In the first half of the twentieth century, sternwheel riverboats were the mainstay of Yukon’s transportation network. As the years passed, technological changes began to erode the stability of this system. Aviation made remote communities more accessible, even during the icy winter months, when the big riverboats were pulled ashore. The big change took place after the Second World War, during which an all-weather road linked the territory with the outside for the first time.
River transportation was only reliable for less than half the year. The silver mines in the Mayo district stockpiled their concentrate at Mayo during the winter months, and the riverboats worked furiously during the ice-free months to transport the product to Whitehorse and beyond.
In 1947, as production in the newly reopened Keno Hill Mine was ramped up, the riverboats could no longer meet the demand, so the company began lobbying for a ground link between Mayo and Whitehorse, and the road was completed in 1950. A branch road to Dawson City was completed in 1953, and there was no longer the need for riverboats to supply the needs of the community.
The White Pass and Yukon Route adopted a new strategy and turned to tourism to save the riverboat business. In a $100,000 makeover, the SS Klondikewas converted into a cruise ship. They converted her boilers to fuel oil. During the winter of 1953-54, White Pass added more passenger cabins, enlarged the dining room, added a bar and lounge, and upgraded the furnishings. Extra crew cabins were constructed on the cargo deck.
Canadian Pacific Airlines chartered the SS Klondike to connect with scheduled flights. Tourists could arrive in Whitehorse by air and transfer immediately to the SS Klondike for a leisurely trip downriver to Dawson City. No longer requiring wood stops, Captain Bromley could stop the SS Klondikeat points of interest instead.
In June of 1954, Vancouver Sun columnist Evelyn Caldwell, under the pen name “Penny Wise,” was dispatched to Whitehorse to be a tourist on the SS Klondike. Stopping at scenic points on the Yukon River, panning for gold on Bonanza Creek, touring a dredge, and talking to old-timers were some of the things she looked forward to, as she lounged in the sun on the after-deck of the luxurious sternwheeler. Ten similar cruises, she added, were scheduled for later in the season.
Arriving in Dawson, she and the other tourists were whisked up Bonanza Creek. Stopping at Harry Leamon’s mine, she went into the icy underground chamber and chipped some frozen ground into a gold pan and took it outside to pan. Leamon showed her how to pan the stuff, and sure enough, tiny flecks of gold appeared at the bottom of the pan. More interesting than the gold was Leamon himself, and she described her conversation, for readers, with the 77 year-old bachelor, who had lived in on his claim in the same cabin since 1917.
Caldwell and 44 other passengers spent a mere 21 hours in the Klondike, but she describes them as a whirlwind of activity. They were met at the waterfront by a welcoming committee that included former mayor Howard Firth and his wife Nancy, Lil Munro, Ag Shaw and Ruth Troberg, all dressed in period costume. According to Caldwell, “In ostrich feathers, white high-laced boots, feather boas, full skirts, puffed sleeves, … the women were like a picture from the Gay Nineties. And in Christie stiff hats, spats, canes, tight trousers, pinched jackets, …stiff collars, voluminous fur coats and hats, the men were their sartorial counterparts.”
In addition to Bonanza Creek, newcomer Harry Allen (he arrived in 1901) took the curious visitors on a town tour that included the hospital (housed in the old courthouse), and Robert Service’s cabin, but not Lousetown. Everywhere were huge woodpiles awaiting winter, and lush gardens producing cabbages weighing five kilograms. In the evening, they were taken to the Nugget Dance Hall (today the Palace Grand) and the Pearl Harbor Bar, next door.
Finally, they were taken to the community hall (now known as Diamond Tooth Gertie’s) for a dance. Unable to open the piano because it was padlocked shut, one impatient local got a hacksaw and cut it off. Said Caldwell, “That’s Dawson!”
Taking it all in, she enthused about 98-ers Fred Envoldsen (94 years old) and Ed Trana (84 years), who never left the golden north.
“The lure of the north was on them,” gushed Caldwell, “it was on me too.”
She spoke to Pretoria Butterworth, Lil Munro and Nancy Firth about what they would do if they went to Vancouver for a visit.
“Drink as much fresh, cold milk as she could,” said Nancy Firth.
“Take in a drive-in movie,” said Lil Munro.
“Go to a good musical and a play,” responded Pretoria Butterworth.
It was over all too quickly, and they were soon back on board the SS Klondike for the much more leisurely five-day upstream journey back to Whitehorse. Captain Bromley would bring the SS Klondike to a halt occasionally for fishing (Caldwell caught the largest grayling of them all), gold panning (“I found a nugget when we did that!” said Caldwell), or a wiener roast ashore.
Passengers could sight-see (they spotted 12 moose on this trip), take a hot shower, luxuriate in a hot bath, play shuffleboard, or indulge in a 75-cent beer in the lounge. In the evenings, there was dancing in the lounge to a hi fi system, and playing card games. Or just relaxing.
“It was interesting and exciting to spend time in the pilot house, where I was allowed to handle the “big wheel,” she reported, although these days, it was by a control lever rather than a wheel. Captain Bromley and pilot S. Goodlad regaled passengers at stops in Carmacks, Stewart and Fort Selkirk, with stories of life on the river.
“Before long,” said Caldwell, “it was easy to imagine the days of the turn of the century when the stampeders were tearing madly towards Dawson, red-hot in search of gold.”
She summed it up this way: “You’ll see and do things you’ve never seen or done before in your life, and will never be able to see or do anywhere else in the world.”
During both 1954 and 1955, the tours were fully booked, but despite the success, it was just too costly to support a fleet with only one ship. When the SS Klondike was pulled ashore in 1955, the only voyage that was to follow was the short journey through the streets of Whitehorse to its final resting place by the Robert Campbell Bridge, where it is proudly on display now as one of Canada’s national historic sites.
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.