#794 Sternwheelers of the Yukon
The Klondike Gold Rush Steamers: A History of Yukon River Steam Navigation
by Robert D. Turner
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2019 (first published by Sono Nis Press, 2015)
$49.95 / 9781550178876
Reviewed by Ken Coates
The last 50 years have not been good for the preservation of the river boat heritage of the Upper Yukon River basin. Beginning well before the Klondike Gold Rush, sternwheelers plied the cold waters of the Yukon River, delivering supplies and passengers to the camps on gold-bearing creeks and mining communities in the region. Until the 1950s, when the Alaska Highway opened for civilian traffic and the government completed the road from Whitehorse to Mayo and Dawson City, the riverboats were the lifeline for the entire region.
Growing up in Whitehorse in the 1960s, it was obvious to me the riverboats still cast a long shadow over the community and the territory. The Klondike ran on the river until 1955, connecting the old capital at Dawson City to the new capital and end of the railway at Whitehorse. Several of the decommissioned riverboats had been pulled out of the river and into the White Pass and Yukon Route dockyards a few hundred yards from the centre of the city. The last operational ship of the aging fleet, the Klondike, stood next to them, a compelling memorial to the river-based history of the Far Northwest.
At this time, the Yukon was discovering the commercial and heritage value of the Klondike Gold Rush, in significant measure because of the publication of the iconic book Klondike by Pierre Berton, formerly of Whitehorse. Preserving the built heritage of the Gold Rush quickly became a key regional and national priority and a foundation for the growing tourism industry. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada suggested the purchase of Klondike in 1958. In 1965, the ship was officially designated as a national historic site. The vessel could not, however, be left on the White Pass and Yukon Route drydocks area. The next year, the Klondike was pulled through the city to a permanent location at the southern edge of downtown Whitehorse. Parks Canada set to work restoring the ship – accurately in the fine tradition of Canadian heritage preservation to the 1930s-1940s – and shifting it to closer to the riverbank. The Klondike historic site opened for visitors in 1974, quickly became one of the prime attractions in Yukon.
Disaster hit the Yukon steamers that same year. Two of the last ships, Casca and Whitehorse (built in 1901), not properly preserved or protected, had been occupied by squatters. The Casca caught fire, with the flames spreading quickly to the second ship. Residents gathered close by to watch two of the most important reminders of the Yukon’s river-based history burned to the ground. I remember watching the blaze from the clay cliffs overlooking the city, the intense blaze capturing the attention of the shocked population. With the two vessels destroyed and Klondike protected, the Yukon’s riverboat fleet now consisted of only other vessels: the Tutshi in Carcross and the Keno in Dawson City. The Tutshi was destroyed by fire in 1990 just as a full restoration was underway; a shell of the vessel has been preserved as a memorial to the steamers that once plied the Southern Lakes. The Keno had been relocated from Whitehorse to Dawson City in 1960 and was reconditioned and preserved as an historic site.
Robert Turner, in my view the best maritime historian in the country, has provided the Yukon and all of Canada with a remarkable memorial of its river-centred history in The Klondike Gold Rush Steamers: A History of Yukon River Steam Navigation. This extensively illustrated and beautifully presented volume provides an extended narrative history of the history of steamers in the Far Northwest. He begins with the largely forgotten history of the pre-Klondike years, documenting the manner in which the steamers supported the development of the Yukon River basin after the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. He devotes two chapters to the Klondike Gold Rush and the central, but under-appreciated, role of the steamers in sustaining the stampede and the more than 40,000 people who rushed North in 1897 to 1900.
Perhaps the most important contribution of the book rests in his extended study of the creation of the largest steamer companies in the Far Northwest, the British Yukon Navigation Company (owned by the White Pass and Yukon Route) and the Northern Navigation Company. The Yukon shifted quickly from the entrepreneurial and freewheeling society of the first years of the Klondike Gold Rush to a regional economy dominated by a handful of resource companies, particularly the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation (which operated dredges in the Klondike basin), and the shipping companies. The riverboat companies played an outsized role in the regional order, establishing the seasonal rhythm for the area, highlighting the annual migration of key personnel in and out of the Yukon basin every spring and fall, hiring dozens of woodcutters along the river to fuel the fleet, and feeding and supplying the steadily declining post-Klondike Yukon River economy.
Turner clearly understands the integrated nature of the Yukon River Valley, harkening back to the age of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909 and the decades when the Far Northwest was referred to informally as the “Northland,” a transnational region with porous national boundaries, deep personal and commercial connections between Yukon and Alaska, and an integrated North-South economy based on coastal steamers and Yukon riverboats that tied the North to the competing southern cities of Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and Victoria. His chapter on the steamers and the expansion of the Alaska Railroad outlines one of the key breaches in the integration of the Northland. The last chapter and the epilogue describe the slow decline of the Northwest steamer industry during the Depression and the rapid transitions that occurred during and After World War II, when the construction of the Alaska Highway transformed travel and shipping in the Far Northwest.
This is a truly impressive book. It is beautifully illustrated, with the well-selected and nicely described photographs and illustrations that are characteristic of Turner’s many fine books. He knows his ships and waterways and describes both in a way that capitalize on his skills without slipping into the highly specialist and antiquarian approaches that can easily deter the general reader from a book of this nature. He is a fine storyteller, introducing key personalities and recounting numerous tales of life along the waterways.
The Klondike Gold Rush Steamers is also a serious and well-researched book. It reveals a detailed command of the historical literature, documentary record, and visual history of Yukon River steamers. Robert Turner loves boats and ships and the highly skilled personnel who ran the river. That affection comes through on every page. A truly talented historian, he also places the history of the steamers in the appropriate socio-economic context. He respects the landscapes and waterways of the region and has made a concerted effort to explain the impact of winter, changes in the river, and the environmental nuances of the Far Northwest.
At the end of such a fine and comprehensive book, one is left wondering what more can and should be studied about the steamers of the Far Northwest. This is not a book connected with the theoretical and conceptual complexities of contemporary academic historiography and it deliberately makes no effort to do so. The profound technical and historical strengths of the work provide a foundation for future studies of labour relations on the river steamers, the intricate relationships between the riverboat operators and regional businesses, the management of cross-border legal and regulatory matters, Indigenous engagement in the riverboat economy, and the social relationships in the Far Northwest that surrounded the industry. Turner’s book also provides a wonderful foundation for exploring further technological innovation on the riverboats, and particularly the degree to which northerners and northern companies drove the adaptations.
The Klondike Gold Rush Steamers is a fine addition to the professional study of the heritage of the Far Northwest. It is one of the finest, most thorough, and most comprehensive books ever written on riverboats in Canada. Scholars of regional transportation are indebted to Robert Turner for this exceptional and detailed work.
Ken Coates is Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation, Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan. Raised in Whitehorse, Yukon, Ken has written extensively on Yukon history and the integration of the Far Northwest.
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