Sternwheelers in Whitehorse – reminders of our history

For its first 50 years, Whitehorse was solidly connected to the Yukon River, and to the sternwheelers and other boats that ran up and down it. Now, although the restored sternwheeler S.S. Klondike is the city’s most iconic attraction, the other boats have been pretty much forgotten, and even the community’s historic connection to the river isn’t obvious.

The shipyards of the British Yukon Navigation Company was the heart of steamboat life in Whitehorse when the boats were operating. By the time Dave and Lois Mitchell shot the next two photos of the shipyards below, in about 1960, there wasn’t a lot left compared to what had been there. A couple of days ago, their daughter, Caren Hochstein, sent me several of their boat photos to use, in response to a couple of discussions in my Yukon History & Abandoned Places group on Facebook.

The shipyards of the British Yukon Navigation Company in about 1960
In 1961, the Aksala on the left in the next photo was disassembled and hauled up to the Alaska Highway to be used as a restaurant.

The sternwheelers Aksala and Casca in the shipyards at Whitehorse in the 1960s.
The Aksala was eventually burned because it was considered to be too deteriorated to be of any further use. Luckily, the 22,000-pound paddlewheel was saved, and was restored in 2010-2011. It sits at Paddlewheel Village at Km 1418.2 of the Alaska Highway.

The paddlewheel from the sternwheeler Aksala at Paddlewheel Village, Km 1418.2 of the Alaska Highway
In 1966, the sternwheeler that was in the best condition, the Klondike, was moved from the shipyards to a new home upriver. The next photo is one of Dave and Lois Mitchell’s, and the late Les McLaughlin told the story of the move in one of his Yukon Nugget pieces on radio station CKRW.

Moving the S.S. Klondike in 1966
The story of the shipyards came to a dramatic end on June 21, 1974, when the sternwheelers Whitehorse and Casca burned. The uncredited photo below is in the men’s washroom at the Yukon Transportation Museum. See more photos of and information about that fire here.

The Whitehorse and Casca burning at Whitehorse on June 21, 1974.
Today, as I mentioned, the S.S. Klondike is the main thing that keeps the exciting steamboat days in view of most Whitehorse residents, and a high percentage of visitors go to see it.

Restored sternwheeler S.S. Klondike in Whitehorse, Yukon

Restored sternwheeler S.S. Klondike in Whitehorse, Yukon

The British Yukon Navigation Company shipyard became a squatters’ village for many years, but is now a park that was named Shipyards Park.

Shipyards Park in Whitehorse, Yukon
At extreme low water levels on the Yukon River, you can still see remnants of the days when the boats were running.

Yukon River at Whitehorse
The largest artifacts are the timbers that the boats were slid along to be taken out of and put back into the river – the ways.

Timbers from the shipyard ways at Whitehorse

Timbers from the shipyard ways at Whitehorse

Timbers from the shipyard ways at Whitehorse

Looking closer along the riverbank today, there is broken glass, pieces of steel – both scrap and equipment – and lots of hand-made spikes like the one in the next photo.

A hand-made spike along the Yukon River at Whitehorse.
Docks and warehouses used to line the Yukon River. Now, although many have been buried in rock to stabilize the bank, there are still some pilings from those docks and buildings.

A paved walking path follows the Yukon River all the way through downtown Whitehorse, and a deck called The Wharf has been built beside the WP&YR train station. It quickly became a popular spot to stop and enjoy the river. The pilings seen in the photo above are immediately downriver from the The Wharf.

The Wharf at Whitehorse, Yukon
A large artifact has been brought from the slough across the road from Walmart. Now mounted at The Wharf, though with no interpretation, this paddlewheel shaft is from the sternwheeler Clara Monarch, which gave its name to the slough where it was abandoned in 1907. The wreckage of the hull can still be seen in the slough at low water levels. The next photo below shows the paddlewheel shaft at Clara Monarch Slough in 2012, and the photo below it shows it in place at The Wharf.

The paddlewheel shaft from the sternwheeler Clara Monarch

The paddlewheel shaft from the sternwheeler Clara Monarch

Upriver from the S.S. Klondike is a sternwheeler site worth mentioning. The sternwheeler Canadian was renowned for her longevity, working on the upper Yukon River from 1898 until being scuttled to serve as as a breakwater to protect the White Pass railway at Whitehorse in 1931. Until May 1997, her hull and equipment could be clearly seen in the clear shallow waters near what used to be called the “Big Bend” of the river, to the south of town. During a major road reconstruction project, however, she was buried under hundreds of tons of rock, although the boiler, pistons and sternwheel frame were recovered first, to be used in an interpretation project. The first photo below, of the Canadian being buried, was shot in April 1997, the second photo, of the interpretive site, was shot in October 2011.

Sternwheeler Canadian being buried under rock i 1997

Sternwheeler Canadian interpretive site

If you’re one of the people who use the walking path along the river, or ride the waterfront trolley during the summer, give some thought to what the waterfront used to be like. Imagine the sights, the sounds, the people that helped make Whitehorse what it is today.


Sternwheelers in Whitehorse – reminders of our history — 5 Comments

  1. Thank you for the photos and history on the waterfront Murray. I clearly remember the waterfront from the 1960s as a teen. Our group of friends spent lots of time on the waterfront over several years, even swimming amongst the pilings in the river. I collected many spikes of various sizes that I treasure and will eventually donate to either the MacBride Museum or Transportation Museum. My father took numerous photos of the SS Klondike being moved in 1966, however, they were misplaced in 1991. A friend and I witnessed the entire move from beginning to end. In hindsight I wish I would have taken my own photos during my growing up years.

  2. I associate through work and of time with immigrants, the lament is that while in Europe there is actual architecture going back 800 years of society and political change and culture, we in north america show relatively little to display. Albeit European infrastructure was made of more stable materials, we in the north have fought for our more recent heritage without government support and willingness. Even to rebuild actual scale replicas of sternwheelers. I have never understood the government reaction of cost when there is such ludicrous spending in other areas that bring in less money than tourism.
    I do appreciate this post though.

  3. Finishing up a second volume of a fellow’s travels through the north country, lakes, etc just prior to the outbreak of WWII.
    Fascinating to read and try and understand how the transportation infrastructure changed so dramatically in just a few years… and how much, the north country’s seasons drove that older level of travel and shipping infrastructure.
    Post war with all the new roads, machinery, airplanes of every sort…and returning soldiers and residents with the confidence to push harder in every direction of the compass.
    An era passed, for sure.

    • It is remarkable. If a Yukoner left in 1938 and came back 15 years later, they wouldn’t have recognized much of anything. The Yukon, and the Yukon lifestyle, had radically changed in that few years, and even the capital city had been moved.