My wife Kathy recently acquired an interesting booklet dating to 1947 that gives a glimpse of what Whitehorse was like at the time. Titled “All-Year Round Guide to the Yukon,” it was sponsored by the Whitehorse Kiwanis Club and compiled by Horace Moore, the publisher of the Whitehorse Star (“The Voice of the Yukon”).
The focus of this 80-page booklet is clearly about Whitehorse and the Alaska Highway, though Dawson City and Mayo are mentioned in the mining section, and in the historical articles.
Many of the 23 photos illustrating the booklet are excellent quality shots taken by amateur photographer and Yukon resident James Quong. The centrefold of this booklet consists of an attractive map of the Yukon and Northern British Columbia, taking in the entire length of the Alaska Highway including Edmonton, to the east, and Fairbanks to the west.
Before the Second World War, and the construction of the Alaska highway, Whitehorse was just a transition point between rail transport from the coast, and river transportation to Dawson City and Mayo.
The war changed all of that. Whitehorse was swamped by American military personnel during the war. In the aftermath of their departure (the Canadian portion of the Alaska Highway was officially turned over to the Canadian Army in a ceremony on April 3, 1946), Whitehorse still had ten times its pre-war population, the infrastructure hadn’t yet caught up with these changes, and many home owners outside of the downtown core still relied on outhouses.
There was a dramatic shift in the power centre to the south of the territory from the gold rush capital. Whitehorse became the main operations centre for the Canadian government. With its position on the Alaska Highway, and its busy airport, it had become the transportation hub for the territory.
The massive federal spending dwarfed the territorial budget. The capital was moved south to Whitehorse just six years later, to the outrage of Dawsonites. There were class distinctions in the community. The military and the federal government employees had generally superior accommodation on the bluff above Whitehorse, and steady substantial salaries. The town residents, who lived on the flat below, weren’t so fortunate.
Indigenous residents of the community were marginalized, socially and physically. Very little mention was found of them in this little blue book, although the article describing the Whitehorse General Hospital mentions that the 1915 structure, which had been enlarged to accommodate 50 beds in 1943, had “two wards for Indians” constructed in the basement of the structure for $14,500. Adjacent accommodation for nurses working at the hospital was constructed in 1946 at a cost of $38,000.
The booklet incudes a walking tour of downtown Whitehorse. Many of the 50 businesses advertised in this booklet are conveniently mentioned in the tour. The details are informative.
Between Third and Fourth Avenues, where the Elijah Smith Building stands today, there was an open lot and ball field. The North Star Athletic Association building stood here for many years. During the Second World War, it was converted into a hospital by the U.S. Army until it was destroyed by fire December, 1942, and a new wing was subsequently added to the original hospital, located on Second Avenue, south of Main Street.
While many businesses have long since vanished, some features mentioned in the 1947 booklet are still visible today. Looking north up Fourth Avenue, at the intersection with Main Street, the Sacred Heart Catholic Church was visible a couple of blocks away. Looking south along Fourth Avenue, was the headquarters of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, where they are still located, though in a more modern structure. The article notes that a town detachment was located on Front Street, in the old telegraph office, which still stands beside (or under) the MacBride Museum.
The Old Log Church and rectory, having survived the big fires of earlier years, stood where they can still be seen today, on Elliott Street. Across the street from the church was Sam McGee’s cabin, long since relocated to the museum grounds on Front Street. At the corner of Main Street and Second Avenue, where the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce stands today, was the Whitehorse Inn.
Advertisements placed on the front and back inside covers proclaim that the Whitehorse Inn, run by T.C. Richards, one of the city’s most prominent citizens, was going through an expansion to accommodate a ballroom (200 person capacity) and a banquet hall (350 people).
Richards was territorial manager for Burns Meats, located a couple of doors down the street from the hotel. He was also the proprietor of “the largest and most modern garage in town,” and Chrysler dealership, located a block south on Second Avenue.
Across the street from the Burns store, at the corner of the lane opposite, was Hougen’s Variety Store, with Mrs. Hougen at your service. At the northwest corner of Main and Front streets was the Taylor and Drury Store, which still stands today as the Horwood’s Mall.
Information in the booklet includes territorial mining laws. Colourful stories written by T.C. Richards, W.D. “Bill” MacBride and Horace Moore, cover topics related to the overland mail route to Dawson, Yukon river boats, aviation history, Soapy Smith, The Chilkoot Trail, and the two main churches in town (Roman Catholic and Anglican). And who could forget Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids?
Most interesting of all was the information regarding the Alaska Highway – points of interest, accommodation and roadside facilities. Did you know that the infamous “Suicide Hill” was located between mile posts 155 and 156? That the Nasutlin Bay Bridge is the longest bridge on the Alaska Highway, and the Teslin Bridge cost $530,000 to construct? Want to know how Jake’s Corner got its name? It is all in the booklet.
In 1947, you could buy gasoline and meals at Haines Junction, but you would have to drive a few kilometres farther if you wanted to stop overnight in one of the four rooms available at McIntosh’s Lodge. There was no Destruction Bay mentioned, but you could stay in one of the 40 rooms in the lodge at Burwash Landing.
Oh, and yes, The Alaska Highway was a bumpy 1,523 mile-long (2,437 kilometre) gravel road back then, and you had to apply in person for permission to drive on it (no holidayers, thank you!)
What to bring if you were brave enough to travel the highway? According to the Guide, two spare tires, tubes, patch kits, tire pump and jack, chains, tow rope, axe and shovel, first aid kit, spare parts including spark plugs, fan belts, fuses, fuel pump kit, brake fluid, generator brushes clutch parts and plenty of money. If you had any room to spare, you could take a passenger or two, but not the faint-hearted!
It is interesting to see how many things have changed — and improved — in the 74 years since this booklet was printed!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org