On August 23rd, 1960, hundreds of Whitehorse residents stood on the banks of the Yukon River at the shipyards and watched history in the making. The SS Keno was heading on her last voyage to Dawson City after sitting idle at the shipyards for six years. In charge were veteran BC river boat captain Frank Blakeley at the controls, pilot Frank Slim navigating the ship, and the first mate, young Henry Breaden. The crew compliment totaled twelve. Tom Fenton, an engineer from the Parks department in Ottawa, was the leader of the expedition.
The Keno had been built in 1922 to carry ore between Mayo and the mouth of the Stewart River. She could carry nearly four hundred tons by pushing a barge in front. Above the freight deck, was the passenger deck which could carry 32 people. The hull was rebuilt in 1936 to make it 140 feet long. The Keno had been an important component of transportation on the Yukon’s river systems.
But before the boat left Whitehorse, there was a strange turn of events. Long time river boat man, seventy-one year old Emil Forrest was supposed to pilot the ship but suffered a massive heart attack while helping launch the Keno on August 20th. Hurriedly the Parks Department contracted pilot Frank Slim to take his place.
The trip was uneventful until it reached Carmacks where a bridge across the Yukon had been opened the previous year. The Keno with her smokestack and wheelhouse were too high to sail underneath.
The crew had to the remove the smoke stack and Frank Slim piloted the Keno under the bridge -- backwards. That’s so he would have greater control of paddlewheel and the steering mechanism. The wheel house above the main deck had already been removed in Whitehorse and was carried along on the main upper deck.
The boat made it with a few feet to spare and then easily navigated through the right channel of hazardous Five Finger rapids. But downstream, an unexpected event. She ran aground on an uncharted sand bar near Minto and was high and dry. Enter CBC radio reporter Terry Delaney who was covering the voyage for national radio broadcast. Terry was also a part time scuba diver and had brought his diving suit along just in case.
Now, Terry’s diving talents would come in handy. He had to don his wet suit and dive under the Keno to attach winch cables. Then he braved the fast current to pull the heavy metal cables to shore and wind them around what he hoped were sturdy willow trees. They were and the Keno was winched off the sand bar --backwards.
The trip continued with everyone thinking how this important national story might have turned out had radio reporter Terry Delaney not be along with his scuba-diving gear. The Keno might still be sitting high and dry on a remote sand bar just like the first SS Klondike which foundered in 1936 and is now resting on a bar in the Thirty Mile section of the river.
After three nights, the Keno arrived at her final home – Dawson City. Despite the driving wind rain, hundreds of Dawson residents were on the shore to cheer the arrival.
Through the years, the Keno has been restored to her original state. How well was the boat restored? Well, the engineers at Parks knew what they were doing because in 1979, during a massive spring flood in Dawson, she nearly filled with water but stayed in her resting place.
If she had been made watertight, the Keno may have floated down the river and now be lying somewhere high and dry on a sandbar instead of resting as a jewel in Dawson historic crown.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin