An old scrapbook that contains snapshots, post cards and other souvenirs of a trip to the Yukon and Alaska between 1935 and 1937 was gifted to historian Michael Gates. (Michael Gates/Yukon News)

History Hunter: Old scrapbook tells story of Yukon tourism in the early days

It was quite the Christmas gift

My wife Kathy is always surprising me with unusual Christmas gifts. This year it was a scrapbook from a trip taken through the Yukon and Alaska nearly a century ago.

The scrapbook consists of 21 pages with as many as a dozen images affixed to each page (six per side). The 226 images appear to be snapshots intermingled with post cards that would have been purchased along the way. Other pieces of paper ephemera are also glued onto some of the pages, including three tourist maps, produced by various transportation companies, illustrating commercial travel routes through the Yukon and Alaska. One of these maps was published by the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway.

Tourism goes back more than 125 years in Yukon history, if you include the trips taken by “gentleman travelers” like Warburton Pike, who visited the Yukon before the gold rush. The first real tourists, though, were probably two well-to-do American women Mary Hitchcock and Edith Van Buren.

Hitchcock and Van Buren arrived in Dawson City, at the height of the gold rush in 1898, with a small entourage, and bringing with them such necessities as a circus tent (for roughing it), a portable bowling alley, and even an “Animatoscope,” a new-fangled device that projected moving images.

In the years following the gold rush, the community of Dawson City made efforts to encourage tourist traffic to the Yukon. For decades, seasonal tourism represented a small but steady source of revenue for the Yukon economy.

During the teens and twenties, tourists were encouraged to travel into Alaska to Circle City, a few hundred kilometres below Dawson, where they could witness the midnight sun, these travelers were called “sunners,” and there are numerous references to them passing through Dawson in the local newspaper.

Not long after Robert Service’s departure from Dawson in 1912, his cabin on Eighth Avenue became an iconic attraction to curious visitors, and deserved mention in the accounts of visiting travel writers, like Frank Carpenter and Charlotte Cameron. By the 1930s, the community was sponsoring tourist dances at the Eagle Hall (formerly the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, and known today as Diamond Tooth Gertie’s gambling hall).

In 1938, a local group of young people opened the old Auditorium Theatre (now known as the Palace Grand), renaming it the Nugget Dance Hall. They formed an orchestra and performed for dances in the theatre. Boxing and wrestling matches were also held in the Nugget during this period, but with the onset of the Second World War, that local entertainment came to an end.

Let’s return to this tourist scrapbook. Who assembled the pictures and ephemera into the scrapbook, and when was the trip taken through the north? Since it wasn’t stated (there might have been something on the missing album cover), I had to use my powers of deduction.

The photographs pasted onto the pages are predominantly of scenery along a route that follows the Pacific coast to Wrangell, Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway, over the White Pass railroad, with a side trip to Atlin along the way. The photos illustrate Whitehorse, the Yukon River to Dawson, then continue into Alaska to Fairbanks. From there, the photos portray a trip to Anchorage, then along the coast to Valdez and Cordova, and ending in Seattle.

Since the snapshots portray only two individuals, matronly women named Blanche and Margaret (at Skagway), and no other images of groups of travelers, I assume that the photographer was a middle-aged woman travelling alone, perhaps a widow or a school teacher on summer break. Another image, of a woman standing in a scenic municipal park in Cordova, has no caption identifying who she was, suggesting that it might be the creator of the album, who, of course, would not need to identify herself.

The pages progress in an orderly fashion along the route described above, and contain some fascinating images. At Carcross, there is a photographic post card of Patsy Henderson, garbed in buckskin, greeting tourists on the train from Skagway.

In Whitehorse, there is a photograph of the substantial log barracks of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (a feature mentioned in White Pass tourist pamphlets), Sam McGee’s cabin (immortalized by Robert W. Service), and the White Horse Rapids. There are several snapshots of the rapids. Since three dollars would have paid for an automobile ride to Miles Canyon, I suspect that this lady walked to the rapids, which are close to downtown Whitehorse, on her own. There are photos of the SS Klondike, and numerous snapshots of scenery along the Yukon River.

By the 1930s, Dawson was a fading image of its past glory, filled with decaying buildings as a reminder of the town’s colourful origins decades before.

There are photos in this album of scenes along the Dawson waterfront, including the Royal Alexandra Hotel, a row of decaying derelict Front Street buildings, the Yukon River ferry and St. Mary’s hospital. Pictures taken from a lookout beside the slide behind Dawson suggest further foot excursions. There are photographs taken up Bonanza Creek (the White Pass brochures states that for $2.50, it was possible to take an automobile ride as far as Bear Creek in the Klondike River Valley).

There is a photograph of Robert Service Cabin. As early as 1916, the ladies of the I.O.D.E. were maintaining the cabin for tourists to visit; and putting on special events there. They continued to pay the property taxes for the cabin until the late 1940s.

Other snapshots illustrate scenes along the Yukon River below Dawson City, Fairbanks and coastal communities beyond Anchorage.

When was this excursion through the Yukon and Alaska taken? One photo included in the album is of a modernistic looking ferry, the M.V. Kalakala, which was first placed into service in 1935 in the Seattle area. Other features depicted in photos in the album do not help to narrow down the date when the camera captured them, but close examination of a panorama photograph of Dawson, taken by the creator of the album from the Moosehide slide, clearly shows the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association building, or D.A.A.A.. Since this building burned down in late 1937, it is possible to narrow the window of when the photos in this album were taken to somewhere between 1935 and 1937.

The journey into the Yukon and Alaska, which would have taken several weeks, must have left a strong impression on the creator of the album, as much effort and attention were given to assembling the items pasted onto its pages. Hopefully, more sleuthing will reveal his or her identity.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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