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An Explorer's Guide to Silver City (Kluane), Yukon

Priest won't give up determination to buy 'not-for-sale' ghost town

Sun Staff Reporter

Rev. Henk Huybers, 1972

Dateline: May 1972

    BURWASH LANDING, Yukon - Rev. Henk Huybers set off in his pickup truck one day last summer to buy back Silver City from the Americans.

    He failed then but he's not going to give up trying.

    Silver City is a Yukon ghost town owed by an Alaskan who bought it for unpaid back taxes in 1952. And that's what makes Father Huybers so mad.

    Canadian history is the great passion of this 56 year old priest who was born in Holland but has lived in the Yukon for 25 years.

    As he visited his parishioners by dog team - more recently by truck and snowmobile - he collected all kinds of historical objects and animal skins. So many, in fact, that he started a small museum right beside his home at Burwash Landing, about 180 miles west of Whitehorse.

    "Everyone helped," said Father Huybers, who has about 1,000 people in his parish, which stretches 300 miles from Whitehorse to the Alaska border.

    Now he plans to build a proper museum and spends every moment of his spare time drumming up support for this project.

    But as the keenest member of the Kluane Community Development and Historical Society, it's Silver City that really frustrates him.

    This ghost town, located beside a lake and close to the Alaska Highway, was once a trading post, roadhouse, and a Northwest Mounted Police barracks. It is woven right into Yukon history because it was built on the old wagon road from Whitehorse to the placer gold fields of the Kluane Lake district at the turn of the century.

    Today, Silver City's log cabins and barracks buildings are abandoned but still well preserved in their beautiful lakeside setting.

    "My historical society wants to buy it and restore it but I just can't catch up with the man who owns it to make him an offer." Father Huybers said in an interview.

    He claimed that Silver City was bought by a Martin Victor of Fairbanks, Alaska, for $347 back taxes. And he alleged that the same man also bought the contents of three hotels in Dawson City and took them back to Alaska.

    "So I got in my truck and drove to Fairbanks to see him last summer," Father Huybers said. "When I got there I was told he was in Anchorage so I waited for a couple of days for him to come back.

    "Then I made the mistake of phoning Anchorage and leaving a message that I was coming to see him."

    Another 500 miles later, Father Huybers drove into Anchorage only to find out that Victor had flown back to Fairbanks.

    "So I drove back to Fairbanks and then discovered it was a national holiday and Mr. Victor had gone off fishing," he said. "I left messages for him all over the place but he never came to see me so I gave up and went back hom."

    The only thing he had to show for his efforts was a few thousand miles on his battered pick-up truck.

    "But I'm never going to give up," Father Huybers said. "I'm going back to Fairbanks and this time I'm determined to find Mr. Victor. If only he'd just tell me how much he wants for Silver City.

    "I've already talked to the justice department about getting some help to restore the place. They'll let the men out of jail in Whitehorse to do the restoration.

    "And I've talked to the men. They are ready to start any time. All they want is an OK to fish in the lake every Sunday and there's no problem about arranging that."

    But The Sun learned Monday that Silver City is not for sale.

    "I'm not interested in selling - I'm going to restore the place and run it as a tourist attraction," said Victor in a telephone interview from Fairbanks. "And I want to settle down and retire there."

    He said he bought the ghost town in 1952 and denied he paid only $347 for it.

    "I paid quite a large price for it," he said, but declined to say how much. He could not remember if he bought it for back taxes.

    Victor agreed that his son had bought the contents of some hotels in Dawson City, the centre of the Klondike gold rush, and removed them to Fairbaks.

    "We've been gathering things for years - genuine old articles," he said. "We're going to put a lot of them in Silver City."

    Asked what he thought about an American buying up Canadian historical artifacts, Victor replied: "It doesn't matter - what's the difference?"

    He said he could not remember receiving any messages from Father Huybers.

    But the priest is not a man who is going to be easily deterred. Already he has collected a $30,000 Local Initiatives Program grant for labour costs and a $19,000 capital grant from the Yukon Territorial Council for the building of his new museum on donated land in the Kluane Lake area, near the new Kluane National Park.

    He has persuaded the vocational school students in Whitehorse to build a scale model of the octagon-shaped log museum he designed himself and he carries it around in the front seat of his pick-up truck. It's a grat selling point when he's trying to get contributions for the cause.

    "History is one of my great interests," Father Huybers explained. "When I get my sabbatical in a year or so I want to go back to university and get my degree in anthropology so that I can be qualified to help the set-up in the Yukon."