SS Klondike: The Yukon River icon (Part 1)
Yukon Archives, Sam Wood fonds, #6274
Her graceful lines accentuate the Whitehorse waterfront and serve as the southern link to the waterfront development. Standing on board, you can look out her portside windows to the south, and see the Yukon River flowing past the tree-studded shore opposite. You can imagine that she is back in the water, serving as the main transportation link with Dawson City and other points downriver.
She is the SS Klondike, symbol of Whitehorse, and, according to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, she represents the large fleet of vessels that once supplied inland water transportation in the Yukon.
Today, she is a national historic site, resting elegantly in her berth at the foot of Second Avenue beside the Robert Campbell Bridge, but she was once the queen of the Yukon River fleet of the White Pass and Yukon Route.
Transportation has always been essential to the advancement of enterprise in the Yukon. Before Europeans arrived in the territory, goods were exchanged via a network of trails that linked the Interior to the coast. Transportation by foot was time-consuming and limited the quantity of goods that could be exchanged.
Europeans introduced pack horses to bring supplies to the more isolated and inaccessible locations, but wherever there was a good water corridor, boats were used. The first steam-powered river boat entered the Yukon River system in 1866. The flat-bottomed shallow draft sternwheel riverboats were well adapted to the shallow Yukon waters, where seasonal changes caused hidden sandbars to shift unpredictably. River transportation blossomed during the Klondike Gold Rush, and then stabilized as the stampede ended.
When the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway was completed, the obstacles of Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids were circumvented, and Whitehorse became the connecting point, with the sternwheelers that carried goods to Dawson City.
White Pass eventually bought out the competition and after 1910 had a virtual monopoly over river transportation that lasted for 40 years. But the shipping business was always a challenge in the remote Yukon wilderness. Most ships carrying freight returned from Dawson virtually empty save for passengers and compact but valuable shipments of gold.
With the development of lead/zinc mining in the Mayo area after 1920, the shipment Outside of ore concentrate from the mines increased the profitability of the White Pass transportation arm. Hauling ore required barges, and pushing barges slowed the riverboats, used up more ore and resulted in a more irregular shipping schedule.
The solution was to construct a riverboat that was large enough that it would not have to push a barge. The result was the SS Klondike. Launched in 1929, she was, at 64 metres, the largest vessel in the White Pass fleet, and capable of carrying 310 metric tons of ore per trip - faster and cheaper than any other ship pushing a barge.
Though she was primarily designed for transporting ore, she could also carry passengers, so from 1933 onward, she ran to Dawson City. On the return trip, in addition to passengers, she stopped at the mouth of the Stewart River, and took on a full load of ore concentrate, in sacks.
In 1936, just having left the Thirtymile section of the Yukon River, she failed to negotiate a bend in the river. She was under the control of a new pilot, who was unfamiliar with the river and the Klondike’s operating capabilities. She careened into a rock bluff and lost control of her steering. Taking on water and floating aimlessly in the Yukon, the Klondike finally sank midstream.
Fortunately, there was no loss of human life. Using the same design, White Pass rebuilt the vessel, and the Klondike II was put into service in June of 1937. The freighting service continued until, at the insistence of the Treadwell mine, a road was built from Whitehorse to Mayo. The completion of the road in 1950, and the extension to Dawson City three years later spelled the end of the era of river freighting.
In an effort to save the SS Klondike from extinction, White Pass entered into an arrangement with Canadian Pacific Airlines to offer tourist service to Dawson City on the Klondike II. In the words of historian James Weppler, “the ore-toting Klondike had to become a lady.” Various modifications were made to the Klondike II to serve this new and specialized operation, including expanding the number of staterooms, and adding an enlarged dining room, a lounge and bar.
Along with these changes, another was added. For the first time, in the promotional literature created by Canadian Pacific, the can-can dancer was introduced into Yukon folk lore. The can-can dancer has since become a permanent fixture, if not an historical one, in Yukon tourism.
The Klondike II was also converted from wood fuel to oil, thus bringing an end to another Yukon institution, the wood camps scattered along the Yukon.
The remainder of the Yukon River fleet was beached at the end of the 1953 season, but the made-over Klondike II sailed on for another two seasons. She was filled to capacity on each sailing. Unfortunately, the infrastructure that kept a fleet of sternwheelers in operation was now too expensive for running a single vessel. The tourist scheme was a bust.
So at the end of the 1955 season, the Klondike II joined her sister ships on the ways of the White Pass shipyard. There, the White Pass fleet rested, elegant, but aging. The SS Keno was recommissioned for one final journey to Dawson City, which was taken in the summer of 1960.
The Klondike II made one final voyage in 1966 that was unlike any other in the annals of Yukon navigation. I’ll tell you about that next week.
The Whitehorse and the Casca remained docked in the shipyard next to the Yukon River until 1974. I walked over to look at them during a visit to Whitehorse in March of that year, and I’m glad that I did, because a few months later, on the solstice, they were engulfed in flames and destroyed. For a few minutes during the conflagration, smoke was billowing from their smoke stacks as though they were taking one final voyage.