During World War II, Carcross played an important role in Alaska Highway construction. The connection here between the White Pass rail and water transportation systems gave the U.S. Army access to the Yukon's interior.
By early 1942, Carcross residents were well aware of the war. Many young men had joined the armed forces and their families anxiously followed the news from Europe. That spring, however, the war moved much closer to home when 1200 black troops of the 93rd Engineers stepped off the train. Over 10,000 soldiers would pass through town and Carcross became the distribution centre for road construction east to Teslin and north-west to Whitehorse. That fall, the contractor for the Canol pipeline, Bechtel-Price-Callahan, set up a supply camp near the railway station.
It was a busy time. Up to 25 trains a day rolled through town. Army trucks met the trains, then carried supplies to outlying road camps. Military planes flew in and out of the small airport. There was no lack of work for the local people. Johnnie Johns, a well-known big game outfitter, leased and sold horses to advance parties for both Alaska Highway construction and the Canol Project. Johnnie and Peter Johns also guided army surveyors through the country they knew so well. Other aboriginal people worked at a variety of jobs, ranging from cutting logs for telephone poles to chauffeuring a general up and down the barely completed highway.
The town's services were modernized. Civilian contractors supplied many buildings with electricity and year-round piped water. Communications also improved when the gold rush era telegraph line along the railway was replaced by an eight-wire telephone/telegraph service.
The "Friendly Invasion" also brought tragedy to Carcross. Many Tagish and Tlingit people were infected with diseases introduced by the soldiers. Despite the efforts of army doctors and devoted nursing by family members, many died from measles, chicken pox, and dysentery.
The soldiers and contractors departed as quickly as they had arrived. Their legacy was the network of roads that permanently altered the character of the community.
Restoration of the SS Tutshi
The SS Tutshi was built by the British Yukon Navigation Company in 1917 at Carcross and was pulled out of service in 1955. The Yukon Government purchased the SS Tutshi in 1971 and began an ambitious restoration project that was nearing its end when the boat tragically caught fire in July 1990.
The Tutshi project brought pride of place to Carcross residents as local artisans were trained in historic restoration techniques. The community reflected on the busy days of the White Pass & Yukon Route (WP&YR) fleet and looked forward to a healthy tourism industry with the Tutshi as the main attraction.
The vessel was opened to tours in 1988 with ongoing restoration work publicly accessible as it was to become part of the steamer’s history. It was a devastating blow to the community and the vessel’s owner when it burned before the fire suppression system could be installed.
This multi-use interpretation memorial and community space is dedicated to the SS Tutshi and its role in the area’s tourism industry.
WP&YR and Carcross
Construction of the WP&YR railway began on May 28, 1898 at Skagway and took 26 months to complete from tidewater Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon.
The rail line reached Bennett City, on the south end of Lake Bennett, on July 6, 1899. Land was surveyed at Carcross for railway yards, a depot and a good sternwheeler landing. The lake steamers hauled passengers and freight from Bennett to Carcross where the stream of traffic continued on to the Dawson or Atlin goldfields.
A construction camp of tents grew up at Carcross and the Red Line Company was established here in anticipation of rail construction between Carcross and Whitehorse. Shippers were relying on the railway even before it was completed. A 150m x 12m corrugated iron warehouse was built at Carcross and WP&YR built barges to transport heavy commercial and construction freight across the lake.
Locomotives made their first official stop in Whitehorse on June 8, 1900. The formal celebration was held in Carcross when the last spike connecting the rail lines from Bennett City and Whitehorse was driven in on July 29, 1900.
Following the gold rush, Carcross thrived as an important centre, supplying the mining communities of Tagish and Atlin lakes, and WP&YR promoted the tourist industry on the southern lakes.
Freighting on the Southern Lakes
The first southern lakes sternwheelers were constructed on the shores of Lake Bennett during the Klondike Gold Rush. They carried freight and passengers from Bennett City to Canyon City at the head of Miles Canyon just upstream from present-day Whitehorse.
Before the railway was completed around Lake Bennett, the lake steamers Bailey, Gleaner, Clifford Sifton and Reaper were on constant duty transporting rail for the construction crews.
The end of steel in Whitehorse connected to the Yukon River sternwheelers. Dissatisfied with the efficiency of the system, WP&YR set up the British Yukon Navigation Company (BYN). It purchased the Canadian Development Company sternwheelers on the Yukon River and the assets of the John Irving Navigation Company which operated boats on Lake Bennett, Taku Arm and Atlin Lake.
As the stampede waned, many sternwheelers were taken through Miles Canyon and White Horse Rapids to run between Whitehorse and Dawson. The remaining boats worked out of Carcross to supply the growing mining communities in the southern lakes.
“To the Land Where Beauty Does Abide”
The southern lakes became a popular tourist attraction for Inland Passage travellers who could afford an excursion into the interior.
The SS Tutshi was constructed in 1917 to accommodate an increasing number of tourists. Tourism declined during WWI but later rebounded and the sternwheeler was expanded three times in order to meet the demand for staterooms. In 1925 the Tutshi was converted from wood to oil to preserve the quiet during night-time stops.
The gardens and hospitality at Ben-My-Chree became a popular tourist destination for the Tutshi. WP&YR purchased and maintained Ben-My-Chree as a tourist destination after the owner died in 1930.
There was a piano on the freight deck and, in 1952, two of the waiters played for dances. Canvas, stored in a roll and suspended from the ceiling, was dropped down and pulled tight as a dance floor.
Low population and the construction of all-weather roads in the 1940s led to the end of Yukon’s paddlewheel era.
Boats of the Southern Lakes
The Yukon steamers were all sternwheelers rather than sidewheelers. The paddlewheel at the rear of the boat allowed grounded steamers to wash sand away from the hull by reversing their engines. Sternwheelers had a narrower beam enabling them to negotiate smaller channels and they did not require special docking facilities.
The Bennett Lake and Klondike Navigation Company sternwheelers were called the “mosquito fleet”. Two of these little boats were sent through Miles Canyon and White Horse Rapids and were the first to offer scheduled trips between Dawson and Whitehorse.
The John Irving Navigation Company operated the Gleaner on Bennett and Tagish lakes and the Scotia on Atlin Lake. The boats offered a through transportation route to the Atlin goldfields and on July 30, 1899 the Gleaner arrived in Bennett with $240,000 in gold dust. John Irving’s northern company was taken over by the BYN in 1901.
The BYN Co. sternwheelers were modeled after the “swift water” vessels that operated on the Snake, Williamette, and Upper Columbia rivers. The Yukon River boats had flat bottoms and used rudders while lake boats, like the Tutshi, had narrower and deeper hulls and a keel. The Tutshi had rudders attached behind the stern wheel (“monkey rudders”) in 1952.
The first steamboat, tested in 1807, was heralded as “the wonder of the age”. The technology was developed and refined until a powerful steam engine, mounted on the light frame construction of a shallow hull, drove a side or stern wheel vessel. This became the pioneer form of river transportation in many parts of the world.
Steamboats convert water into steam in the boiler and it travels through pipes to the engine where the heat is converted into mechanical energy. A closed cylinder contains a large piston which moves back and forth depending on changes in pressure on each side of it. A crank and connecting rod (or pitman) attached to the paddlewheel converts the reciprocal motion of the piston into rotary motion to power the paddlewheel.
Paddlewheelers had little room in the hull for mechanical systems so almost everything was mounted on the deck. The boilers and cylinders were placed in a horizontal position to accommodate the space. The machinery and firewood on a large boat took up enough space that another deck was needed to accommodate the crew and passengers.
The boat was navigated from the wheelhouse where the pilot could see to negotiate shallows and snags.
Tagish Lake contains a number of reefs and sand bars especially at Golden Gate where Taku Arm and Taku Inlet meet.
Tagish and Bennett lakes are prone to fierce winds and in the fall of 1933 a heavy wind blew the Tutshi broadside against the ice, damaging the hull. The Natasaheen River, connecting the two lakes, provided a protected harbour where the Carcross-based boats could wait out the winter.
The Tutshi was often left sitting in the water for the winter as the narrows by the railway bridge does not freeze. The boats were taken out of the water for repairs and could sit on the “ways” for the winter.
Ways are the dry-dock assemblage of sliding boards and timbers used to haul big boats out of the water. Four steel cables were wrapped around the steamers with wooden pads protecting the hull. The cables were attached to four horse-powered capstans which moved in unison to winch the boats evenly up the ways. The boats sat on “butter boards” which slid over the timbers, greased with tallow.
Adapting to changing times
The Carcross and Tagish First Nations people gathered at Tagish and the mouth of the McClintock River to trade and fish, and camped by the Natasaheen River when the Woodland Caribou migrated across the river.
The Klondike Gold Rush brought tremendous change to the area as trees were cut for boat building and later railway ties and barges. The sternwheelers needed wood for fuel and camps were set up around the lakes to supply fuel for the boats. Increasing population and development affected the local caribou herd which moved out of the area.
The Natasaheen River and Nares Lake remained a good place to fish and hunt for birds and the local people were attracted by new opportunities for employment. Johnnie Johns became famous as a world-renowned outfitter and employed many First Nation guides in his business.
The sternwheelers hired local deckhands and wood camps employed seasonal workers who could still spend most of their year on the land. The sternwheelers stopped at fish camps around the lake to obtain fresh for their elegant menus. One woman made between $300 and $400 in the summer of 1931 supplying fish to the Tutshi.
The Crew of the SS Tutshi
“Scotia Mac” John McDonald joined the BYN Co. after working on a number of steamers for numerous organizations starting in 1896, mostly on Kootenay Lake in British Columbia.
In 1902, MacDonald worked on the sternwheeler Scotia on Atlin Lake as a mate. He eventually earned the position of captain of the Tutshi, as well as a reputation as a jokester and a storyteller. While at Ben-My-Chree, he was rumoured to have told some tourists that red cabbages had been “struck by the northern lights.” His love of pranks resulted in embarrassment for the captain once when he decided to nudge a sandbar in order to frighten the passengers and ended up getting stuck. The passengers danced though the night as the crew worked to get the Tutshi off the bar.
The deckhands were hired locally. They handled the lines, kept the deck clean, filled the water barrels on the deck, manned the life boats and fire hoses and occasionally helped the waters clean the tourist cabins. The deckhand and the firemen lived in the engine room cabins. The rooms off the freight deck were occupied by the waiters and cooks.
Many of the waiters on the WP&YR steamers came north from the lower mainland of British Columbia. The work was attractive to university students who could to earn enough money to pay tuition and live in comfort for the rest of the year. Due to the intensity of the Tutshi’s schedule, a crew member only had three hours in Carcross between runs to Ben-My-Chree.