When Whitehorse was incorporated as a city in 1950, the first Mayor was a jovial character with an infectious smile and impeccable work ethic. Gordon Armstrong needed those qualities and more. The tiny town was a disorganized hodgepodge of many temporary residential shacks, and businesses that counted on the largess of an elected, but largely impotent Territorial Council, for the few funds it could muster.
Gordon was born in Whitehead, the district of Saskatchewan, in 1905. He arrived in Whitehorse in 1929 to work as a butcher for the Burns Meat Packing store, operated by the venerable T.C. Richards, owner of the Whitehorse Inn.
By 1950, with four newly elected Aldermen, Mayor Armstrong had much civic work to do. There was no city hall, so the five men met at various locations to conduct business for a town that was about to grow from a place filled with ramshackle shacks and, broken wooden sidewalks, and no sewer and water system. For the first two years, they held council meetings on the second floor of the Northern Commercial Building next to Taylor and Drury’s on First Avenue.
Then they moved to Humme’s Insurance offices on the corner of 3rd and Main. When the Canadian Army Signal Corps vacated its premises in a two-story building located on the site of the present-day city hall, the Mayor and Councilors moved in.
Whitehorse was maturing both in size and importance. It was the busy centre of navigation on the Yukon River where the White Pass still ran river boats, while the newly opened Alaska Highway was bringing both businesses and tourists.
The city’s economic base had diversified to include mining, prospecting, transportation, government and tourism.
At their first meeting, Mayor Armstrong and the aldermen wondered how they would manage. The city had no tax base. Instead, it relied on meager Territorial Council grants. The legislative body met in far off Dawson City, still the Yukon’s capital. In 1950, the Territorial Council handed over many functions carried out by the Territorial Government to the city, but federal funds dedicated to Whitehorse were limited, to say the least. That would soon change.
The first order of business for the first city council was to plan for a sewer and water system. Private wells and the honey bucket brigade required urgent attention, but where would the money come from?
In 1951, news flashed from Ottawa, from the Yukon’s Member of Parliament, Aubrey Simmons, that the federal government had decided to move the capital to Whitehorse. As black as that day was for Dawsonites, it was the start of a new era in Whitehorse. The federal government amended the Yukon Act, increasing members on the Yukon Council, two of them to represent Whitehorse.
The federal government would immediately move the National Employment Service to Whitehorse. The federal government was now paying attention to the growing city under Mayor Armstrong. On August 15, 1952, the new Whitehorse Elementary High School was officially opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the main entrance of the school on Fourth Avenue.
On April 1, 1953, Whitehorse officially became the Capital of the Yukon Territory, the most westerly capital city in Canada. On April 2, 1954, the Mayor told residents that the cost of the proposed sewer and water installations in Whitehorse, to the individual homeowner, would be about $10.00 a month. After a city-wide plebiscite voting in favour, they would start work that summer with completion targeted for 1955.
In 1954, Gordon left the Burns Company and, with his nephew Bob Armstrong, started Yukon Sales, a wholesale distribution outfit. The company was a Walmart on wheels. With a converted panel truck, they delivered orders from Dawson City to Cassiar, and all points between. They sold anything that would sell. Gordon always claimed that he was the first to introduce Peak Frean biscuits, Blue Ribbon Tea and Willard’s Chocolates to the Yukon.
The pair carried out much of the work from Gordon’s historic home on Wood Street. The Armstrongs, with their only daughter Pat, lived in a three-room log house that was first owned by Dr. Frederick Cane, the Whitehorse postmaster in 1906. The house was originally a small three room log cabin, to which they attached a frame addition.
In the 1920s, the house was occupied by Captain Campbell, a pilot on the river boats, for whom it is now named. It is a wonder the Armstrong family ever got any rest, since the house is believed to be haunted by the ghost of a young boy who drowned in the 1940s. The ghost only appeared in one room, one of the early additions to the three room log house. There was a constant feeling of being watched, while the ghost often played “peek-a-boo”.
At home, Gordon never forgot his first craft as a butcher, and was often called upon by friends to prepare the results of a successful moose hunt. He did this work in a garage in the back of his yard at 406 Wood.
In June 1954, the Federal Government announced plans to build a 120-bed hospital in Whitehorse. The old hospital, on Second and Hanson, no longer provided adequate health services for the developing city.
That summer, Mayor Armstrong entertained royalty. In August, the Duke of Edinburgh became the first “Royal” to visit the land of the Midnight Sun. They treated him to fine wine and a fun time on board the SS Klondike. It’s a good thing Gordie was up on his local history because the Duke had many questions for the Mayor, especially about the portrait of the Can Can dancers that graced the walls of the Klondike’s dining room.
On November 5, 1954, the modern Federal Building at the corner of Fourth and Main opened its doors to the public. Local athletes were none too happy because the building occupied their former ball diamond, but a new arena, curling rink and ball diamond, near the south end of Fourth Avenue, more that made up for the loss.
The Federal Building contained 60,000 square feet of office space, and housed the growing number of government departments. The Whitehorse Post Office moved out of its turn-of-the-century building at First Avenue & Lambert, and into the new streamlined quarters in the Federal Building.
1955 was a busy year for the Mayor and his four-member council. By September, the downtown core was piled with dirt. Deep, muddy trenches left gaping holes in the streets and the roar of heavy equipment filled the air. Sewer and water construction was underway. Nevertheless, residents were not duty-bound to install the system into their homes. In fact, residents had to apply if they wanted to reap the benefits of the multimillion-dollar project.
Also, in September, work on the Yukon River’s first real bridge was underway. A 300-foot, three-span structure was going to reach the area that would become the city’s new subdivision.
The following spring, Governor-General Vincent Massey officially opened the span and revealed its name. The Robert Campbell Bridge connected old Whitehorse to the new subdivision called Riverdale. It was an important day for us school kids too. The Governor-General, on his first visit to the Yukon, proclaimed a school holiday. Mr. Massey, like the Mayor, was a popular fellow.
Many improvements during the '50s, including a few paved streetsand concrete sidewalks, were carried out under the Mayor’s tenure.
However, it wasn’t all business for Mayor Gordon Armstrong, although he and his small council were obviously busy making their mark on the future of Whitehorse. He loved to fish and, according to his son-in-law, Graham George, there was scarcely a river in the Yukon that avoided his rod and reel. Frequent fishing trips were always, said Graham, accompanied by a bottle of good Scotch whiskey.
In 1958, after eight hectic years, Gordon Cameron succeeded Gordon Armstrong as Mayor. But he had left his mark in the city’s history. He had helped the town rise from a frontier northern village to a modern city, with amenities of which the early pioneers could only dream.
In 1962, the Armstrongs moved to Vancouver, but Gordon frequently returned to the Territory while still operating his Yukon Sales Company. Gordon Armstrong, the first Mayor of Whitehorse, passed away in Vancouver in 1993, and was laid to rest in Kelowna, British Columbia.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.