Whitehorse had growing pains in 1901

There’s a reason why you’ve never heard of Closeleigh

A recent conversation with Pat Ellis inspired this story. She mentioned a special anniversary edition of the White Horse Star issued when Whitehorse was only a year old, although back then, they referred to the town as White Horse.

This newspaper is housed at the Yukon Archives and is stored in a specially constructed storage box. Its dimensions are smaller than today’s newspapers. It had been torn and tattered; stains from old scotch tape repairs are evident on many of the pages, but it has been given a professional conservation treatment and has been rebound.

It has a story to tell.

In 1901, the Klondike stampede that heralded the birth of the territory was less than three years old. Miles Canyon and the White Horse Rapids determined this site as the most distant point of navigable water from the mouth of the Yukon River. It was from this point that stampeders could float to Dawson City without having to portage again.

A small ragtag assemblage of temporary tent shelters grew up on the east side of the Yukon (or the Lewes as they called the river in the early days). The tents were located at the terminus of Norman Macaulay’s tramway that circumvented the canyon and the rapids below. Located not far from where F.H. Collins high school stands today, it was called Closeleigh.

But Closeleigh was destined to disappear because of the railway which was being constructed from Skagway to this point. The terminus of the railway was on the opposite side of the river, where downtown Whitehorse stands today.

A year before, the future townsite was nothing but bush, but once it was determined to be the end of the railroad, several enterprising businesses from Bennett, B.C., made plans to relocate here. A year later, the site had been surveyed from Hanson Street at the south end, to Jarvis Street to the north, and as far back from the river as Fourth Avenue. Main and Front Streets formed the hub of this newborn community; the perimeter of this small area of development was still enclosed by tall stands of trees.

Early photographs in the special anniversary edition show a small central core of impressive frame structures, surrounded by a scattering of canvas tents.

By the end of navigation in 1900, a new depot and warehouses had been constructed along the waterfront, centred on Front and Main streets. This location still defines the heart of the city.

The special newspaper issue, dated May 1 1901, was a good example of chamber of commerce boosterism. White Horse, it said, could boast a population of 2,000. The Canadian Development Company could boast a fleet of 20 sternwheelers plying the river from here to Dawson City. Ten more riverboats operated independently.

Once the rail link was completed (the last spike was driven in Carcross July 29, 1900), White Horse became the connecting point to the Klondike by river. A journey that once took months to complete now took only four days from Skagway. A round trip from Tacoma, Washington, to Dawson City could be completed in a mere 16 days.

The Mounted Police had established a detachment here, where the current headquarters are located. Three churches — Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian — were already established. There were two newspapers, a half dozen wholesale houses, a dozen hotels, six restaurants, two drug stores and a bank.

Warehouses spread out along the waterfront for nearly a kilometre. A brickworks had opened for business, an electric light plant had been brought in, a steam laundry had been constructed, and the North Star Athletic Club had already been constituted.

The anniversary edition was quick to extol the importance of White Horse as a transportation hub, and trumpeted the promise of mineral wealth at every point of the compass. A belt of rich copper deposits circled White Horse. The “richest copperbelt in the great northwest, and what is expected to prove one of the richest in the world,” the newspaper crowed optimistically.

Even at this early date, some names appear in the newspaper that would form the foundation of the community during the following decades.

W.L. Phelps, a lawyer, was elected president of the athletic club, which had been established June 1 1900. Phelps came north during the gold rush, working in the Atlin area before setting down roots in White Horse. He practiced law in White Horse for nearly half a century, ran several businesses, and represented White Horse on the territorial council for nearly 30 years.

Edward Dixon was a Mountie stationed near White Horse during the gold rush of 1898. Sam Steele praised his ability to pilot Cheechakos safely through the turbulent waters of Miles Canyon. Dixon ran several businesses in White Horse, including the White Horse Steam Laundry and the Regina Hotel. He represented White Horse on territorial council, and in 1916 joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force that fought in France and Belgium during the Great War.

Robert Lowe’s picture appears in the centre of a group of portraits showing the members of the newly formed Board of Trade, of which he was elected president. He ran a hauling business and owned mines in the White Horse copper belt. He was a member of the territorial council on and off from 1902 until 1925. The suspension bridge spanning Miles Canyon was named in his honour.

Also depicted in this special newspaper issue were numerous businesses that had been established early. There was an advertisement for the White Horse Drug Store, Hamacher’s photo studio, the Windsor and White Horse Hotels, Whitney and Pedlar’s general merchandise store and Burns and Company Meat Market (the Burns Building still stands on Main Street).

One other business was featured, though it was rather short-lived. The Arctic Restaurant had been relocated from Bennett in July of 1900. Touted as the largest and principal restaurant in White Horse, its owners proudly stated that they had recently added one of the largest steel ranges in the Yukon to their kitchen, added modern furniture, and installed some private boxes.

Included with the article was a photo of the interior showing its modern décor and one of the proprietors posing in his white apron. But the partnership of Trump and Levin was dissolved, and Frederick Trump left the territory, never to return. Their business had little impact upon the growth of White Horse and Trump was quickly forgotten, until 2016, when his grandson, Donald, was elected President of the United States.

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.

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