When Whitehorse was incorporated as a city in 1950, the first Mayor was a jovial character with an infectious smile and impeccable work ethic. Gordon Armstrong needed those qualities and more. The tiny town was a disorganized hodgepodge of many temporary residential shacks, and businesses that counted on the largess of an elected, but largely impotent Territorial Council, for the few funds it could muster.
Gordon was born in Whitehead, the district of Saskatchewan, in 1905. He arrived in Whitehorse in 1929 to work as a butcher for the Burns Meat Packing store, operated by the venerable T.C. Richards, owner of the Whitehorse Inn.
By 1950, with four newly elected Aldermen, Mayor Armstrong had much civic work to do. There was no city hall, so the five men met at various locations to conduct business for a town that was about to grow from a place filled with ramshackle shacks and, broken wooden sidewalks, and no sewer and water system. For the first two years, they held council meetings on the second floor of the Northern Commercial Building next to Taylor and Drury’s on First Avenue.
Then they moved to Humme’s Insurance offices on the corner of 3rd and Main. When the Canadian Army Signal Corps vacated its premises in a two-story building located on the site of the present-day city hall, the Mayor and Councilors moved in.
Whitehorse was maturing both in size and importance. It was the busy centre of navigation on the Yukon River where the White Pass still ran river boats, while the newly opened Alaska Highway was bringing both businesses and tourists.
The city’s economic base had diversified to include mining, prospecting, transportation, government and tourism.
At their first meeting, Mayor Armstrong and the aldermen wondered how they would manage. The city had no tax base. Instead, it relied on meager Territorial Council grants. The legislative body met in far off Dawson City, still the Yukon’s capital. In 1950, the Territorial Council handed over many functions carried out by the Territorial Government to the city, but federal funds dedicated to Whitehorse were limited, to say the least. That would soon change.
The first order of business for the first city council was to plan for a sewer and water system. Private wells and the honey bucket brigade required urgent attention, but where would the money come from?
In 1951, news flashed from Ottawa, from the Yukon’s Member of Parliament, Aubrey Simmons, that the federal government had decided to move the capital to Whitehorse. As black as that day was for Dawsonites, it was the start of a new era in Whitehorse. The federal government amended the Yukon Act, increasing members on the Yukon Council, two of them to represent Whitehorse.
The federal government would immediately move the National Employment Service to Whitehorse. The federal government was now paying attention to the growing city under Mayor Armstrong. On August 15, 1952, the new Whitehorse Elementary High School was officially opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the main entrance of the school on Fourth Avenue.
On April 1, 1953, Whitehorse officially became the Capital of the Yukon Territory, the most westerly capital city in Canada. On April 2, 1954, the Mayor told residents that the cost of the proposed sewer and water installations in Whitehorse, to the individual homeowner, would be about $10.00 a month. After a city-wide plebiscite voting in favour, they would start work that summer with completion targeted for 1955.
In 1954, Gordon left the Burns Company and, with his nephew Bob Armstrong, started Yukon Sales, a wholesale distribution outfit. The company was a Walmart on wheels. With a converted panel truck, they delivered orders from Dawson City to Cassiar, and all points between. They sold anything that would sell. Gordon always claimed that he was the first to introduce Peak Frean biscuits, Blue Ribbon Tea and Willard’s Chocolates to the Yukon.
The pair carried out much of the work from Gordon’s historic home on Wood Street. The Armstrongs, with their only daughter Pat, lived in a three-room log house that was first owned by Dr. Frederick Cane, the Whitehorse postmaster in 1906. The house was originally a small three room log cabin, to which they attached a frame addition.
In the 1920s, the house was occupied by Captain Campbell, a pilot on the river boats, for whom it is now named. It is a wonder the Armstrong family ever got any rest, since the house is believed to be haunted by the ghost of a young boy who drowned in the 1940s. The ghost only appeared in one room, one of the early additions to the three room log house. There was a constant feeling of being watched, while the ghost often played “peek-a-boo”.
At home, Gordon never forgot his first craft as a butcher, and was often called upon by friends to prepare the results of a successful moose hunt. He did this work in a garage in the back of his yard at 406 Wood.
In June 1954, the Federal Government announced plans to build a 120-bed hospital in Whitehorse. The old hospital, on Second and Hanson, no longer provided adequate health services for the developing city.
That summer, Mayor Armstrong entertained royalty. In August, the Duke of Edinburgh became the first “Royal” to visit the land of the Midnight Sun. They treated him to fine wine and a fun time on board the SS Klondike. It’s a good thing Gordie was up on his local history because the Duke had many questions for the Mayor, especially about the portrait of the Can Can dancers that graced the walls of the Klondike’s dining room.
On November 5, 1954, the modern Federal Building at the corner of Fourth and Main opened its doors to the public. Local athletes were none too happy because the building occupied their former ball diamond, but a new arena, curling rink and ball diamond, near the south end of Fourth Avenue, more that made up for the loss.
The Federal Building contained 60,000 square feet of office space, and housed the growing number of government departments. The Whitehorse Post Office moved out of its turn-of-the-century building at First Avenue & Lambert, and into the new streamlined quarters in the Federal Building.
1955 was a busy year for the Mayor and his four-member council. By September, the downtown core was piled with dirt. Deep, muddy trenches left gaping holes in the streets and the roar of heavy equipment filled the air. Sewer and water construction was underway. Nevertheless, residents were not duty-bound to install the system into their homes. In fact, residents had to apply if they wanted to reap the benefits of the multimillion-dollar project.
Also, in September, work on the Yukon River’s first real bridge was underway. A 300-foot, three-span structure was going to reach the area that would become the city’s new subdivision.
The following spring, Governor-General Vincent Massey officially opened the span and revealed its name. The Robert Campbell Bridge connected old Whitehorse to the new subdivision called Riverdale. It was an important day for us school kids too. The Governor-General, on his first visit to the Yukon, proclaimed a school holiday. Mr. Massey, like the Mayor, was a popular fellow.
Many improvements during the '50s, including a few paved streetsand concrete sidewalks, were carried out under the Mayor’s tenure.
However, it wasn’t all business for Mayor Gordon Armstrong, although he and his small council were obviously busy making their mark on the future of Whitehorse. He loved to fish and, according to his son-in-law, Graham George, there was scarcely a river in the Yukon that avoided his rod and reel. Frequent fishing trips were always, said Graham, accompanied by a bottle of good Scotch whiskey.
In 1958, after eight hectic years, Gordon Cameron succeeded Gordon Armstrong as Mayor. But he had left his mark in the city’s history. He had helped the town rise from a frontier northern village to a modern city, with amenities of which the early pioneers could only dream.
In 1962, the Armstrongs moved to Vancouver, but Gordon frequently returned to the Territory while still operating his Yukon Sales Company. Gordon Armstrong, the first Mayor of Whitehorse, passed away in Vancouver in 1993, and was laid to rest in Kelowna, British Columbia.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.
Canada's centennial year, 1967, was an exciting time in the Yukon. There were all kinds of celebrations and projects. Unnamed mountains were being climbed. The Yukon River flotilla saw boats of every description heading from Whitehorse to Dawson. Most of the events were huge successes. However, I recall, that one expensive project didn't seem to take hold.
Al Kulan, who had arrived in the Yukon as a broke prospector in the late forties, finally struck it rich in the lead-zinc region of Ross River.
In 1967, he was trying to give someting back to the community. He donated $25,000, a lot of money then, to plant trees on Lewis Boulevard.
Try as they might, the organizers could never get the trees to grow. Today, maybe, but back then, nope!
If he had trouble with trees, the legendary mining man had better luck with hardrock mines.
Al was born in Toronto in 1921 and joined the Canadian Army Tank Corps in 1939. After the war, he vowed he'd never work for anyone again. So he began the sometimes lonely life of a prospector.
In July 1953, Kulan found a heavy concentration of rust close to Vangorda Creek, near Ross River, which led to major lead-zinc discoveries.
In 1964, Kulan helped form Dynasty Explorations to search for marketable ore bodies in the Vangorda area. The word Dynasty was on everyone's lips. A Klondike-like bonanza, everyone agreed.
But a project of this size required money, so Dynasty joined with Cyprus Mines Corp. to form Anvil Mining, which developed the Faro deposit. The Faro mine became Canada's leading lead-zinc producer and started the biggest mining action since the gold rush. It operated for more than 20 years and established Yukon as a major supplier of base metals.
However, Kulan was not content to rest on his success or his wealth. In the seventies, while looking for iron ore deposits, Kulan rediscovered a deposit of the gemstone, lazulite, which turned out to contain the world's best specimens. He also discovered a group of new phosphate minerals found nowhere else in the world.
Well-formed crystals of lazulite occur in only a few places, including the Yukon where the colour and crystalline qualities are among the finest in the world.
In February 1976, the azure-blue rock was proclaimed the Yukon's official gemstone. The discovery of Yukon gemstones led to the formation of the Alan Kulan Memorial lectures sponsored by the University of Toronto, the Yukon Chamber of Mines and the Yukon Geoscience Foundation.
September 12th, 1977. On that fateful day, Al Kulan was holding a business meeting in the Ross River lounge. A local resident, John Rolls, walked over to the table and, without warning, fired a shot from a .357 Magnum revolver. Al Kulan, the Yukon's most famous prospector, was dead. Shock waves reverberated through the mining community and beyond.
The Yukon's Prospectors' Association inducted Kulan into the Yukon Hall of Fame in 1988. His name is engraved in the bronze three-metre-tall prospectors' statue on Main Street and Third Avenue.
In January 2005, Alan Kulan was inducted into the Canadian Mining hall of fame in Toronto.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
Here at home, I have a beat-up old curling broom. A real broom. Not the kind of shot-enhancing devices that curlers use these days to control the speed and curl of the rocks. Nope, this one is a real corn broom. The kind that used to make such a racket in the hands of good sweepers that even Russ Howard had a hard time being heard over the smack of corn broom on ice.
The broom I have is well used. Well worn. Almost worn out, in fact. But you can still read the name written, by felt marker, on the cloth covering. One word. Stokes. He's the guy who gave me the broom, back in 1977, at the Macdonald's Brier in Montreal. Lionel was shooting second stones for skip Don Twa's Yukon foresome that year.
At the end of round-robin play, the Yukon finished with a respectable record of five wins and six loses, much better than northern teams usually fare in men's national competition these days. But not nearly as good as this team did the first time the north was directly entered in the Brier. That came two years earlier, in 1975, when skip Don Twa, third Chuck Haines, second Kip Boyd and lead Lionel Stokes nearly won the Brier.
Staged in Fredericton, New Brunswick, the north, for the first time, had a direct entry into the Brier and Don Twa's team from Whitehorse was it. How well did they do? you ask. Well, the winner, Northern Ontario, had to make an almost impossible last rock shot in their last game to finish with a record of 9 wins and 2 losses - there were no playoffs then - while the boys from the Yukon finished with 8 wins and 3 losses. Never again has the Territories team come that close, and maybe they never will.
Lionel Stokes had a lot to do with that fantastic result. Two years later, in 1977, the Twa rink was back in Brier final. Lionel was now throwing second stones and, even though the final placing was not like the 1975 showing, Lionel was named the All-Star Second. The best second in Canada. He was that good.
Through it all, he became a renowned team player and dedicated curling organizer. In 1973 and 1974, Lionel and his team toured Europe on a goodwill curling marathon that gained the Yukon and Canada recognition worldwide.
In addition to his athletic ability, Lionel spent many years serving on Yukon curling committees, organizing curling events, and initiated the Bert Boyd Memorial Trophy.
So while you are in Whitehorse, take a moment and visit the Edgewater Hotel and dining room. The food is great, but more important - especially for curlers - is the chance to meet Lionel Stokes, a member of the Yukon Sports hall of fame, and oh so close to being Brier champ. Oh yes, please tell him Les McLaughlin still has his 1977 Brier broom.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin