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Lachlan Burwash: Canadian explorer with a Yukon connection

The life of Lachlan T. Burwash would have the makings of a good book
Courtesy/Library and Archives Canada Lachlan “Lockie” Burwash had already spent 15 years in the Yukon working for the government when, at an age that most men are slowing down, he embarked on a decade of ambitious arctic exploration in the Canadian north.

A recent inquiry from a friend led me on an interesting historical excursion. Did we know anything about Lachlan T. Burwash? I was aware that he was a mining recorder at Silver City after gold was discovered in the Kluane district. In fact, the name would be quite familiar to most Yukoners. Burwash Landing and Burwash Creek were both named after him.

That was all I knew, but after some digging around in various historical sources, there was much more to his story…

Lachlan “Lockie” Taylor Burwash was born September 5, 1874, the son of Nathanael Burwash, an influential Methodist theologian, and chancellor of Victoria College, later part of the University of Toronto. As a young man, he studied to become a mining engineer at U of T. In 1897, he was sent to the Yukon by his employers.

By early 1900, he was working in the Dawson mining recorder’s office; in late February, he was dispatched to Stewart City to run the mining recorder’s office. In 1901, he was also serving as timber inspector, when he was called upon to assist a Mountie in the recovery of the frozen body of Dr. Bettinger, about 15 kilometres up the White River, a poorly clad traveler who was last seen heading to Whitehorse.

When gold was discovered in the Kluane district in 1903, Burwash was appointed assistant gold commissioner, to be stationed at a strategic location in the new goldfields, yet to be selected. By November, he was given the permanent position of mining recorder, stationed in Whitehorse. Over the next few months, he and mining inspector Percy Reid were stationed in the Kluane area due to the heightened activity in the region. Two decades later, Reid was appointed to the position of gold commissioner, the highest civil posting in the Yukon by that time.

After the 1904 federal election, won in the Yukon by Dr. Alfred Thompson, numerous appointees from the previous Congdon administration were given their walking papers, including Lockie Burwash. During this period, he exercised his interest in extracurricular activities. Frequent references are found in the Whitehorse newspaper during the ensuing years attesting to his involvement in curling, baseball, billiards and cribbage.

For whatever reason, Burwash seems to have escaped the government purge because he was again working at Silver City as mining recorder in September of 1905. He was granted extended leave late in the year, during which time, he returned to Ontario and married a distant cousin. He and his bride, Helen, returned to Whitehorse, and late in the summer of 1906, she accompanied him on a two-week trip to Teslin to attend to mining affairs in that area.

By 1907, Burwash had been elevated to assistant gold commissioner for the Whitehorse district (southern Yukon). He presided over the continuing activity in the Kluane region, as well as the frenzied staking of lode deposits in the Conrad area, south of Carcross.

In the fall of 1908, Burwash went on an extended trip to the White River region north and east of Kluane, again accompanied by his wife. The purpose of the arduous trek was to investigate possible routes to the mining in the area of the White River.

Lockie and Helen left Whitehorse, traveling by horse-drawn buckboard, on September 6, reaching Silver City four days later. From there they proceeded by horse to the White River, where there was a small settlement of crude log cabins, arriving on September 21.

They had planned to continue by horse to Swede Creek near Dawson, but instead, they joined a party of miners leaving the White River mining camp by boat, and reached the Yukon River September 27. Their trip had taken more than three weeks, over a distance that would conveniently be covered by air in a few hours today.

During the following years, Lockie and Helen Burwash lived in Whitehorse. Lockie’s younger brother, a Dominion land surveyor, relocated to Whitehorse for several years. His father and mother visited Whitehorse for a month the summer of 1909.

The Burwashes left Whitehorse for Toronto with their newborn daughter in September of 1909, but Lockie returned to work in Whitehorse after traveling as far as Vancouver. He was reposted to Dawson in 1910, and seems to have regularly traveled back and forth to Whitehorse.

In June of 1912, Burwash officially resigned his post with the government, possibly in response to yet another change of government administration. He left the Yukon for good in September of 1912, after a rather routine government career. Although he was approaching middle age, his adventures were just beginning.

At age of 41 years, Lockie Burwash enlisted as an officer in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War. He rose to the rank of major, and he was gassed in July of 1917. He was eventually demobilized in 1919.

After that, he embarked upon an ambitious decade of Arctic exploration. Burwash travelled to Fort Norman in 1921 and over the following year, he supervised the drilling for and discovery of oil. Norman Wells later became the source of oil pumped to Whitehorse during World War II via the CANOL pipeline. He then left Fort Norman and continued to Herschel Island and the Arctic Ocean.

In 1922, he sailed with Captain Joseph Bernier aboard the HMS Arctic to Ellesmere Island, which he explored for two years. Starting in 1925, he charted the Canadian coastline for another two years, from the mouth of the Mackenzie River, around Hudson Bay, through the Hudson Strait, and along the coast of Labrador. In 1927, he went back to Hudson Bay, to conduct a geological exploration of the east side of the bay, including James Bay, with a side trip to examine iron deposits on the Belcher Islands.

During 1928-1929, he traveled by schooner from the mouth of the Mackenzie River to King William Island and the Boothia Peninsula, where he was able to confirm the location of the magnetic north pole. Following that, in 1930, he took 2,000 aerial photographs of the Arctic coastline, covering much of the area he had charted on land some years earlier.

Unlike many arctic explorers, he never found himself in a dire situation. During his travels, he was able to throw light on the disappearance of the Franklin expedition. Quite a list of accomplishments for a man in his fifties!

Lockie Burwash was one of several Yukoners who made important inroads into the exploration of the Canadian Arctic. Among those worthies were J.B. Tyrrell, Richard Finnie, and George Paton Mackenzie, the latter a former commissioner of the Yukon. Unfortunately, Burwash’s accomplishments were overshadowed by those of other Arctic explorers, perhaps most notably, Vilhalmur Stefansson and Roald Amundson.

With more research, the life of Lachlan T. Burwash would have the makings of a good book.

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. You can contact him at