There was a time when the Yukon River was the Yukon’s highway and the river boats were the life blood of the economy. The boats delivered everything from soup to nuts and bolts from the railhead at Whitehorse to the mining districts of Mayo and Dawson. And they brought silver ore and gold bullion out on the return trip from the interior. River boats were vital and were the only means of passenger travel in the summer until the Mayo-Dawson road was opened.
Between 1901 and 1953, the British Yukon Navigation Company, a subsidiary of White Pass and Yukon Route, operated a large fleet of stern wheelers on the Yukon River and its tributaries. At first, the fleet delivered passengers and freight to Dawson City and the Klondike Gold Fields. Then in the 1920s, bags of silver ore concentrate were delivered from Mayo on the river boats. The company needed to take full advantage of the short summer transportation season.
Ice would normally be gone from the river in mid-May. But there was a problem. The ice on Lake Laberge might not move until the early part of June. Something had to be done. But what?
Strange as it seems, the BYN tried to hasten the spring thaw by spreading a trail of soot along a narrow thirty mile track in the middle of the lake. Imagine! Soot would absorb the heat of the May sun and melt the ice, thus creating a track of open water for boats to navigate the lake. Where did all the soot come from and how was it hauled to Lake Laberge? Good questions for which I have no good answers. The system worked but needless to say this was a ponderous process and not very successful.
Then in 1922, the company decided that a dam on the river just below Marsh Lake would help. The dam would release a rush of water in the spring to break up the lake ice and thus speed up the start of navigation. This system wasn’t all that effective in lengthening the shipping season either. By 1953, it didn’t matter. Trucks could now use the road to Mayo and Dawson and the era of the river boats came to an end.
The dam, though upgraded since 1922, can still be seen where the bridge crosses the Alaska Highway at Marsh Lake.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
See also: Whitehorse Rapids Dam