The most northerly highway in North America, the Dempster, roughly follows a route taken by early North West Mounted Police patrols between Dawson City and Fort McPherson. It is named for Corporal Jack Dempster, because he led the expedition to find the Lost Patrol.
In 1905, the NWMP began a yearly winter patrol of some 550 miles over some of the toughest, coldest terrain in Canada. These patrols, though very tough on men and dogs, went without incident until 1911. The patrol that year was led by Inspector Fitzgerald, with Constables Kinney, Taylor and ex-Constable Sam Carter. They began the return journey from Fort McPherson to Dawson on December 21, 1910. They had three dog-teams, totalling 15 dogs and provisions to last about 25 days.
Somewhere around the Little Wind and Hart rivers, they lost their way. The winter conditions were severe and their rations were getting low. So it was decided on January 18 to return to Fort McPherson, a distance of about 250 miles. Soon, the provisions had run out. They began to kill the dogs one by one for food. With all the dogs dead, they began to boil their buckskin thongs and dog harnesses.
Within 35 miles of Fort McPherson, Kinney and Taylor could go no further. Fitzgerald and Carter carried on. Within 25 miles of the village, Carter, unable to continue, died. Fitzgerald laid his body in the snow and covered his face with a handkerchief. Fitzgerald made it only a few hundred yards more before he too lay down and waited for death. He had time to scratch his will on a crude piece of paper.
In February, when the party failed to arrive in Dawson, Corporal Dempster, along with three Constables and an Indian guide, were ordered to begin a search. They left Dawson on February 28th, 1911. On the 12th of March, they found a snow-covered trail on the Little Wind River and followed it finding the bodies of the four policemen.
Jack Dempster went on to become an Inspector and served the force in the Yukon for 37 years. He retired in 1934 and died in Vancouver in 1965. The highway named for him, running from the Klondike Highway at mile 26 to Fort McPherson and beyond, was opened by Public Works minister Erik Nielsen on August 18th, 1979.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
A group from Ft. McPherson attend the official opening of the Dempster Highway. Erik Nielsen, centre, G.I. and Martha Cameron with Ch/Supt. Harry Nixon RCMP in the back row., 1979,
Click for larger view.
In the spring of 1979, ice jams in the Yukon, Indian, and Klondike rivers caused the build-up of water to over-flow the make-shift sand-bag dykes on the riverfront in Dawson. Around midnight, in spite of efforts to shore up the dykes, the water poured over the banks, enveloping the town and causing extreme damage.
In the morning, as people paddled around town in canoes and small boats, the real extent of damage became clear. Houses floated off their foundations. The water smelled of diesel and sewage. Parks Canada artifacts bobbed down the streets. Trailers were turned upside down by the silty, ice-choked waters. Propane tanks littered the streets.
The waters subsided later in the day. A hole was cut in the dyke to let the waters return to the Yukon river. Then the cleanup began. Parks Canada had 20 properties in the flood plain. Some emerged intact while others floated off their foundations. Over $ 200,000 dollars in damage was recorded by Parks Canada alone.
A dozen homes were written off. Some priceless artifacts from both public and private collections disappeared forever. The Yukon government created a disaster assistance program, flying in over 20,000 pounds of food and equipment the day after the flood. About 270 damage claims were filed, totalling over 2 million dollars. It took most of the summer to restore the town to some semblance of order. But for Parks Canada, restoration projects lasted for years.
It wasn't the first flood in Dawson City's history. Since 1898, 22 floods were recorded, but the one in the spring of 1979 went down in history as one of the worst.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
One day in the mid-seventies, my buddy Cal Waddington and I travelled to a construction site and spent a glorious afternoon in the company of friends who were building the Skagway Road. The work included blasting solid rock faces and moving endless tons of rock and gravel. The road was a mess, but my friend, the late Scotty Munro, was philosophical when he said that all great works of art are a mess until they are finished.
Today, the Skagway Road, better known as Klondike Highway 2, is indeed a work of art. A proud reminder of persistence and creativity. Especially persistence. As far back as 1913, newspaper articles publicized the efforts of both the Yukon and Alaska governments to get the road pushed through.
In August 1913, headlines in Dawson read that the "Auto Road From Skagway to Dawson May Be Opened Soon." The optimism was premature and then some. British Columbia said it would construct the necessary 35 miles of road through the province, but never approved funding, and the project died.
Then, more surveying was done in 1920, and speculation was that the road would be completed in 1921. Nope.
In fact, they did not revive the project until 1961. That year, a crew of Skagway volunteers, and the State of Alaska, began work on the toughest part of the road, blasting through the solid granite of the Coast Mountains. However, except for a rough road built in 1966 for the re-opening of the Venus Mine, nothing happened on the Canadian side until 1974.
From then on, progress was erratic because of constant money woes, several legal challenges by the White Pass Railway and, of course, engineering difficulties, especially on the Alaskan side because of the major problems with blasting through seventeen miles of solid rock to reach the Canadian border.
Between 1970 and 1972, Canada built a new bridge at Carcross and extended the road to the B.C.-Yukon border because of renewed activity at the Venus Mine. In February 1972, Canada agreed to build the remaining thirty-three miles to the Alaska border, and Alaska agreed to construct its remaining nine miles.
The road was completed between Skagway and Carcross in August 1978 but it was open for only a few weeks before it was closed for the winter. The first full summer of use was in 1979.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
When he was transferred to Whitehorse in 1955, the 37-year-old Canadian Army Captain was sure he had arrived in the right place at the right time. Thus, Roy Minter began his lifelong career as a publicist and a public relations man such as the Yukon had seldom seen.
Roy was born in London, England in 1917. As a kid, he moved with his parents to Vancouver. When he was old enough, he joined the Army. He spent some years with the Army in Whitehorse and then left the service to join the White Pass and Yukon Route as a special assistant to the President. He spent the rest of his life promoting the company and the territory.
In 1960, he was a member of the board of directors when the Dawson City festival foundation was formed to stage the rebirth of Dawson as a tourist destination. Roy had played a key role in getting the federal government to invest a large amount of time and money into the project.
Roy became an author, historian, photographer and film producer. He won international awards for two films, "Brave New North" and "Take Four Giant Steps. He also produced the 1967 centennial film called "It’s the Land, Have You Seen It?" as one of the White Pass company’s contributions to Canada’s centennial year.
Roy Minter rarely took a back seat when the Yukon’s name and honour were at stake. In 1966, he helped spearhead the movement called the Klondike Defense Force. It was formed to do battle with the city of Edmonton when they decided to use the Klondike as the theme for their annual city celebrations. It was Roy who convinced Yukon politicians that Edmonton was stealing the Yukon ’s birthright and should be stopped.
In 1965, an attempt by Crown Assets to sell the riverboats’, the Casca and Whitehorse was stopped, largely through the efforts of Roy Minter. In 1974, when those same boats went up in flames, he cried as he watched the raging inferno and said that the Yukon had just lost part of its soul.
Roy was as much attached to the White Pass company as he was to the Yukon. So it is no surprize that he is the author of the most authoritative book on the historic railroad. Published in 1987, "Gateway to the Klondike" is the title of his award-winning tome.
The Roy Minter Fund within the Yukon Foundation, is dedicated to fund those who write about Yukon history.
He was a founding member of the Yukon Foundation and a one hundred thousand-dollar donation is dedicated to recipients who write about the Yukon ’s history.
When he was awarded the Order of Canada in 1991, the citation read, in part:
"He has dedicated himself, since the 1950s, to promoting an appreciation of the Yukon. He has contributed to heritage preservation and tourism in the territory through his involvement in the rail industry, the development of Klondike International Park, the recovery of archival material and the recording of pioneer stories."
Roy Minter died in 1996 at the age of 79.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
The long and winding road toward greater political control for elected politicians in the Yukon was often battered by storm clouds. Since the first wholly elected council back in 1909, Yukoner politicians had been demanding more political clout. But the demands always fell on deaf ears in Ottawa and the Yukon’s federally appointed Commissioner continued to run the day-to-day affairs of the Territory. The commish was the boss, the elected councillors mere window dressing.
But that changed in May of 1979 when the federal election brought in the short-lived government of Joe Clark. Jake Epp, a Mennonite from Manitoba, was appointed Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs and became the defacto political boss of the Yukon. But there was no doubt that the real power now lay in the hands of the Yukon’s member of Parliament Erik Nielsen, who was also appointed to the Clark cabinet. Nielsen had long advocated provincial status for the Yukon.
Things began to happen in a hurry and the role of Nielsen was not well hidden. In June of 1979, Yukon Government Leader Chris Pearson wrote to Epp outlining his government's position on responsible government for the territory. He demanded that the commissioner be removed from the executive committee, which ran the day–to-day political affairs of the Yukon. Epp agreed and the die was cast.
Yukon Commissioner Ione Christensen said that, while she did not oppose the changes, she did feel that they would be implemented far too fast. She hinted broadly that she might have to resign. On October 9th, 1979 Epp wrote the now famous Epp letter to Commissioner Christensen.
Epp told Christensen to remove herself from the policy-making process and not participate in day-to-day affairs of the Executive Council. Epp said as commissioner, she must to accept the advice of the Territorial Council in all matters of the Yukon Act which are delegated to the Commissioner.
Epp had fired the Commissioner and on that day, the commissioner became the Lieutenant Governor for the Yukon. But it would not be Christensen. She resigned. The Epp letter also authorized the Yukon government leader to refer to himself as "Premier" and to his cabinet members as "Ministers" if they so wished.
The changes brought the Yukon into line with provincial governments. Elected polticians were now responsible for the policies and expenditures of the Yukon government. The Yukon was fast becoming a province in all but name.