By the mid-1950s, a growing Whitehorse apparently needed more electrical power than could be provided by the Fish Lake power plant operated by Yukon Electric. But what to do? At the time, two parallel systems were operating. The Yukon Electrical Company Limited continued to supply downtown customers, and the Department of National Defense operated a diesel plant to supply the airport, Camp Takhini, Hillcrest, Marwell and parts of downtown.
In 1955, the Northwest Territories Power Commission, which later became known as the Northern Canada Power Commission, expressed interest in providing power in the Yukon and began a series of studies that included adding to diesel generation as well as a thermal plant near Carmacks. But nothing could beat hydro power and the Whitehorse Rapids was the source of tremendous untapped electricity.
Thus, in 1955, with little in the way of environmental studies, plans were underway to do what today would be unthinkable. Dam the Yukon River and harness the power of the famed rapids.
In the fall of 1956, construction began on an earth-filled dam that would forever alter the Yukon River. The 14-meter-high dam would create what is now known as Schwatka Lake, by clearing a 250-acre site above the dam. The lake would be a kilometre wide and 10 meters deep.
In the fall of 1958, the Northern Canada Power Commission installed two powerful turbine engines and power began flowing to Whitehorse. Total cost of the project was 7.2 million dollars, paid for by the Government of Canada.
In 1959, the Whitehorse Fishway, the longest wooden fish-ladder in the world was built to aid the migration of Chinook salmon on the final leg of their long journey to their spawning ground at the headwaters of the Yukon River.
In 1966, NCPC decided that the installation of a third turbine was the best way to supply power to the new Cyprus Anvil lead-zinc mine in Faro.
Between 1968 and 1969, NCPC installed a third turbine at the Whitehorse dam and built a transmission line from Whitehorse to Faro to supply the town and mine.
When it had opened in 1958, the Whitehorse Rapids dam depended on the natural storage of water from the Yukon River and its headwaters. However, in 1969, with the third turbine in place, extra water capacity was needed. NCPC rebuilt the old Lewes dam on the Yukon River near Marsh Lake as a control structure to regulate the level of Marsh Lake and provide water storage for the Whitehorse Rapids power plant.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
See also: The First Dam on the Yukon River