrilled that the archives was interested in accepting it.

Large or small, all donations are important. The history of the Yukon is made up of the thousands of bits and pieces of memories and experiences of thousands of donors. Making a donation to the Yukon Archives adds to that history memory bank. Donating is both a process, and a relationship — a relationship that can last a short time for some, or for many years for others.

When your donation is accepted, it will be cared for in a professional manner, in state-of-the-art facilities. The material will be organized and documented, and made accessible to the public (under terms and conditions agreed upon with the donor) and in some instances, may be put on public display.

Often, someone will offer a single item, thinking that it is the only thing that would be of interest to the archives. An archivist like Buchan, may convince such donors that they have more than a single item to offer. Within their possession, these donors may also hold a rich trove of documents related to family history, business, volunteer activities, or social life, all of which contribute to the rich mosaic of Yukon history.

If you would like to donate your collection, big or small, to the Yukon Archives’ “history attic,” you can start by sending an inquiry to or phoning 867-667-5321 (or toll-free outside of Whitehorse: 1-800-661-0408). The professional archives staff will assist you through the process. For more information on how to make a donation, and what to expect, go to

Michael Gates is the author of six books of Yukon history. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Mine,” is now available in Yukon Stores. Michael is the Yukon’s Story Laureate.