I didn't really know the elderly gentleman who spent his days in the back room of the little Yukon Electrical clapboard office on Main Street, except that my school chum, Willard, enjoyed stopping there to say hello. To me, he was just a stern-looking old man. To Willard, he was Grandpa Phelps.
If only I had known the immense contribution he made to Yukon society; if only I had the opportunity to talk with him and discover his story first-hand - what a tale he would have told. However, I was only 10 when he passed away, and somehow, 10-year-olds are ill-equipped to appreciate the wisdom of elders like Willard Phelps.
What I now know of his fascinating life story, I want to share. Willard Leroy Phelps Sr., was born on March 12, 1867 in Merritton, Ont., a tiny village with strong Protestant religious values and a sense of fair play in business activities of the farming kind. The region of southern Ontario grows world-class vegetables and is blessed with exquisite fields of grapes.
It was that way when the young Phelps attended Ridley College, a boarding school conceived by a group of Anglican clergy and laymen eager to establish a place, for boys, that emphasized strong academic and religious values. After high school graduation, he obtained a law degree at Osgoode Hall in Toronto. That college pioneered the most important developments in Canadian legal education, and was the first to establish a combined law and business degree.
The Phelps family of Merritton had always been very strong Conservatives. Willard's father and later his older brother, Milo, were both Conservative mayors. Not so with Willard because, as fate would have it, the lawyer under whom he articled was a staunch Liberal. Through his connection, Phelps had a chance meeting with the Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and was so impressed that he became a life-long Liberal.
In 1896, he started a law practice in Toronto. Within a week, a world-wide depression broke his budding business. Within a year, news of an amazing discovery of gold in a far-off place called the Klondike began filtering through to the cities of eastern Canada. Phelps decided to try his luck with gold mining and spent the winter of 1898 preparing for his journey to the Yukon. Like others in the east, he read stories about a good wagon road from Edmonton to the goldfields, but he was persuaded to take the Inside Passage route instead.
In Vancouver, Phelps teamed up with three other men, including George Geddes, who would eventually settle in Teslin, an escaped prisoner from Australia and a man whose name and background have disappeared into the mists of time. While sailing up the inland passage, Phelps overheard some news on the boat that convinced him and his partners to avoid Skagway. The infamous Soapy Smith gang, he discovered, planned to hijack them and steal their outfit that, among other things, included four horses and four law books. Wisely assessing their predicament, the Phelps party left the ship at Wrangell, Alaska, and set out to the Klondike on foot via the Stikine Trail.
When they arrived at Teslin Lake, they promptly ran out of money so they used their horses to haul freight for other gold-seekers along the same route. In the fall of 1898, they sold the horses, built a barge and prepared to float down the Hootalinqua River to Dawson. They hoped to arrive there before freeze-up but, by this time, George Geddes had fallen in love with a Teslin lady, married her, and stayed there the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, Phelps and his two remaining partners heard rumours of a gold strike on the Big Salmon River so they poled and pushed their barge about 65 kilometers up the Nisutlin River, then portaged their supplies into Quiet Lake. They managed to paddle for 12 kilometres before they were frozen in . On the ice-covered shores of Quiet Lake after freeze-up, they built a rough log cabin and hunkered down to spend their first Yukon winter. The ex-con may have saved their lives by insisting that they keep a path around the cabin clear of snow and run laps all winter on home-made snowshoes for exercise. He also made sure they were never without a boiling pot of tea made from the tips of spruce branches. This foul brew saved them from the ravages of scurvy, and saved their lives.
When the ice went out in spring of 1899, Phelps and his two partners paddled down the lake but travelled no more than eight kilometres when they saw another cabin. Inside lay seven men, all dead from scurvy. The three greenhorn gold-seekers reached the Yukon River, and began the last leg of the trip down to Dawson, arriving shortly after break-up in the late spring of 1899.
Dawson was a boom town of about 10,000 people, with thousands more arriving each day. There were four judges and 23 lawyers, so it did not take long for lawyer Phelps to realize that, with little but his four law books, he was facing stiff competition. Broke and unable to get work as a lawyer, he sold his share of the outfit and took a job shovelling cordwood into the paddlewheelers.
In the fall of 1899, there was a rush to the goldfields of Atlin, B.C. Phelps joined the throng, and ran a hotel and tended bar for the winter. By 1900, the White Pass and Yukon Route had completed the railway from Skagway to Whitehorse. Figuring correctly that Whitehorse would be the centre of transportation, he moved to the tiny town and set up a law practice.
Here, in 1904, he met Robert Service and a group of seven bank men who were all staunch Methodists. The crew decided that what a frontier town needed more than anything was a church. So they embarked on a building spree and raised a church that, of course, needed a preacher. Phelps persuaded a young minister from Vancouver to take on the job. Phelps met the young clergyman at the White Pass train station and introduced him around the little town of about 500 hardy souls. The next day being Sunday, the morning service was held, but nobody showed up. After waiting a suitable time, the minister inquired as to where he might find Mr. Phelps. He was told he would likely find him at "the club", which was really a poker room and bar operated by the same bunch of bank boys. When the young preacher confronted him about his non-appearance at Sunday service, Phelps explained that, while he fully believed in the necessity of a church, he certainly saw no need for himself to attend. The irate minister left Whitehorse on the next southbound train, and from that day on, Willard Phelps was known as "the Deacon".
In 1907, 'Deacon' Phelps married Hana Livingstone, a schoolteacher from Ontario. A daughter, Dorothy, was born in 1910, and son John came along in 1917. By this time, Phelps was an elected member of the territorial council sitting in sessions twice a year in Dawson City.
He was also a practicing lawyer and handled the legal arrangements for three Whitehorse businessmen who started a wood-fired, steam-driven power plant on the banks of the Yukon River in an operation they called Yukon Electrical. In 1905, when Jay Wiley, one of the founders of Yukon Electrical, left the territory, Deacon Phelps became the company's manager. He had his work cut out for him. The big copper mining boom around Whitehorse had sputtered. The importance of Whitehorse as the small, but vital, transportation and communications centre dwindled. The population dropped dramatically. Still, in 1906, Yukon Electrical, under Phelps, dropped its power rates by almost half from 90 to 50 cents a kilowatt-hour. In addition, the company introduced Whitehorse to the magic of the telephone. In 1914, Phelps, along with Charlie French, the plant's night operator, and newly-hired electrician, Fred Gray, bought out all the company's shareholders and became soul owners of Yukon Electrical. Gray would later become known as 'King of the Movies' because his fascination with the new medium led him to take a course in movie projection.
Phelps became the 'King of Politics'. In the summer of 1909, the Yukon was in the midst of an election campaign to choose the first wholly-elected territorial council. Eight men from Dawson City and two from Whitehorse won seats on July 15, Willard "Deacon" Phelps remained a member of the Yukon Territorial Council until 1943 except the years 1920-25, when he did not run for office.
Meanwhile, Whitehorse remained a sleepy town through the '20s and '30s. Phelps carried on with his law practice, representing such diverse clients as large mining companies like Treadwell Yukon and handling the estates of old-timers like Klondike gold co-discoverer Skookum Jim. However, it was his role as owner of Yukon Electrical that Deacon Phelps made his biggest contribution to the growth of the territory. He eventually became the sole owner in the 1940s, and turned the business over to his son, John, and his son-in-law, John Scott, who had married his daughter, Dorothy.
In the late 1940s, as the Canadian Army and its Alaska Highway maintenance activities resulted in the rapid development of Whitehorse, the two Johns decided that the wood-fired Yukon Electrical steam power plant on First Avenue was no longer capable of handling the burgeoning power demands of the city. In 1948, they decided to develop a hydro generating power station on the Fish Lake Road, using water from the small creeks that flow out of Fish Lake. They were faced with a complex engineering problem, and they made it work.
However, to build the operation took more money than the two young engineers had. Deacon Phelps, now an old man of 81, withdrew his entire life savings and backed the boys with $60,000 in cold cash. Without his financial support and solid faith in his son and son-in-law, Whitehorse would not have had a hydro plant on the Fish Lake Road. It was a tiny operation by the today's standards, but a vital one in the late '40s and '50s, when Whitehorse emerged from the days of an inconsistent electric power supply to relatively dependable electricity.
In 1951, "Deacon" Phelps died at age 84. His son, John, became president of Yukon Electrical and followed in his father's footsteps by winning a seat on the Territorial Council in 1952. My old schoolmate, Willard, Jr., the Deacon's grandson, graduated with a law degree from the University of British Columbia in 1968. He was a member of the Yukon Legislative Assembly in 1974-75 and 1985-96.
Willard, Jr. followed in the 'Deacons' famous footsteps by serving as Yukon government leader in 1985 and was Leader of the official Opposition from 1985 to 1991. For five decades, Willard "Deacon" Phelps, Sr. had been the territory's guiding light. With his passing in 1951, his steady hand, in many businesses, professional and charitable organizations throughout the Yukon, would be missed.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
See also: Yukon Electric Company