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History Hunter: Yukon man relives the riverboat days after seven decades

John Nicholson took summer work on Yukon steamers in the 1950s
During our recent conversation, John Nicholson showed me snapshots of his time working on the Yukon riverboats 70 years ago. (Michael Gates)

I first met John Nicholson after my last column came out in the Yukon News. John is small, quiet, wise. He’s been a teacher all his life, giving lectures on art history at the extension campus of Loyola University of Chicago, which is in Rome, Italy. John just retired a few years ago, and has returned to live in Whitehorse.

He was born in Dawson City in January, 1938, where his father Jack worked for the dredging company on the creeks outside Dawson. Jack had been in the Yukon for nearly a decade when Lena Peck, his long-time sweetheart from back on Cape Breton Island, took the month-long journey to Dawson, where they were married in October, 1935.

Jack worked on the dredges out on the creeks while the family lived in Dawson. John’s memories of Dawson were good ones, most notably the long, cold, winters. The Nicholson family moved to Whitehorse in 1944, where there was work for the army maintaining the Alaska Highway. John remembers the food rationing of the war years.

His father was posted at 17 Works, an army installation on Two-Mile Hill, when, on Dec. 28, 1950, he died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was only 49 years old. John was 12 years old, going on 13 at the time. Without the wage-earner of the family, finances were slim.

According to John: “My mother said, ‘well you have to get a summer job, because money was a little bit short.’ I don’t know if the Locke family is still around, but I met a fellow named Freddy Locke who was little older than I am. I met him on the street, and he said, something like ‘…are you looking for a summer job?’ So, I said yes. Well, he knows there was a job on the riverboats.” And that’s how he found work on the steamer Whitehorse for the summer.

John misled them about his age, telling them he was 15. They knew better, but perhaps knowing of his family circumstances, hired him anyway. He started as soon as school let out in June of 1951. That was 70 years ago this summer. He kept his seaman’s discharge book for many years. It contained the record of his service on the steamers, but he lost it “somewhere along the way.”

John was assigned to work in the galley, where he assisted the cook. The kitchen crew was Chinese, but after seven long decades, he can’t remember their names, nor the names of any other crew or officers. He recalls that his job included a lot of peeling of potatoes, onions and carrots. He served food to the crewmen in the crew’s mess. He ate well, and bunked next to the engine room. The engine of the Whitehorse, which was powered by steam, was relatively quiet. He remembers falling asleep to the rhythmic churning of the paddlewheel, and he slept well.

John did plenty of other jobs, basic work, cleaning and such things, but nothing too hard. At midnight, he would take a sandwich and tea to the pilot in the wheelhouse. He was too young and too small to handle the massive logs that were constantly being thrown into the ship’s hungry boiler by other crewmen. If he had any free time, he would curl up with a book.

A young John Nicholson, shown here aboard an unidentified riverboat, misled White Pass about his age when he applied for work the summer of 1951. He was only 13 years old. He worked on the Steamer Whitehorse in 1951, and the Klondike the following year. (Courtesy/John Nicholson)

“I was always a bit of a bookworm,” he told me.

For his efforts, he was paid the sum of $110 a month. He saved most of it, he said, because he didn’t have to pay for food and board.

He recalled that the trip to Dawson only took two days. A round trip, which included the hard work of steaming back to Whitehorse against the steady Yukon current, took 10. There were stops to deliver freight and passengers, and to pick up firewood to keep the steam up during the long upstream trip. On one trip, when they were winching up through Five Finger Rapids, the pilot miscalculated, and the giant vessel slammed against the rocks on the side of the passage. There was some minor damage, but the boat did not sink.

During his second summer, he was assigned to work on the steamer Klondike. Now with a season’s experience behind him, he was promoted upstairs, donned a white shirt and jacket, and waited on the officers and passengers. He also cleaned the cabins and changed the sheets. He remembers that the Klondike also took passengers on overnight trips to Lake LaBerge. Passengers were shown where Sam McGee was “cremated,” and treated to a picnic on the beach before returning to Whitehorse.

John attended school in Whitehorse until he reached Grade 8, which was the highest grade taught at the Whitehorse Catholic school. After that he attended boarding school in Saskatchewan, where he lived in a dorm with about 100 other students. He received a good education there, but was thankful to leave when he graduated. Meanwhile, he worked during the summers in the same Whitehorse facility as his father had done before him, at a rate of $2.50 per hour. His main job, he recalls, jokingly, was avoiding the foreman.

After completing high school, he studied at the University of Ottawa, where he taught for two years after graduation, before leaving for Belgium on a Canada Council fellowship to take his PhD at the University of Leuvain. After that, he gravitated to Rome, where he continued to teach until retiring recently.

He has one final recollection of the riverboats. While working for the army, he took the train to Carcross and boarded the steamer Tutshi, for an overnight cruise on Tagish Lake that took him to Ben My Chree. This time, he did not have to peel potatoes, or don a white jacket to serve the passengers.

After the road to Dawson was completed, the need for river freighting dwindled, and the last sternwheeler, the Klondike, left Dawson Aug. 18, 1955. The boats were pulled up on the skids beside the Yukon River in what is now known as Shipyards Park. The Keno made its final voyage to Dawson in August of 1960. That was the last sternwheeler to ply the waters of the mighty Yukon. By then, the bridge at Carmacks had been finished, and to get under it safely, the engineers hinged the smokestack so that it would fold out of the way to pass under the steel girders.

Michael Gates is the author of six books of Yukon history. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. Michael is the Yukon’s first Story Laureate