Whitehorse is the capital of the Canadian territory of Yukon and one of the most important cities in northern Canada. As the economic and political center of Yukon, it plays an outsized role in the territory’s mining industry, and it is also a hub of tourism related to the Klondike Gold Rush and the pioneer era of Alaska and northern Canada. It also serves as an important center of First Nations cultures in the Canadian north.
While not Yukon’s premier city for much of its history, Whitehorse’s strategic location along the Alaska Highway helped propel it to become the power center of the territory. This is a brief history of the city of Whitehorse.
The History of Whitehorse, Canada
Archeological studies have shown that First Nations people have used the Whitehorse area for thousands of years. Canyon City, a ghost town and gold rush boomtown located just south of downtown Whitehorse, had been used as a seasonal fishing camp by various First Nations. Prior to the Klondike Gold Rush, the Whitehorse area was not permanently inhabited and was the site of overlapping tribal claims.
Due to its remote location, Yukon and Whitehorse itself were some of the last regions of North America to be colonized. The Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890’s saw the Whitehorse area become strategically important due to its location on the Yukon River, a popular travel route for prospectors who wanted to sail to Yukon instead of navigating the dangerous Chilkoot Pass. The site of modern Whitehorse became a popular camping ground for migrants heading to Dawson City and was referred to as “White Horse”; the nearby settlement of Canyon City was also a popular destination.
As the Klondike Gold Rush faded, prospectors began looking for other mineral deposits in the area, and in 1898, copper was discovered in the hills west of White Horse, a region that was nicknamed the Copper Belt. The first copper claims were made by Jack McIntyre in 1898 and Sam McGee in 1899; McGee would later become famous as the subject of Robert W. Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” The region saw rapid transportation improvements, most notably the White Pass and Yukon Railway in 1900, which saw Canyon City abandoned due to the railroad directly connecting White Horse with Skagway, Alaska, a popular port of entry for migrants.
White Horse experienced steady growth as a copper mining hub, and in 1901, there was a concerted effort to change the city’s name to Closeleigh, in honor of the British Close brothers, who heavily funded the White Pass and Yukon Railway. This effort was vetoed by William Ogilvie, the Yukon Territorial Commissioner, and the name White Horse remained, though many residents began using the name “Whitehorse” instead.
In 1905, Whitehorse was devastated by a fire in the barbershop of the Windsor Hotel. The fire engine dispatched to the scene didn’t have enough water to put out the flames, and the fire ravaged through Whitehorse causing an estimated $300,000 in damage, though no one was killed in the blaze. Robert W. Service was employed as a bank teller in Whitehorse and helped to put out the fire, later recounting it in his writings. Among the buildings destroyed was the White Horse Restaurant and Inn, which was owned by Frederick Trump, the grandfather of current U.S. President Donald Trump.
In 1920, Whitehorse began receiving regular flights; due to a lack of road connections, airplanes, boats, and trains were the only means in and out of the city. However, in the 1940’s, Whitehorse was chosen as part of the route of the Alaska Highway, a road stretching from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska, the first land route connecting Alaska to the continental U.S. Because of this, the locus of economic and political power shifted to Whitehorse from Dawson City, causing an exponential increase in the city’s population. Whitehorse also became home to the Canol Pipeline, which extended from the Alaskan Panhandle to a new refinery in the city. Whitehorse was formally incorporated in 1950 and was designated the new capital of Yukon in 1953, replacing Dawson City. In 1957, the city’s name was officially changed from White Horse to Whitehorse.
Today, Whitehorse is the center of the Yukon mining industry, with many firms maintaining offices in the town. Whitehorse is also a major center of tourism, as travelers flock to learn about its history in the Klondike Gold Rush and enjoy outdoors activities in and around the city. As a major waypoint along the Alaska Highway, Whitehorse is a common stopping point for truckers and other motorists traveling between Alaska and the mainland U.S.
Whitehorse’s rise to prominence in Yukon politics, culture, and the economy is the product of its unique location and extensive mineral deposits. Its position on the Alaska Highway makes it an important service center for traffic between Alaska and the rest of the U.S., and its wealth of precious minerals continues to attract migrants to the region. It is clear that Whitehorse will remain one of the most significant cities in northern North America for years to come.