Yukon Nugget Ephraim J. Hamacher
Most of the photographers who took the Klondike challenge of 1898 travelled all the way to Dawson City. When the rush was over, most left the land of gold forever. Ephraim Hamacher did neither.
He was born in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1857, the third oldest in a family of ten children. As a young man, he moved to Washington State where he learned the ponderous, almost primitive art of photography.
In 1898, Hamacher answered the clarion call of the Klondike gold rush about the same time as another more famous picture taker. Like his friend, Eric Hegg, Hamacher sailed up the inside passage to record the mayhem and madness. Unlike Hegg and other who at break up hurried to Dawson City, Hamacher decided to stay in the tent town of Lake Bennett. However, by the spring of 1900, Bennett was a ghost town.
When the lakes and rivers opened, Hamacher packed up his awkward photography gear and headed down stream for Whitehorse. Unlike other early day photographers, he seemed to love the north and decided to stay in the tiny town of about four hundred people.
It did not seem like a place where a commercial photographer could make much of a living, but Hamacher turned out to be an inventive businessman. What he accomplished from his little clapboard studio on First Avenue is the most comprehensive visual history of the early days of Whitehorse. He documented community scenes, sternwheeler construction, and mining scenes in the Kluane area.
Mundane shots of the White Pass operations including the train and the river boat era have become a vital component of the city’s colourful history that would be largely forgetten had it not been for Hamacher and his heavy cameras.
In October 1906, the Whitehorse Star reported that: “Photographer E.J. Hamacher returned Sunday evening on the steamer White Horse from a professional trip along the river. He obtained some excellent views of the wreck of the steamer Columbian.”
The Columbian had blown up near Eagle Rock Bluff killing six crewmen. Hamacher was the first to photograph the sad spectacle. Among his legacies are priceless photos of Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids as they were before they built the Whitehorse Dam.
He photographed the growing town from the clay bluffs overlooking Whitehorse. These photos have helped archivists identify the location of historic buildings in the early days. He shot sporting events such as ball games, tennis and curling matches.
He also specialized in portrait photography and obviously has an eccentric sense of humour since he would sometimes encourage his subjects to wear outlandish costumes. If they did, he would take 50 percent of the bill. Thus, we see some exemplary citizens of Whitehorse in cannibal outfits of highland dance regalia. Some photographs show women picknicking in voluminous dresses and feathered hats while men in suits fish for salmon or hunt grouse.
When Ephraim Hamacher died in 1935 at the age of seventy-eight, his obituary told of the esteem with which he was held by the citizens of Whitehorse.
“A gentleman of the old school, Ephraim Hamacher was noted for his courteousness and affability in all circles and will be missed by the entire community and by the old-timers of the town, who reverently bow their head in tribute to passing of a grand old man.”
Many photos take by E.J. Hamacher are now housed in the Yukon Archives thanks to donations from Yukoners likes Rolf and Marg Hougens as well as in the permanent collections at the MacBride Museum.