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The Whitehorse Dam, Yukon

A Guide to Whitehorse

The History of Whitehorse

    The completion of the White Pass and Yukon Route railway from Skagway, Alaska, to Whitehorse in 1900, and the establishment of Whitehorse, located at the head of navigation on the Yukon River, as the base of operations for a large fleet of sternwheelers guaranteed that the community would be permanent, and the construction of large-scale power production facilities was soon being planned.

    By the spring of 1900 there were wholesale houses and retail mercantile establishments, a hardware store, six large hotels, two drug stores, a brick yard, 2000 feet of warehouses on the waterfront, three churches, an athletic club and an electric light plant. Tents, log houses or clapboard buildings were found on practically every lot. The initial power facility was a wood-fired steam engine, which only supplied power from the time it got dark until about midnight, although in the winter, it was also supplied for a short period each morning.

    In 1901, the Yukon Territorial Council was petitioned to incorporate, under the terms of the Companies Ordinance, the White Horse Electric Power and Water Works Company. It proposed to "operate in and around the town of Whitehorse, supplying the locality with water systems, sewers, telephones, electric lights, tramways, wells, wharves, cisterns, reservoirs and the like, and to deal in timber." Despite the support of several influential businessmen and politicians, this petition was denied.

    In 1912, Whitehorse businessman E. A. Dixon applied to the Minister of the Interior for a grant to use 20,000 inches of water of Fiftymile River at the head of Miles Canyon, for the purpose of generating power, and for the right to transmit, sell and use that power. The application was eventually cancelled due to lack of follow up by the applicant.

    In 1923, the White Pass and Yukon Route completed the Lewes Dam (a.k.a. the Yukon River or Marsh Lake Dam) on the Yukon River below Marsh Lake. This held extra water to launch the sternwheelers at Whitehorse in the spring, to carry them over the shallow stretches before and after Lake Laberge, and to flush out the lake ice.

    The increasing popularity of labour-saving household appliances during the 1930s created a greater demand for electricity in the Whitehorse area. Yukon Electrical Company Ltd. began making power available on Monday mornings for washing and on Tuesday mornings for ironing, then in 1935 went to 24-hour power production.

    During the construction of the Alaska Highway from 1942-45, the U.S. Army operated a diesel-powered electrical generating plant. It was located at the bottom of what is now called Two Mile Hill, and the electricity produced was for military buildings only. After the war, this system was turned over to the Canadian Army at no cost as part of the Alaska Highway transfer.

    The Northwest Territories Power Commission (NWTPC) was established in 1948 to oversee the construction and operation of power plants in the northern territories. E.W. (Ted) Humphrys was hired as the first engineer and the first salaried employees of NWTPC. The agency was later renamed the Northern Canada Power Commission.

    In 1955, the federal government decided to open up the Riverdale subdivision on the opposite side of the Yukon River from the town. Along with that came a new hospital, schools and a bridge across the Yukon River. The government realized that more electricity would be needed to serve all this development, so it decided to build a hydro dam.

    Before settling on the Whitehorse Rapids site, the government considered two other sites: the outlet of Kusawa Lake and the outlet of Aishihik Lake. Some consideration was also given to a steam plant to burn coal from Carmacks. The Whitehorse Rapids site was found best suited to the development of the region. It offered the prospect of meeting electricity demands at a reasonable cost and could be expanded to meet future growth.

    Construction of the 15,000 horsepower hydro generating station in Whitehorse was approved in the summer of 1956, and on-site work started in November of 1957. Poole Construction was hired to build the facility, with about 80 men working on it. During this time, the employees were housed at a local hotel. An agreement was made giving the construction company a discount on hotel costs of $1 a day per person. In exchange, Poole Construction built a new grocery store, located near the current Yukon Inn.

    A major challenge of the dam construction in 1957-58 was diverting the river during the various building phases. Cofferdams were wooden structures built to hold back the water from sections of the river so that the spillway, main dam and barrier dam could be built.

    The reinforced concrete spillway was built with two openings about 12 meters (40 feet) wide, which can be closed by steel gates approximately 11 meters (36 feet) deep. The gates were shipped in 15 ton sections and assembled on the site. Each opening has the capability of allowing 762 cubic meters (25,000 cubic feet) of water per second to pass through the spillway.

    It cost $7.2 million to build the dam, and the first unit started generating power on November 15, 1958. The first crew at the hydro plant included Jesse Barwise, Art Farly, Al Jamieson, Lorne Vance, Henry Breaden and Harry Parker. Once it began operating, power rates were reduced by about 16 percent.

    Also that year, a fishladder was constructed of timber and reinforced concrete, to allow migrating salmon to travel past the dam. The ladder is believed to be the longest wooden fishladder in the world, at a length of 366 meters (about 1200 feet).

    There were initially two turbines for power generation at the dam, but as the demand for electricity increased, a third turbine was added in 1969, and a fourth in 1985. The "Fourth Wheel" doubled the hydro capacity of the Whitehorse hydro facility to 40 megawatts, enough to light up one million 40 watt light bulbs. As of 2018, Yukon Energy needs to produce between 50 and 60 megawatts of power to supply the needs of Yukoners on a very cold day. On a milder day, that number drops to between 20 and 35 megawatts. Whatever can't be produced by the hydro facility is produced by diesel and LNG generators.

    The big dam wasn't the first in the Yukon, or even in Whitehorse. In 1949, Yukon Electrical started operating a small hydro facility at Fish Lake near Whitehorse. Then in 1951, NCPC, the Northern Canada Power Commission, built the Mayo hydro plant to serve the United Keno Hill Mine in Elsa. And finally, in 1975, NCPC built the Aishihik hydro facility to provide additional power to Whitehorse, and to serve the Faro mine.

Yukon Energy Corporation - the main producer of electricity in the territory.

ATCO Electric Yukon - the main distributor of electricity in the territory.