The Yukon lost a little bit of its soul. That's the way a noted Yukon historian described the reaction on that Friday back in 1974, when the Whitehorse and the Casca were reduced to ashes.
Two grand old veterans of the riverboat days stood side by side where they were built in the shipyards overlooking the Yukon River. They had stood their since the early '50s, when their days as the workhorses of the Yukon came to an end. The Whitehorse was built here in 1901.
For years, local historians had called for action to ensure the safety of the wooden boats. A committee headed by Rolf Hougen was able to get government support to repaint the boats, put new decking in place and install a fence to keep out intruders. But trespassers were still able to dig under the fence and use the cabins on the boats as a temporary shelter.
At 10pm on Friday, June 21, 1974, smoke was seen billowing from one of the boats. The fire department raced the three blocks to the scene. But the dry wooden ships were now engulfed in flames. Smoke rose 100 feet into the air within minutes. The heat in the area was intense.
The fire-fighters sprayed thousands of gallons onto the burning pyre, but they knew it was far to late to save these priceless relics of a glorious past. Within hours, the Whitehorse and the Casca were reduced to a pile of crumpled steel. Barely a trace of the wooden slats and beams were left.
Hundreds of city residents stood by watching the devastation. Many held back tears. Many more could not.
What caused the tragedy? Well, shortly after the fire call went out, the police helped three young men from Ontario off the Casca where they had been living for a week. They were taken into custody and questioned before being released. No charges were laid.
The deaths of the Whitehorse and Casca meant that only three of those wonderful sternwheelers were still standing in decent shape in the Yukon. The Klondike in Whitehorse, the Keno in Dawson and the Tutshi in Carcross. In 1991, the Tutshi, which had been partially restored but had no sprinkler system on board, was set ablaze in Carcross. Its fate mirrored that of the Whitehorse and the Casca. Now only two boats from the remarkable fleet of 25 remain. Their value cannot be calculated in dollars.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin