The rapids in the Yukon River through Miles Canyon were so intimidating in the 19th century that they picked up their own name - White Horse Rapids because the frothing water resembled the flowing manes of charging white stallions. The First Nations’ peoples who visited here just camped on their way around the treacherous waters.
It took gold to lure travelers into the White Horse Rapids - the big strikes of the Klondike region in 1896. Many boats were lost in the canyon and there were five documented deaths. But it did not stop the stampeders from trying. Major General Sir Samuel Steele, the head of the Yukon detachment for the North-West Mounted Police marveled, “Why more casualties have not occurred is a mystery to me.”
Entrepreneurs constructed horse-drawn tram cars to ferry goods and small boats around the rapids on both sides of the Yukon River in 1897 but so many prospectors were bottlenecked at the rapids that a tent town called Canyon City emerged on the east bank at the head of the tram. By that time plans were being hatched hundreds of miles away to ease the congestion at the rapids blocking the way to the gold fields around Dawson.
Engineer Michael J. Heney was tasked with constructing a railway from the coast at Skagway, Alaska to the head of navigation on the Yukon River beyond the rapids. It was a daunting assignment but Heney had no doubts he could pull it off. “Give me enough dynamite and snoose and I’ll build a railroad to hell,” he boasted. He got 450 tons of explosives and 35,000 men to do the job. Work began on May 28, 1898 and 26 months and $10 million later a 110-mile narrow gauge railway to the newly named town of White Horse was complete. To clear the coastal mountains of Alaska and southern Yukon required climbs of 879 metres in 20 miles with no more than a 4% grade - the ground was so tough that when a golden spike was driven into final tie it buckled.
Unfortunately the gold rush was mostly over by the time the first trains of the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad steamed into White Horse. But the connection to river travel north caused the new town to boom anyway; Canyon City on the east bank wilted away in favour of the railroad town. In 1920 the first airplanes bounced onto primitive runways at White Horse and in 1942 the United States constructed the wartime Alaska Highway that linked the town to the national road grid for the first time.
The 1950s saw the city name consolidate to Whitehorse and the territorial capital slide down from Dawson. In 1958 the Yukon River was dammed and the rapids that determined the townsite disappeared forever under Schwatka Lake. In the 1980s the railroad stopped running and the driving force behind the growth of the Yukon’s largest city disappeared as well. But we’ll have a clear view of what remains of Whitehorse heritage on our downtown walking tour since, according to the Guinness World Records, this is the city with the least air pollution in the world...
Main Street at Front Street
Master Mentor Carver Wayne Price led a week-long project of some 20 carvers in 2012 to create this healing totem for the community from the Northern Cultural Expression Society. Wood chips from the 11-metre pole were collected and burned with some of the ashes returned and placed into the totem. The raven top piece was carried in a seven-block ceremonial procession to bee symbolically conjoined in its final perch.
On the north side of Main Street is...
104 Main Street
Patrick Burns came from Ontario to Alberta in the late 1800s and built one of the world’s greatest meat-packing businesses. The Burns Meat Company was in the Yukon in 1898 to provision gold rush prospectors with cattle delivered y boat from Vancouver, driven inland and finally slaughtered and floated up the Yukon River to Dawson. The first building of the P.A. Burns & Co. in Whitehorse was constructed on Main Street and a slaughterhouse set up in the Moccasin Flats area. A fire consumed most of the town waterfront in 1905 and this timber two-storey building was raised as a replacement; it operated solely as a retail store. The slaughterhouse closed in the 1920s as beef then arrived frozen and not on the hoof. The high, decorative false front was added in 1928.
Walk down Main Street towards Front Street and the Yukon River to...
White Pass & Yukon Route Railway Depot
1109 First Avenue at Front Street
The White Pass & Yukon Route (WP&YR) Railroad hastily built out of Skagway, Alaska through the Yukon interior to this point to service the Klondike Gold Rush from 1898 to 1900. The railroad bought and surveyed the Whitehorse townsite, building a depot as its anchor in the Yukon wilderness. The original station burned in the the 1905 conflagration and was replaced with this building dressed in simulated log cabin siding. The wartime construction of the Alaska Highway reduced the importance of large scale river transportation and Whitehorse railyards migrated away from the downtown waterfront. The WP&YR Depot was shuttered with the rail division in 1982 and trundles on as office space.
Turn left and walk north up Front Street.
Taylor and Drury Building
northwest corner of Front Street and Main Street
Englishmen Isaac Taylor and William S. Drury first joined up in Discovery, British Columbia near Atlin in 1898 to supply stampeders with dry goods crafted from Drury’s heavy-duty sewing machine. A cobbler by trade, Drury easily shifted to making sails for the fleets heading up the Yukon River to Dawson. The pair made enough money from sales in their canvas tent to follow the railroad to Whitehorse on the first train and set up a tent on the river bank. From their headquarters in Whitehorse Taylor and Drury funded 16 trading posts to supply First Nations people, trappers and prospectors. This post-1905 fire building was the last of the trading posts to close when the doors shut in 1974. Over the years the historic retail space has expanded and morphed into Horwood’s Mall.
east side of Front Street in parking lot
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941 the United States realized its territory in Alaska was similarly vulnerable and negotiated with the Canadians to build a land highway to the isolated outpost. The Americans commandeered the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad and the number of scheduled trains rose from one a day to twenty-six, loaded with supplies, equipment and material needed to construct the road. Included were pre-fabricated cement buildings such as this one to support the mighty 2,700-kilometre endeavor, which was completed in an impressive seven months. This is the last of the makeshift buildings to survive from that busy time - a toilet.
Telegraph Office/MacBride Museum of Yukon History
northwest corner of Front Street and Steele Street
William D. MacBride, born into a Montana railroad family in 1888, began his own railroading career with the Idaho & Washington Railway. In 1914 he found himself in Whitehorse with the White Pass & Yukon Route, with whom he would stay for half a century. His work with the railroad was dwarfed, however, by his tireless efforts to preserve Yukon heritage. In 1950 MacBride was part of the group that founded the Yukon Historical Society which served as a depository for his ever-growing collection of artifacts and memorabilia. One of the Society’s first coups was acquiring the Government Telegraph Office that has stood on its original site since 1900. This was Whitehorse’s second telegraph office; the first was positioned across the Yukon River where the hospital stands now. The office housed the original iteration of the historical society museum which has expanded through the decades along with its eclectic holdings.
northwest corner of Front Street and Steele Street
This “nugget” weighs 2590 pounds. It was uncovered several hundred miles south in the White River area in 1905. After it was donated to the Yukon Historical Society the massive chunk of ore was hauled with the help of 15 people to this site for display and dedicated to all the pioneer prospectors who staked claims on the White River from 1900 until 1958. Copper nuggets this size are rare - so unusual that machinery necessary to mill the large rocks does not exist and so this hunk of copper has no market value.
White Pass & Yukon Route Roundhouse
east side of Front Street
This is almost the end of the line for the eight-hour run of the White Pass & Yukon Route from Skagway. This was the repair facility for the railroad in Whitehorse, called by the generic term “roundhouse” although the trains had to back out to return to the main line rather than use a roundtable. Today the facility is a stop on the recreational Waterfront Trolley. The restored original 1925 trolley was one of the last clerestory models ever constructed, built in Philadelphia and operated in Lisbon, Portugal for over fifty years. The machine was acquired by the Minnesota Museum of Transportation and then bought in 1999 by Whitehorse concerns where the sunshine-painted trolley runs today in nearly its original state.
Turn left on Wood Street.
108 Wood Street
This hotel and bar with the distinctive wood frame false front began life in the 1940s as a popular Whitehorse dance hall called the 98 Ballroom.
Andrew A. Philipsen Law Centre
2134 Second Avenue at northwest corner of Wood Street
The law centre was constructed in the 1980s and named for Andy Philipsen, an English native who emigrated to Canada as an infant in 1940. Philipsen began his working life as an electrician and came to Whitehorse in 1963 when his father took an executive position with the White Pass and Yukon Route. In 1982 Philipsen segued into a political career with election to the Yukon Legislative assembly. He became Minister of Justice in 1984 but died a year later in a truck accident on the Dempster Highway. The grouping of figures on the steps is based on geographical formations found along the Dempster Highway that sculptor Alyx Jones arranged in a way to suggest a courthouse discussion in a work of art called The Conversation.
304 Wood Street
Downtown Whitehorse’s cinema is a wood frame 1950s relic.
Cross Wood Street to enter LePage Park.
southwest corner of Wood Street and 3rd Avenue
This small municipally-owned downtown oasis is home to a trio of rehabilitated heritage structures and remembers the LePage family, members of the Yukon Transportation Museum Hall of Fame. Happy and Pauline LePage lived here from 1963 until 1978 in a house that boasted neither a kitchen nor bathroom. The LePages operated a series of wood-cutting camps along the Yukon River for the steam-driven sternwheelers on the Yukon River until they went to the docks permanently in the 1950s. Afterwards Happy managed a trucking company and opened the first car wash in Whitehorse. The Captain Martin House in the park along Wood Street is over a century old and was once the residence of Patrick “Paddy” Martin, a Newfoundland sea captain who came to Whitehorse to run a general store on Front Street. The historic property was relocated here in 1987.
Exit the park onto 3rd Avenue.
3126 Third Avenue
The tiny house occupied by the LePages was originally built by William “Hobo Bill” Donnenworth in the early 1900s. Still in its original location, the structure was a small frame building with a canvas tent attached to the rear. Hobo Bill drove a stage coach during the winters on the Dawson-Whitehorse Overland Trail and worked as a purser on the Yukon River sternwheelers during the summer. His wife sold millinery goods from the front of the house until the couple moved on in 1921.
Walk south on 3rd Avenue towards Steele Street.
T.C. Richards House
302 Steele Street at northwest corner of 3rd Avenue
Thomas Cecil Richards showed up in the Yukon in 1915, sent to run the butcher shop and slaughter house for P.A. Burns & Co. If need be Richards would take to the trail to lead cattle drives himself. In the 1940s Richards won the Whitehorse Inn on the corner of 2nd and Main (the three-story clapboard landmark has long since been pulled down) in a poker game. From his new hotel, since demolished, Richards lorded over the town’s social life until his death in 1961. This roomy one-and-a-half storey log house was constructed in 1944 for T.C. and his wife Bernadette, designed in the Arts & Crafts style.
Turn left on Steele Street.
2121 2nd Avenue at northeast corner of Steele Street
Whitehorse was not incorporated as a city until 1950 and did not get around to building a proper city hall until 1967 when government officials abandoned rental offices for this building as part of the Canadian Centennial initiative to modernize public facilities. Look for a tree planted and dedicated to Martha Louise Black, considered the “First Lady of the North.” Born to a wealthy family in Chicago in 1866 Martha and her first husband made plans to join the Klondike Gold Rush. He backed out and headed for Hawaii instead while she hiked most of the way to Dawson with her brother while pregnant with her third child. She ended up delivering the baby herself. In Dawson Martha staked gold mining claims, ran a sawmill and oversaw operations in a gold-crushing plant. In 1904 she married a barrister named George Black who became Commissioner of the Yukon; after his death she became the second woman ever elected to the House of Commons of Canada when she was 70 years old. Martha Louise Black died in Whitehorse at the age of 91.
Turn right on 2nd Street.
Klondike Airways Building
201 Steele Street at southwest corner of 2nd Avenue
A rich cornucopia of businesses has operated from this corner since a tent frame bakery stood here in the first years of the 20th century. A galvanized metal skin was later added for the building to serve as a warehouse. In the 1930s coffins were assembled here for a mortuary next door and then it served as headquarters for the Klondike Airways mail and freight business owned by T.C. Richards and Willard Phelps. The name was aspirational - although the partners hoped to one day acquire airplanes for service the freight never left the snowmobiles and cat trains the business started with. Most recently the building has done duty as the Klondike Rib & Salmon BBQ.
Turn right on Main Street.
Elijah Smith Building
300 Main Street at northwest corner of 3rd Avenue
This block-swallowing federal building joined the Whitehorse streetscape in 1989. The sculpture on the corner of the Prospector and his Dog was crafted from bronze by Chuck Buchanan, “Dedicated to all those who follow their dreams.”
Old Log Church
southeast corner of 3rd Avenue and Elliott Street
The first religious services in Whitehorse were conducted in a tent by Reverend R.J. Bowen, the first rector of Christ Church. Bowen arrived in the Yukon in 1895 and took a wife; he left the territory but returned to build the log church and rectory in 1900. Additions came along through the years and a belfry was constructed in 1945. In 1953 this became the first log cathedral when it was named the Cathedral Church of the Diocese. In 1960 its spiritual days came to a close and the building has since been restored and operates as a museum.
Turn left on Lambert Street.
208 Lambert Street
In Whitehorse’s early days this was the site of stables used by Roland Ryder to care for his water delivery team. In 1947 Martin Berrigan was 78 years old when he decided to build rental cabins after a life of prospecting. He cut 9-inch diameter logs by hand on the east bank of the Yukon River and rigged a pulley system to skid the stacked logs to this site. Berrigan built the skyscrapers 58 logs high; he died in 1950. It was almost two decades before the towers received electricity and plumbing. The 16-foot square structures dodged the wrecking ball in the 1970s and are still used as residences and retail space.
north side of 100 block of Lambert Street
Here reside the rest of Martin Berrigan’s little log cabin rental empire - a trio of one-storey structures.
Building on the Past, Looking to the Future
foot of Lambert Street behind the Visitor Center at Front Street
Artist Ken Anderson sculpted marble heads of Wolf and Crow, symbols of traditional clans of the Yukon First Nations, and perched them on symbolic winged steel bases. The heads face towards the Yukon River.
Turn left on Front Street.
Train Crew’s Houses
1091-1093 Front Street
These souvenirs of Whitehorse’s World War II days are representative of the town’s extensive use of pre-fabricated housing. The larger of the two, to the north, features a patented stave-lock construction method of interlocking corners; it was originally one of a quartet of accommodations constructed for the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad’s local managers. The last railroad employee moved out in 1993 and the vernacular buildings were adapted for office use.
The Old Fire Hall
southeast corner of Front Street and Main Street
After much lobbying by early Whitehorse pioneers for a fire fighting force a fire hall was finally erected in 1901. Four years later the volunteer force welcomed its new piece of fire-fighting apparatus. Before the crew could figure out how to use it properly a fire broke out the next day that destroyed the Whitehorse waterfront, taking most of the fire station with it. A second hall was erected which was also damaged by fire in the 1930s. In 1942 the town received its first fire truck, replacing a two-wheeled hose cart. The next year saw the hiring of the first professional firefighters in Whitehorse - a paid chief and two staff members. In 1945 the Canadian Army moved in, bringing two more trucks, a crew of 20 and an ambulance. The department relocated to 2nd Avenue next to City Hall when that new building opened in 1967. Today the Old Fire Hall is part of the Yukon Arts Centre, reconfigured to house cabaret performances and art gallery openings.
CONTINUE on Front Street TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT A FEW STEPS AWAY.