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The History of Carcross, Yukon Territory

by Ken Spotswood

A Guide to Modern Carcross

      From the time the first prospectors came over the Chilkoot Pass, this place was known as Caribou Crossing because of the large herds of caribou that crossed the narrows between Bennett and Tagish Lakes twice a year on their annual migration. Artifacts of aboriginal people - flaked stone tools estimated to be 4,500 years old - have been found here.

      Following the discovery of Klondike gold in 1896, it became a popular stopping off place for stampeders in their migration to and from the gold fields of Dawson City.

      For a short time it had the largest sawmill in the territory. It was owned by Mike King, who also built boats and scows for the gold rush trade from early 1897.

      In late May of 1898, the North-West Mounted Police counted 778 boats under construction at Lindeman Lake, 850 in Bennett and the surrounding area, and another 198 at Caribou Crossing and Tagish Lake. It was further estimated that another 1,200 boats were built in these areas over the next few weeks.

      In addition to being a minor boat building centre, Caribou Crossing was also a station for the Royal Mail and the Dominion Telegraph Line, and it served as a communications point on the Yukon River.

      From the tent towns that sprung up in the area, several prominent hotels emerged. The Caribou Hotel was built here in 1898, and still enjoys the distinction of being the oldest operating hotel in the territory. In 1899 Fred Trump, grandfather of American millionaire playboy Donald Trump, and his partner Ernest Levin, opened a restaurant in a tent at Bennett, which they called the Arctic. Trump and Levin fed their customers well and, before the year was out, they replaced their tent with a two-storeyed building that offered food and sheltered accommodations. When the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway (WP&YR) threatened to draw business away from the old trail, Trump and Levin floated The Arctic to a new site across from the Bennett depot. When the partners later relocated to Whitehorse, their hotel was burned.

      In 1901, when the gold rush subsided, Anglican Bishop William Bompas moved his headquarters here from Forty Mile, and established a school for Indian children. Two years later he petitioned the Canadian government to change the name of Caribou Crossing to the abbreviated 'Carcross'. This was due to frequent mixups in mail delivery with communities in Alaska, B.C. and other Yukon settlements that had similar names. The post office made the name change official in 1904.

      During construction of the White Pass Railway, tracks were laid north from Bennett and south from Whitehorse. They met at Carcross, which hosted the 'last spike' ceremony on July 29, 1900, linking Skagway with Whitehorse over a distance of 110 miles.

      The Carcross area is part of Skookum Jim's land. Carcross-Tagish people remember his deal with the railway, probably the first land claims deal of its kind in the territory. After gaining fame for his role in the discovery of gold in the Klondike, Jim gave permission for the railway to build across his land in exchange for jobs for people in his community.

      While railway construction was under way in 1899, gold was discovered in the Atlin district of northern B.C. and another stampede occurred. As a result, all would-be miners, goods and services destined for Atlin went through Carcross.

'Fractured Veins & Broken Dreams'
The history of the
Windy Arm mining stampede
      Silver and gold were first discovered in the Windy Arm area of Tagish Lake in July of 1899, which sparked an intensive mining era in this section of the Yukon. By 1905, American mining promoter Col. John Howard Conrad had acquired control of most of the newly-discovered gold-silver-lead deposits. By 1906 the boomtown of Conrad employed more than 200 miners. It included stores, churches, hotels, restaurants, baths and laundry, a post office, a mining recorder's office as well as regular steamboat service from Carcross.

      Conrad's most ambitious and extravagant undertaking was construction of a tramline to carry the ore down from his mine on Montana Mountain--then the longest aerial tram in the world. It rose 3,700 feet, extended for four miles and cost $75,000 to build at a time when the average miner was earning $3.50 a day. The sternwheeler Gleaner provided steamer service between Conrad and Carcross twice a week, and a telephone line linked the mines, Conrad and Carcross.

      Conrad's prosperity, however, went from boom to bust with a drop in the world price for silver in 1914. The ore bodies were not as extensive as first thought, consequently the mine closed and the town was abandoned.

      A major fire on Christmas Eve 1909 destroyed the Caribou Hotel, 2 stores, the White Pass railway depot, and the Customs House. Everyone was very quickly back in business, though. Read the article about the fire in The Weekly Star of December 31st here.

      In 1911 the Canadian government built a new residential school for Indian children at Carcross. This was the beginning of a dark and difficult era for Yukon native people. The Choutla school often forcibly removed children from their families and kept them apart for months or years at a time.

      The school's academic program was limited to basic writing and arithmetic, and it promoted loyalty to Christianity and the British Empire. Indian culture and traditions were considered irrelevant and students were forbidden to speak their native languages. They also suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse. During construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942, two black American soldiers entered the girls' dormitory of Choutla School. The two soldiers were later found guilty of having sex with under-age girls and were fined $24 and $20 each by an American military court.

Johnnie Johns, Yukon guide and storyteller, 1898-1988
Johnnie Johns, a Yukon legend, passes on his stories
to the children of Carcross in 1983.
Photo courtesy of the Government of the Yukon.
      Cut adrift from their own culture, but not readily accepted by white society, many children left the school before graduation only to face new problems in trying to adapt to life back in their home communities. By the late 1960s the Canadian government had changed its policy of assimilation of native people into mainstream society and residential schools were phased out.

      Construction of a road link between Skagway and Whitehorse began in the 1950s, but was only completed to Skagway in 1978. The South Klondike Highway roughly follows the trail of the stampeders of 1898 and Carcross is a popular and picturesque stopping place for motorists. The highway is open year-round as the result of a maintenance agreement between Canada and the U.S., with additional funding provided by the Yukon mining industry which ships ore to Skagway.

      Carcross was a major depot for the WP&YR until the railway ceased operations during the recession of 1982. The legendary White Pass train made its first appearance at Carcross in 15 years on July 12 this year when it carried gold rush descendants, dignitaries and others as part of the re-enactment of the first shipment of Klondike gold from Skagway to Seattle.

      Numerous Yukon pioneers are buried here, including Bishop Bompas, Skookum Jim Mason, Kate Carmack, Tagish Charlie and Polly the Parrot.

      For more than 50 years Polly held court at the Caribou Hotel where he gained international fame for singing opera - and for shocking unsuspecting hotel guests with colourful profanity. Polly died in 1972 at the age of 126 years - older than the gold rush itself - and his grave boasts one of the finest bronze markers in the cemetery.

© 1998-2018 Ken Spotswood