Today, a story that could come from the pages of Ripley's "Believe It or Not", a story about how the Yukon almost lost one of its most important historical artifacts. A tale of what-ifs and might-have-beens.
It all began in the winter of 1958. Times were tough for the White Pass and Yukon Route. Among other things, they had a rail system that was difficult to operate at a profit at the best of times.
In addition, they owned a shipyard in downtown Whitehorse that was full of aging, discarded riverboats. Among them were smaller vessels like the Bonanza King, the Loon, the Yukon Rose, the Neechea and the Woodchuck. They were small paddle wheelers compared with the SS Whitehorse, the Casca, the Keno, and the Klondike . What to do with all this idle inventory was a conundrum for the company. So they decided to sell it.
The five smaller boats were all sold rather quickly and moved to various locations - mostly along the Alaska highway . All were sold to local buyers. But what is truly amazing is that a buyer was found for the SS Klondike. All fourteen hundred tons of her.
In the spring of 1958, the Vancouver Sun reported that John Lister, a Vancouver restauranteur, had bought the queen of the fleet from the White Pass for $25,000. Lister planned to move the resplendent riverboat to Vancouver and set her up as an ornate restaurant in time for B.C.'s Centennial celebrations in the summer of 1958.
The scheme was not 'mission impossible'. The Klondike was river-worthy at the time and Lister planned to sail her down the Yukon River to St. Michael on the coast of the Bering Sea, and then tow her with tugs along the Alaskan coast to Vancouver. Sounds implausible, but remember that during the Gold Rush, many riverboats had been built in Vancouver and sailed up the coast and into the Yukon River at St. Michael. The steamer Portland had sailed this route south to Seattle in 1897, with a ton of Klondike gold that started the gold rush.
The Klondike had been refitted in 1954, and the White Pass, in collaboration with Canadian Pacific Airlines, operated her on the Whitehorse - Dawson run for two seasons, making a dozen round-trips.
Still, when the news hit the streets in 1958, it seemed unreal. Only confirmation from veteran White Pass public relations director Roy Minter gave the story credence. Sad but true, said Minter. There were not enough tourists to operate the Klondike, and she had to go. A qualified riverboat captain was available, and the journey would take about six weeks.
Then, in midsummer of 1958, news flashed to Whitehorse that restauranteur Lister had backed out of the deal. He claimed to have made many extensive calculations and discovered that the cost of moving the ship from Whitehorse to Vancouver was not cost-effective.
So for the next eight years, the SS Klondike, along with the Whitehorse and the Casca, sat in the White Pass shipyards while debate raged on what to do with the paddle wheelers.
Well, we now know what happened to all of them. At least the SS Klondike was saved to represent a slice of Yukon history that could have been gone forever.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin