I’ve often thought that Whitehorse is such a proud name for the Yukon ’s capital city. The name has a ring about it and tells a story too. A story about the nearby Whitehorse rapids whose waters once churned and rolled - leaving little doubt about the power and majesty of the Yukon River. To Klondikers, the foaming waters looked like the mains of white horses racing to the gold fields.
But Whitehorse was very close to being called something else. Close is the operative word. For a time, the original settlement here was called Closeleigh, a name chosen by officials with the White Pass Railway. The railway owed its existence to the Close Brothers, a group of British financiers who had bankrolled the construction of the railway. So who were they?
In 1878 Close Brothers Investors, led by W.B. Close, was formed in England. The company bought cheap farm land in Iowa that they sold to settlers for a handsome profit. Then the company recruited young Englishmen from University and sent them to become farmers in Iowa. The company was always on the lookout for investments. In 1885, Close Brothers began a long and profitable association with the First National Bank of Chicago.
Then, in 1897, against the advice of his advisors, senior partner, W. B. Close decided to invest in construction of the White Pass railway. He paid ten thousand pounds to acquire the right of way to build the railway from Skagway to Whitehorse, not knowing if the railway could be built through this imposing wilderness. Fate played a remarkable hand in the spring of 1898, when the Close Brothers railroad engineer Sir Thomas Tancrede happened to be in Skagway the same week that a Canadian railroad builder, Michael Heney, was looking over the same possibilities.
Heney, who had worked on railway construction throughout Canada, convinced the British engineer that they could build the railway. The White Pass and Yukon route was created. On May 27, 1898, the first men, horses and material were landed at Skagway and construction of the rail project - which would eventually cost seven million dollars - began.
In the two years it took to build, many thousands of men worked on the railway and thirty-five died on duty. However, the Close Brothers investment firm did get their money back and more. Only determined opposition by a small group of Whitehorse residents in 1900, prevented the town at the end of the Close Brother’s White Pass rail line from being called Closeleigh.
And today, Close Brothers is still a powerful investment and banking group based in Britain.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin