As the world, err, as the wheel turns; Or, How / why SS Klondike, a cargo-carrying sternwheeler river boat briefly used for river cruises, became one of Parks Canada’s 1,004 national historic sites, part 2
Welcome back, my reading friend! As I thought, there is nothing like a cliff hanger to encourage return visits. Shall we continue our examination of the career of the sternwheeler river boat SS Klondike? Good for you.
It went without saying that the residents of the terminal of the route plied by SS Klondike, Dawson City, Yukon Territory, whose number had gone from 750 or so to 500 or so when the seat of the government of the Yukon Territory went to White Horse,… Yukon Territory, in April 1953, hoped that the scheme put forward in 1954 by Canadian Pacific Airlines Limited, namely the transformation of the sternwheeler river boat SS Klondike into a cruise ship, would prove popular. It would certainly supplement the rather small flow of tourists coming from White Horse via a highway / road, or from Fairbanks, Territory of Alaska, via a summer only road.
Town residents had refurbished as best they could a gold rush era venue, the Auditorium Theatre, a location also known as the Nugget Hall or Palace Grand. As well, a small team was slowly gathering artifacts in order to open a museum.
Would you believe that a group of residents planned to dress in period costume and hold a gold rush event every time SS Klondike would show up at the dock? Before the ship even got there, a special broadcast prepared by the volunteer staff of the local radio station would be played over its public address system. Two veterans of the gold rush would welcome the tourists at the dock and escort them to the antique horse driven coaches which would take them to Nugget Hall.
Once there, said tourists would be given $100 in phoney moolah that could be used on various gambling devices. Mind you, it was also possible that said phoney moolah would have to be bought. A single dollar would get you $1 000 in gambling money. And yes, late 1890s music would be playing in the background as you lost it all.
It has been suggested that the moolah won by lucky winners would be converted into gold and… Err, there is no need to get all excited, my greedy reading friend. Had you won $10 000 during your gambling spree, you would have received $10 in gold, or about 9 grammes (0.3 ounce) of the precious metal, in other words a pair of 7.6 millimetres (0.3 inch) diameter gold sphere, in still other words a set of earrings.
That $10 would correspond to $110 or so in 2023 Canadian currency. Given the current value of gold, that sum would correspond to 1.3 grammes (0.045 ounce) of the precious metal, in other words a pair of 4 millimetres (0.15 inch) diameter gold sphere, in still other words a set of significantly smaller earrings, but back to our story.
An attraction which, it was hoped, would prove of interest to tourists was the cabin of the Bard of the Yukon, the Scottish Canadian poet and writer Robert William “Bob” Service, who had lived in Dawson City in 1908-09 and 1912. Indeed, a plan was afoot to turn the latter’s 1907 narrative poem The Shooting of Dan McGrew into a presentation played in a gold rush era theatre. McGrew, a dangerous man indeed, and his light of love Lou were fictional characters who might, I repeat might, have been loosely based on two American residents of Dawson City, dance hall manager Murray Eads and his spouse, a dance hall girl named Lulu Mae Johnson.
Another attraction which might have proven even more interesting was the possibility to pan for gold in one of the many streams near Dawson City, under the supervision of a veteran of the gold rush.
Mind you, it would also be possible to raid the local curio shops to buy jewelry made with locally dug up gold and / or ivory. Yes, yes, ivory. I kid you not. There were, and still are, mastodon and mammoth tusks in them thar hills! (Hello, EP!) While such tusks were dug up during the early days of the gold rush, the fact was that First Nation people had come across those large objects well before that, well over 13 000 years ago in fact.
Such a fact is and will continue to be a reminder that Canada is my home on native land, if yours truly may paraphrase the version of the national anthem Oh Canada sung in February 2023 by Canadian songwriter / singer / actor Jully Black, born Jullyann Inderia Gordon Black, but back to our story.
All the money made from the gold rush events, or Days of ‘98 as they might have been called, would be used to promote Dawson City, with a (small?) part going toward the acquisition of artifacts for the museum.
The optimism of the Dawsonites seemed to be based on facts. You see, by the time SS Klondike began its inaugural trip, Canadian Pacific Airlines had already booked reservations from several countries (France, Spain, United Kingdom, United States, West Germany). Would you believe that 50 well off Brazilians would occupy all the staterooms during a trip in July?
The inaugural trip of SS Klondike, in June 1954, as we both know, was covered in a very positive manner by Charles F.M. “Charlie” King, a staff reporter at a Vancouver, British Columbia, daily, The Vancouver Province. The travelling columnist of another Vancouver daily, The Vancouver Sun, Penny Wise, in real life Evelyn A. Caldwell, was just as enthusiastic, if not more so.
Given that Canadian Pacific Airlines flew a plane load of reporters all the way to White Horse, presumably free of charge, in the hope of creating some good vibes, yours truly wonders if King and Wise / Caldwell were among those few, those happy few, that band of brothers and sisters.
And yes, several / many American newspapers had mentioned Canadian Pacific Airlines’ Klondike Tours during the days which preceded the inaugural trip of SS Klondike. Additional articles about the ship and its journeys came out in July 1954 and later, as well as in 1955, in place as far away as Honolulu, Territory of Hawai’i.
The hopes of everyone involved in the SS Klondike project presumably got a bit of a boost when Prince Philip, born Philippos of Greece and Denmark of house Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, a royal spouse mentioned in January 2021 and March 2023 issues of our amaaazing blog / bulletin / thingee, came abord in August 1954 as part of a 3-week and 24 000 kilometres (15 000 miles) tour of Canada which took him from coast to coast to coast. Said tour involved flights aboard several types of Royal Canadian Air Force transport / utility aircraft: a Douglas Dakota, a de Havilland Canada Otter, a Consolidated Canso and the one and only Douglas / Canadair C-5.
And no, the good duke, a seasoned sailor and veteran of the Second World War, did not stay aboard SS Klondike for very long. His cruise lasted but 2 hours. According to John Tomlinson, the teenage son of a British Yukon Navigation Company Limited economist living in White Horse who was hired in 1954 as a dishwasher and cabin boy, the good prince was given the opportunity to bring the ship into dock at White Horse. As he did do, he slightly underestimated the strength of the Yukon River, however. SS Klondike hit said dock with enough force to throw it slightly out of line.
Are any of the flying machines mentioned in the previous paragraph to be found in the unforgettable collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum of Ottawa, Ontario, you ask, my reading friend? You bet. That astonishing national museum has a Canso and an Otter. It also has an example of the civilian counterpart of the Dakota, the Douglas DC-3. (Hello, EG!) The museum even has a cousin of the C-5, namely a Douglas / Canadair North Star.
A well known American multinational financial services firm was sufficiently impressed by what Canadian Pacific Airlines was offering to include the Klondike Tours in its own 1955 offerings. The eight 18 day escorted tours of the Territory of Alaska and the Yukon Territory offered by American Express Company between June and August covered a lot more ground but were far more expensive.
The early days or weeks of the 1955 season were not exactly auspicious, however. Low water levels in the Yukon River led to the cancellation of several trips, which greatly impacted revenues.
The only notable individual yours truly could link with that 1955 season of SS Klondike was actually not all that notable. He was Sir Harold Walter Seymour Howard, an English stockbroker and Right Honourable Lord Mayor of London in 1954-55.
Incidentally, as was mentioned in an April 2023 issue of our tremendous blog / bulletin / thingee, the mayor in question was not the mayor of the capital of the United Kingdom, a position which came into physical existence in May… 2000. Nay. The Right Honourable Lord Mayor of London was / is the mayor of the City of London, a small area centered upon the business district of the English / British metropolis, but back to our topic.
As popular as they proved with the happy people who had travelled aboard SS Klondike, the Klondike Tours proposed by Canadian Pacific Airlines did not prove popular enough. The operating costs of that ship were simply too high.
You see, many if not most members of the crew allegedly wanted a year’s salary for the 3 or 4 months during which the ship actually travelled down and up the Yukon River. British Yukon Navigation could not, or would not, accept that demand. Mind you, it is possible, I repeat possible, that the firm tried to cover these increases by significantly increasing the charter price of SS Klondike. In any event, the failure of negotiations with Canadian Pacific Airlines for a joint traffic arrangement was the final nail in the hull of the ship.
The management of British Yukon Navigation announced that SS Klondike would not be prepped for service in 1956 in… mid December 1955. It also announced that the other sternwheeler river boat it was still using, the cargo carrier SS Tutshi, would also be taken out of service. Topping that off, the management of British Yukon Navigation announced that it was permanently closing up shop.
At the risk of overstressing the bounds of politeness, yours truly was / is reminded of a deliciously nasty line in a disappointing yet popular 1991 (!) American motion picture: “Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas.”
The movie was of course Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Alan Sidney Patrick Rickman was simply AWESOME as the sheriff of Nottingham.
SS Klondike might, I repeat might, have been left out of the water in the spring of 1956. Mind you, one had to wonder if ships were hoisted out of the water every year, using large pine rollers, to ensure that they would not be damaged, if not crushed, by the ice which formed on the Yukon River as winter came.
All was not lost, however. You see, a bold plan was hatched no later than March 1957 to return SS Klondike to service, at least for some months. The individual behind said plan was the former commissioner of Vancouver’s City Market. William Joseph McGuigan put forward the idea of refurbishing SS Klondike before bringing it from Whitehorse all the way to New Westminster, British Columbia, in other words to Vancouver. He wanted to see the old sternwheeler river boat ply the waters of the Fraser River, all the way up to Hope, British Columbia, perhaps, during the centennial celebrations surrounding the creation of the crown colony of British Columbia from the pair of fur trading districts, New Caledonia and the Columbia Department, which made / make up the mainland of the province of British Columbia, in August 1858.
And yes, the proverbial crow would have to fly a distance of 1 480 or so kilometres (920 or so miles) in order to go from Whitehorse to Vancouver. Moving a 64 metre (210 feet) long sternwheeler river boat between those two points would not be easy.
And yes, again, Whitehorse was indeed spelled Whitehorse and not White Horse. The change in spelling was seemingly made in March 1957, I think, but back to our story.
It might have proven possible for SS Klondike to go down the Yukon River all the way to its delta, in the Territory of Alaska, which emptied into the Bering Sea, and, once beefed up and boarded up, to be towed all the way to Vancouver. Mind you, it might also have proven possible, if more expensive, to cut up the ship in sections and move those to Skagway, Territory of Alaska, an inland port city, and, once said sections got reassembled, to tow the ship all the way to Vancouver – unless it could go there under its own power. A simpler option, provided an experience crew could be found, might have been for the ship to go down the Yukon River all the way to its delta and travel all the way to Vancouver under its own power.
Individuals who knew a thing or three about SS Klondike and river navigation did not think McGuigan’s project would go very far. Their assessments proved accurate. One had to wonder which of the challenges, the complexities of the move or its cost, evaluated at approximately $110 000, or approximately $1 165 000 in 2023 currency, or both, proved fatal to the project – or did it, prove fatal that is.
You see, my surprised reading friend, McGuigan’s idea had caught the eye of John S. Lester of West Vancouver, British Columbia. That well off café / restaurant owner bought SS Klondike in January 1958. Lester’s plan was for the ship to go down the Yukon River all the way to its delta and, once beefed up and boarded up, to be towed all the way to Vancouver. The trip was to take 6 or so weeks.
Once in the Vancouver, the ship would be spruced up and run down / up Indian Arm, a fjord north of the city, or, if that proved impossible, run up / down the Fraser River. Lester was also looking into the possibility of turning the old sternwheeler river boat into a restaurant or night club which would operate for years after 1958. Lester’s project went nowhere. The latter indeed backed out in mid-summer of 1958. The cost of the move from White Horse to Vancouver was just too high.
In any event, SS Klondike was still on the bank of the river in May 1958, north of the railway depot and near the British Yukon Navigation shipyard, when the photograph at the very beginning of this article, in part 1, was taken. Sadly, the ship’s interior was stripped of furnishings at some point.
Weeks, then months went by. In the summer of 1959, White Pass & Yukon Corporation of Vancouver, SS Klondike’s direct owner since the dissolution of its subsidiary, British Yukon Navigation, announced its willingness to give away the sternwheeler river boats on the shore of the Yukon River, as a group or individually, to any person or organisation willing and able to move them or it somewhere else. The firm wanted to remove / destroy its ship handling facilities, you see, and the old ships were in the way.
Mind you, the Yukon River Bridge at Carmacks, Yukon Territory, roughly halfway between Whitehorse and Dawson City, inaugurated in August 1959, stood in the way of any effort to sail the sternwheeler river boats to Dawson City – or anywhere else.
One of the organisations approached by White Pass & Yukon Railway was the federal Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources. At some point in August or early September 1959, the latter seemingly agreed to take over SS Klondike and SS Keno, a sternwheeler river boat completed in White Horse in 1922 by British Yukon Navigation.
According to a plan proposed at that time by the Deputy Minister of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources and Commissioner of the Northwest Territories, Robert Gordon Robertson, both ships would be moved to Whiskey Flats, a friendly if quite poor multicultural neighborhood which housed 350 or so permanent and seasonal residents or, as some lily white people called it, “a run-down squatters area of Whitehorse.” SS Klondike and SS Keno would be the central elements of a park the department wanted to create in Whitehorse.
Mind you, the inauguration of the Robert Campbell Bridge in April 1956 by none other than the Governor General of Canada, Charles Vincent Massey, had also changed the deal. You see, both halves of Whiskey Flats flanked that steel link between downtown White Horse / Whitehorse and the new and nice / high class neighborhood of Riverdale. Would you believe that Riverdalians who commuted across the Robert Campbell Bridge did not like the view – and began to complain about it? I kid you not.
The complaints presumably played a role in convincing White Pass & Yukon Railway, Whitehorse’s municipal council and the Council of the Yukon Territory of the need to act.
Before I forget, the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources had initially thought that it would be better and cheaper to move SS Casca, another sternwheeler river boat beached on the shores of the Yukon River. Someone soon pointed out, however, that SS Klondike would make a better and more interesting attraction.
Now, my reading friend, would you like to know what actions, if any, were taken by the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources?
Good for you, but you will have to wait until next week.
Oh yes, before I forget, Massey was mentioned in May 2019, October 2021 and November 2021 issues of our resplendent blog / bulletin / thingee.