The Yukon has always been a land of opportunity for visionaries. And because of them, residents of Whitehorse saw the light when on July 2, 1901 the newly formed Yukon Electric Company was awarded a franchise to provide power. It was a startling story since most North American towns didn't have electricity.
The company's first steam-generated power plant was located north of the White Pass train station and produced power with a piston-engine driven by a wood-fired boiler connected to two electrical generators.
But in 1905, a fire destroyed much of Whitehorse, including the train station and power plant. Yukon Electric quickly rebuilt on the south side of the new station and local lawyer Willard Phelps took over management of the company.
In 1913, with two partners, Phelps, bought out the shareholders and became the owner of Yukon Electrical.
By the 1930s, the arrival of new fangled household appliances hiked the demand for electricity. In 1935, Yukon Electrical replaced their steam-driven generators with diesel-operated engines that dramatically increased power production. Not for long.
In the 1940s, the diesel plants were badly overloaded in the growing town. Black-outs in the dead of winter were becoming all too common. The company decided the time had come for hydroelectricity. With sixty thousand dollars and little experience, Willard Phelps' son, John, and his brother-in-law, John Scott, planned to build the first hydro plant below Fish Lake.
In 1949, they applied for a licence and in one year, the hydro plant was producing power. Phelps and Scott increased hydro capacity in 1952 with a new turbine generating engine.
Between 1950 and 1958, Whitehorse was growing so fast that the company's electrical load increased by almost 25 percent each year. The little Fish Lake power plant could simply not keep up and the end was in sight for the company that had provided power for half a century.
The turning point came in 1957 when the newly created Northern Canada Power Commission announced that it was going to build a big hydro dam at the Whitehorse Rapids. John Scott and John Phelps decided that their small enterprise could no longer survive. They sold to Canadian Utilities, Alberta's second-largest electric utility company. The new firm became Yukon Electrical Company Limited and continued to operate the Fish Lake power station.
In 1959, The Northern Canada Power Commission began delivering power from the Whitehorse Rapids dam while the new Yukon Electrical company generated diesel-produced power in outlying Yukon communities.
In 1980, ATCO Alberta Power Limited bought Canadian Utilities and Yukon Electrical Company became a wholly-owned subsidiary. In 1987, the territorial government took over Northern Canada Power Commission in the Yukon, through a new entity called the Yukon Energy Corporation.
Yukon Electrical would continue to operate Yukon power production along with its own properties. Today, the little company that delivered electricity to just a few homes and businesses in tiny Whitehorse in 1901, serves fourteen Yukon communities and has almost fourteen thousand customers.
Willard Leroy Phelps certainly started something big a long time ago.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
See also: Phelps