This photograph looks southeast over Whitehorse, with military barracks in the foreground. During World War II, the army occupied much of the rural land that surrounded the tiny town of Whitehorse, seen in the distance. (Gates collection/Yukon News)

Post-War Whitehorse heralded dramatic change

I am always seeking to learn more about the history of Whitehorse. I had a remarkable opportunity to do so recently when I acquired a small booklet dating to post-World War II Whitehorse (1947) from another seeker of Yukon history, Murray Lundberg. Compiled by then editor of the Whitehorse Star, Horace E. Moore, for the Kiwanis Club of Whitehorse, it is titled: “All-Year Round Guide to the Yukon.”

This little publication reflected the optimism of a small community that was undergoing rapid growth and change.

A visitor to Whitehorse in 1947 found a town unlike the one we enjoy living in today. Whitehorse had been a small company town dominated by the White Pass and Yukon Route. It had a few hundred permanent residents centred on a cluster of businesses located in front of the White Pass docks, and a scattering of homes in the area between Hawkins and Strickland Streets. Most homes were either poorly insulated frame buildings or log structures. Most had no running water and an outhouse in the back yard. Few had telephones, most were heated with wood stoves and food was prepared on a wood stove in the kitchen, where ice chests were more common than refrigerators.

The few streets bordered by wooden sidewalks, had very little traffic. Most pre-war photos show a scarcity of motor vehicles where dogs were more common than automobiles on the downtown streets. All that changed with the “friendly invasion” of the U.S. Army, when the town was overwhelmed by thousands of soldiers and construction workers. The town was ill equipped to cope with the influx; line-ups were constant for just about everything; men slept in shifts in hotel rooms. Rows of military barracks were quickly constructed at the north and south ends of Whitehorse in areas previously considered “rural.”

The small cottage hospital with 21 beds that had served the town before the war became inadequate. A modern addition was quickly built to more than double the capacity. The booklet adds that a nurses’ residence was built at a cost of $38,000 and for an additional $14,500, alterations were made in the basement to add two wards “for Indians.”

The crude pre-war airfield on the terrace above Whitehorse was transformed into three runways, one a concrete strip more than 2,200 metres long, paralleled by a shorter asphalt strip and a much shorter cross runway. By 1947 the airport was dominated by four large hangars. A cluster of buildings at the edge of the clay cliff overlooking downtown was connected to the valley bottom by a road that angled down the side of the clay cliffs to the head of Main Street.

Main Street then would hardly be recognizable to a Whitehorse resident today. The Taylor and Drury store and the Northern Commercial store are now known as the Horwood’s Mall. The Burns Building remains on the north side of Main Street between Front Street and Second, although the original business, Burns and Company, has long since closed.

The block on the north side of Main between Third and Fourth avenues was then the site of the ball field, but is now the Elijah Smith Federal Building. Directly across stood the Capitol Theatre on the southeast corner of Third and Main (I watched the movie Tora Tora Tora there in 1972). Operated by Sam McLimon, it replaced the first movie theatre in Whitehorse, which stood where Starbucks can be found today.

At the west end of what is now the Edgewater Hotel (then the White Pass Hotel) was Hougen’s Variety Store, One of the few business names still recognizable today, where, the booklet stated, Mrs. Hougen was at your service. A small advertisement for Hougen’s store, on page 48, below one for Northland Beverages, and another for G. Ryder and Son on page 66, are three of the few business concerns still recognizable today.

The Alaska Highway had been constructed rapidly during the war as a strategic link between Alaska and the “Lower 48.” It was a far cry from the modern paved route that travelers get to enjoy today. Initially a pioneer road that was a crude track at the best of times, and a sodden quagmire at the worst, it was slowly being improved by contractors under the guidance of the Northwest Highway System (Canadian Army). The official handover of responsibility for the maintenance and upgrading of the road from the United States Army Corps of Engineers (Northwest Service Command) had only taken place after the end of the war, April 1, 1946.

The booklet was filled with instructions and helpful tips for anybody planning to travel the highway. It was still a military road. With a few exceptions, a permit was required before a traveller could use it. Tourists were still not allowed. Permits could only be obtained by applying in writing to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Edmonton or Whitehorse, the Northwest Highway System office in Dawson Creek, or the border agent at Snag.

Permission to travel a rough and ready thoroughfare was only granted if the traveller could demonstrate that they were properly equipped for the journey. Applicants were warned that they could not expect to receive food, shelter, or automotive repairs at any of the highway maintenance camps. Between Dawson Creek and Fairbanks there were only two dozen facilities where some or all of these services were available.

To be considered roadworthy, automobiles were required to carry with them a formidable array of supplies: two spare tires and tubes, pump, pressure gauge, jack. Tire chains and a patch kit were a must. In addition, the auto had to be equipped with a tool box, tow rope or cable, axe, shovel and a first aid kit. The list of spare parts was lengthy and included spark plugs, fan belt, distributor coil and points, fuses, condenser, fuel pump, spare axle, generator brushes and clutch parts. Was there room left for any passengers?

Most wishing to travel the Alaska Highway in the early days relied upon the thrice weekly White Pass buses from Whitehorse to Dawson Creek, or O’Harra Bus Lines from Whitehorse northwest to Fairbanks.

This booklet reflected the buoyant spirit of post-war Whitehorse and announced the shifting economic and transportation centre of the Yukon away from Dawson City. The Klondike capital was now a tiny isolate hundreds of kilometres north of Whitehorse, still only accessible by riverboat or airplane

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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