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The History of Carmacks, Yukon Territory

by Ken Spotswood

A Guide to Modern Carmacks, Yukon

      Before the outside world discovered the Yukon, the Carmacks region was part of the traditional fishing, hunting, trapping and trading area of the Northern Tutchone people. For generations their fish camps harvested the annual salmon runs at the confluence of the Yukon and Nordenskiold Rivers. The camps were used for hunting when the caribou crossed the river in the fall.

      The region was also an important trading centre where the local Indians met the Southern Tutchone from the southwestern Yukon, as well as the Tagish and inland Tlingit from southern B.C. and southern Yukon.

      Among the first white people through the area was U.S. Army Lt. Frederick Schwatka. His expedition of 1883 resulted from the American army's desire to find out something about Alaska in case it should be called upon to defend it. In the process, Schwatka gave names to dozens of mountains, lakes and rivers as he went-- ignoring the fact that they already had names given to them by Indians, and in some cases by whites. Among them was Tantalus Butte, an imposing landmark on the Yukon River near the mouth of the Nordenskiold.

      News of Schwatka's expedition roused Ottawa from its total indifference to the Yukon. In 1887 the Canadian government sent a party north to see what was there. It was led by George M. Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada. During his trip, Dawson noted coal deposits in the Tantalus Butte area.

      Years before he was to discover gold on Bonanza Creek, prospector George Carmack found a seam of coal near Five Finger Rapids, and another near Tantalus Butte, in 1893. He built a cabin here and made sporadic attempts to develop a coal mine. He was backed by Arthur Harper who had a 50 percent interest in the venture. Carmack's cabin grew into a trading post, which was the beginning of present day Carmacks.

      As the settlement grew, 'Carmack's Landing' became an important riverboat stop during the gold rush. Large wood camps in the area provided fuel for the sternwheelers. At each camp 200 to 300 cords of wood were cut in winter and stacked for the coming navigation season.

      The North-West Mounted Police built a post here which they named Tantalus, on the north side of the river. The Dominion Telegraph Line to Dawson passed through here in 1899. An office was built to maintain the line and service the community, which later became a supply depot for various mining operations in the district.

      Heavy logging for riverboat cordwood soon created problems. "As wood grows scarcer along the river," the Yukon Sun noted in 1903, "the price advances." As a result, coal became the cheaper substitute for wood.

      In 1903 Capt. Charles E. Miller, an American coal miner, staked his claim on one of the coal deposits and mined 40,000 tons in the next two years to supply the riverboats. In 1905 he located the Tantalus Butte Coal Mine which had an estimated reserve of five million tons of coal. Miller later sold his holdings to the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway.

      The settlement grew again when the Overland Trail was routed through here in 1901. The trail was built by the Canadian Development Company, which operated summer steamboat service between Whitehorse and Dawson City. Its winter trail was about 600 kilometers long, with more than 50 roadhouses along the trail. Carmacks became an overnight stop.

      In 1903, Eugene Mack and Seymour Rowlinson built a two-storey roadhouse on the Nordenskiold River. It had a bunkroom with about 20 beds upstairs over a large kitchen-dining area that could seat 40 to 50 people. The roadhouse was known as No. 6, as it was the sixth post out of Whitehorse. It was operated by a variety of owners until it was closed about 1943.

      Several historical accounts credit Rowlinson with giving the community its name. As he had known George Carmack in earlier days, he arranged to have the name 'Carmack' painted on a large sign for his roadhouse. But the sign painter made a mistake and added an 'S' to the name, a sobriquet that stuck.

      As Carmacks continued to grow, a store was added in 1904. By the turn of the century, it was developing a reputation as a coal mining centre, with mixed results. At its peak in 1903, over 8,000 tons of coal a year were being shipped to Dawson City. It was used for heat in homes and to power the Dawson Electric Light Company. By the late 1930s production reached 10,000 tons a year. It closed in 1935, and was reopened sporadically after that. In 1978 the Tantalus Butte mine caught fire and was permanently sealed.

      Shortly before the First World War, record high prices paid for fox pelts made fox farming a popular industry in the Yukon. By early 1915 there were three fox farms in Carmacks with a total of 28 cross foxes and five black and silver foxes. Fox farming continued here until the late 1930s when it became unprofitable.

      For many years the native population of the area continued their nomadic existence, moving from Carmacks to the bush and other river communities such as Little Salmon and Big Salmon. They also took advantage of the new economic opportunities to supplement their trapping income with jobs in woodcutting camps, on the steamers, in the mines and working on road construction.

      In 1950 an all-weather road was built to Mayo, and five years later, a branch was completed to Dawson. This ended sternwheeler traffic which resulted in the death of many small river communities, but Carmacks was one of the few that survived. It was not only located on the new road, but it was also the site of a bridge spanning the Yukon River. After the Mayo road was built, many of the Indians moved to Carmacks from the outlying areas, which bolstered the town's population.

      Today Carmacks has a year-round population of about 500 people. It has two local governments, the Little Salmon-Carmacks First Nation and a village administration. It's still an important service centre for mines in the mineral-rich district, and for highway transport. It's situated at the junction of the Klondike and Robert Campbell Highways, which lead to Mayo, Dawson City, Whitehorse, Faro, and to Mount Nansen. And, one hundred years after the gold rush, it's still a favoured rest stop for travellers.

© 1998-2008 by Ken Spotswood