It’s gone now. The three-story clapboard building on the corner of Second and Main harboured many a Yukon legend. Some were true. Some were almost true. In its day, it was the focal point of the Whitehorse business and social circuit, as was the owner, T.C. Richards.
Today, it’s hard to imagine a place like the Whitehorse Inn. In its heyday, it had everything. The owner, T.C. Richards had a lot to do with that. Thomas Cecil Richards came to the Yukon in 1915 from Vancouver. He was sent by the Burns Meat Packing plant to operate a butcher shop and slaughter house. The historic Burns building was just a few doors down from the Inn on Main Street. The slaughter house was located near the river end of Strickland Street. Hard to believe, but T.C. shipped cattle from Vancouver via the inside passage, and then on board cattle cars on the White Pass. There was never a shortage of fresh meat while T.C. Richards was running Burns.
One year, he even led a cattle drive over the winter road to Mayo and supplied the local T and D’s Store there with Burns meat products. T.C. was no stranger to the overland trail. He operated cat trains on the trail to Dawson in partnership with Deacon Phelps, a lawyer who was the first leader of the elected territorial government back in 1911. Mail and groceries were delivered to the isolated Klondike city by T.C. and his horses.
It was the Whitehorse Inn, however, where Richards conducted his many legendary business affairs - even before he owned it. It was in the snake pit, a small room just off the main floor, in a poker game in the late 40s, that the legend of T.C. Richards really took hold. The stakes were high in the game that night. So high that the owners of the Inn bet the building on a single hand. T.C. called the bet. With his winning poker hand, he became the owner of the Whitehorse Inn. Actually the situation was a little more complicated. T.C. did now own the Inn, but there were other debts to cover. His daughter, Babe, says a loan from the White Pass took care of that.
The Whitehorse Inn, controlled by Richards, had everything… a restaurant, the Blue Owl café, the Inn ballroom, the Blue Room, Yellow Cabs, the beer parlour, a laundry and of course, the snake pit where legendary characters played poker long into the night. The rooms in the Inn were not much by today’s hotel standards, but that didn’t bother T.C. He’d laugh when he said it was his job to give tourists hardships - with modern plumbing.
In his later years, T.C. was rarely seen around town without his big cigar, a white Stetson and, of course, shirt and tie. When he died in November of 1961, his 46 years of service to the growing Yukon Territory came to an end.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
It's not often you get to meet a legendary character who was cremated and lived to tell the tale, but one day, years ago in Whitehorse, I did.
When Sam McGee came to the Yukon around 1898, he had no idea he'd end up a famous Klondike character. Sam came from eastern Ontario to prospect. He lived around Whitehorse and had an account in the Bank of Commerce. One winter's night in Whitehorse, a bank clerk named Robert Service heard some oldtimers telling a strange yarn about a man who was cremated in the boiler of a riverboat locked in the ice of Lake Laberge. Service raced home and feverishly began to write. "There are strange things done in the midnight sun" ... "now Sam McGee was from Tennessee."
With the Cremation of Sam McGee, a legend was born.
Service reportedly took the name Sam McGee from the bank ledger and used it because it rhymed with Tennessee. The steamer trapped in the ice at Lake Lebarge was called the Olive May. Service changed the name to the Alice May.
After living ten years in the Yukon, the real McGee left the Yukon, but he occasionally came back for a visit. In the spring of 1949, as I walked home from the Lambert Street School, I saw an old man sitting on a rocking chair in front of a small cabin on Elliott Street, between Third and Fourth avenues. He was dressed in a tweed jacket, broad brimmed hat and tie. He looked like a friendly gentleman. He also looked right at home at the cabin. It seemed to me that he had been there all of his life.
As I passed by the cabin, the old man said, "Hello what's your name lad?" "Leslie," I said. "Pleased to meet you", he said, "my name is Sam McGee." Here, I thought, sat the man who was never cremated, but instead brought fame and fortune to the bard of the Yukon, Robert Service. But it could not have been the real Sam McGee because he died in Beiseker, Alberta in 1940. His daughter, Mrs Ethel Gramms, said his fame as a man, so sour on the Yukon's cold that he wanted to be cremated, amused him. But he didn't dwell on or try to capitize on that lifelong fame. She also said that her father was never sour on the Yukon.
So who was this man that I met in front of Sam McGee's cabin on that sunny spring day in 1949?
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
See also: The Real Sam McGee
If there ever was a cowboy town in the Yukon, Champagne was it. After all, the community had horses, fences, log buildings like the American west had in the movies - and most importantly - a rodeo.
In the 1950s, Champagne's summer rodeo days were the place to be. I fondly recall my older brother Fred loading up the Chevy with a picnic basket and we’d be off to the rodeo.
No doubt Alex Van Bibber was there - riding the broncos, as he had all his life. The Chambers boys would be there too. Like everyone else, they were competing for something more than prize money. They were competing for the honour of being the best Yukon cowboy. On the rodeo grounds, we kids of the fifties could savor the smell of frying onions ready to be laced on hefty hamburgers. These were the smells of an earlier time that mingled with genuine horse sweat, dust and other delights of a rodeo ground.
Our annual family summer trip to Champagne in the fifties, over the narrow dusty Alaska Highway, was a thing of beauty. I only asked brother Fred if we were there yet, because I wanted to be there as fast as possible. What kid wouldn’t? Champagne has been associated with horses and the cowboy lifestyle since the gold rush when Jack Dalton established his famed Dalton Trail from Haines Alaska to the Klondike.
Dalton wintered his horses at Champagne as well as at his permanent station, called Dalton Post, on the Haines Road. Champagne also figured in a famous Klondike cattle drive.
In 1897, a cowboy named Gordon Bounds drove a herd of about forty cattle to Dawson. He was probably working for Jack Dalton at the time.
When Bounds and his men reached this location with their unruly herd, they thought the worst of their cattle drive to the Klondike was over. So, it is said, they broke open a case of French Champagne and had a rousing party.
But the importance of the stopping place on the Dezadeash River was just beginning. In 1902, Shorty Chambers built a road house and trading post here to serve the prospectors who were heading for the new mining country around Silver City and Burwash Landing on Lake Kluane.
Then in 1942, when the American military was building the Alaska Highway, they followed the old Kluane Wagon road from Whitehorse to Champagne and briefly set up an operations centre for construction north of Whitehorse. At that time, the Alaska Highway ran right through the community.
But in the 1990s, the realignment of the highway meant that it would bypass some distance northeast of the community. So today, if you want to visit Champagne, you can only get there over the old Alaska Highway and the even older Kluane Wagon road.
Hopefully when you go there’ll be a rodeo underway.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin