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The Burning of the Sternwheelers
Casca and Whitehorse

Click on each photo below to greatly enlarge it

    On June 20, 1974, in possibly the most famous fire in Yukon history, two of the last remaining Yukon River sternwheelers were destroyed.

Photos by George Tumpach, in the collection of Murray Lundberg


    The Casca (the third ship with that name) and the Whitehorse had been sitting on the ways at Whitehorse since being taken out of service in 1952 and 1955 respectively. The White Pass & Yukon Route, whose British Yukon Navigation Company division had operated the ships on the Yukon River, sold these two boats, along with the Keno and Klondike, to the Government of Canada in 1960, but little had been done to preserve them beyond painting them and putting up a security fence in 1973.

    In about 1965, an attempt by Crown Assets to sell the Casca and Whitehorse was halted, largely through the efforts of local historian Roy Minter. The government had by then decided that the history of steam travel on the Yukon River could be told through the restoration of a single sternwheeler, and the Klondike was the boat they chose for restoration. Luckily, in 1966 the Klondike was moved from the Shipyards to her present location by the Robert Campbell Bridge, or we may have lost her as well.

    Although nobody knows for sure how the fire started, two rumours with completely opposite views have circulated ever since.

    The Casca was described as a wooden sternwheeler, 180 feet long, with 36.5-foot beam and 5.6-foot hold. Her gross tonnage was 1,300.27, registered as 1,033.32 tons. She had one deck, was of carvel build, with a straight head and transom stern, and had 5 bulkheads.

    The machinery for the Casca was salvaged from the Casca No.2. The engine room was 33.5 feet long, housing the horizontal high-pressure engines which had been built ca.1898 by Albion Iron Works of Victoria, and a steel locomotive boiler built in 1907 by Polson Iron Works of Toronto that had originally been installed in the Yukon River sternwheeler Lightning. The engine cylinders were 16 inch diameter and had a 72-inch stroke, developing 17 NHP, 450 IHP.

    Over the winter of 1936-1937, the Casca was partially constructed at Vancouver for the British Yukon Navigation Company (BYN), with pre-fab units then shipped to Whitehorse for assembly; most of the boat was then built at Whitehorse. Licenced for 180 passengers in 1937, she was the plushest ship on the upper river, used for most BYN tourist runs.

    The Whitehorse (originally the White Horse) had a much longer and more colourful history on the river, being built in 1901. She was described as a wooden sternwheeler, 167 feet long, with a 34.5-foot beam and 4.5-foot hold. Her gross tonnage 986.65 tons, registered as 630.69 tons. She had two decks, was of carvel build, and had a straight head and square stern, with two bulkheads. She had accommodation for 64 people.

    The engine room was 34.5 feet long, housing 2 horizontal engines made in 1898 by B.C. Iron Works, and originally installed in the Stikine River steamer McConell. The engines had two cylinders with a 16-inch diameter and 72-inch stroke, producing 17 NHP.

    In 1901 the British Yukon Navigation Company was in its heyday, and the White Horse was one of three large sternwheelers built that year (the others being the Dawson and Selkirk). The crew took only 43 days to build her, and after being christened with champagne by Miss Tache, daughter of the Public Works Superintendent, she was launched on May 29 1901.

    During her 54 years on the river, there were many adventures. In June 1902, she was declared a "plague ship" and quarantined in the river downstream from Dawson for 16 days. Arriving at Dawson June 2 with a crew of 34 and 125 passengers, a 2nd class passenger was diagnosed as a suspected case of smallpox. The disease never appeared, however, and the White Horse was allowed to go back into service.

    Navigation on several parts of the river were tricky, and in both 1909 and 1914, she hit the wall while descending through Five Finger Rapids, doing fairly extensive damage to the railings. In 1935, she was sent out to rescue the Yukon, which had been damaged by ice on Lake Lebarge and beached. The Whitehorse was guided through the ice during that mission by the company's airplane.

    As gold mining slowed down, more and more effort was put into promotion of the tourist trade, and the White Horse was modified many times to increase passenger comfort. On June 19 1916, with the Casca, she took the first of BYN's successful Midnight Sun excursions to Fort Yukon.

    Some members of the crew became famous in their own right. In 1927, the Pilot was "Kid Marion", famous for his tall tales, and Alan Innes-Taylor was working as purser at the start of his illustrious Northern career (which should one day fill a book).

    Over the years she was constantly being rebuilt, including having a complete new 171x36.3-foot hull put under her in 1930. By 1955, though, she was about worn out, so was rejected for restoration in favour of the Klondike.

    Like many other Yukoners, though, I still think about what it would be like to have the Casca and the Whitehorse sitting alongside the Klondike today.

Northern Ships and Shipping