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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 19

Yukon Transportation: A History

by Gordon Bennett


The Yukon remains as dependent on transportation as it was 130 years ago when Robert Campbell first established white presence in the territory. This dependence, a consequence of the region's remoteness and its climate, has outlasted what was once a total dependence on staple exploitation, making transportation the most persistent theme in Yukon history. Yukoners, unlike most other Canadians, have never been able to take transportation for granted; their dependence has always been conscious. Attempts to overcome the Yukon's environmental and locational obstacles have invariably assumed the form of transportation. These attempts have passed through three distinct stages of development during the era of permanent white settlement. The first was marked by an exclusive dependence on the sternwheeler and the Yukon River. Used in concert, the sternwheeler and the river made possible the series of events which culminated in the discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek and the subsequent stampede to the Klondike. The gold rush, in turn, left as its legacy an interlocking system based on the railroad and sternwheeler which sustained the region for the following half century. This phase lasted until 1950-55 when it was superseded by a combination of the railway and the highway.

The termination of sternwheeler operations symbolized more than the abandonment of a particular form of transport. It represented the passing of a way of life. For four generations the Yukon River and its navigable tributaries, the principal arteries of inland communication, had determined the nature of territorial existence. The seasonal rhythm that characterized every aspect of Yukon life before 1955 was a faithful reflection of the seasonal nature of the inland waterways. For over 80 years the Yukon knew only two seasons and the advent of each was signalled not by the calendar but by freeze-up and break-up.

The conversion to the use of highways changed this dependence. Seasonal transportation was eliminated and vast, previously inaccessible areas were opened to economic exploitation. A new pattern of settlement evolved based on the post-1945 network of highways. Communities like Fort Selkirk, left isolated after the termination of water transport, were virtually abandoned. Others like Dawson and Mayo, which owed their establishment to the exigencies of river transport, survived the loss of their transportation function, but ceased to have anything but a local importance. The process of urbanization was accelerated, thereby reversing a trend first evident in Dawson after 1900 when roads had facilitated population movement away from the city. Of even greater significance was the transformation in the traditional role played by transportation. Until 1955 transportation was the master of the Yukon's economic destiny. River transport governed every aspect of economic activity in the territory. Proximity to navigable water was the primary consideration of all enterprise. Except for minor improvements to navigation and a measure of sternwheeler refinement, this form of transportation allowed very little in the way of flexibility. Rivers, unlike roads, could not be built to serve an economic purpose; instead, they defined the limits of all development. With the conversion to overland forms of communication, transportation assumed a different function; it became a servant rather than the master of the territory's destiny. Although unheralded, this profound alteration constituted the most important change in the history of the Yukon transportation system.

Old notions proved less susceptible to change than the transportation system, however. Northern development schemes demonstrated just how ingrained was the time-honoured equation that the absence of transportation equalled remoteness and that the solution was to provide more facilities. What was required instead was a wholesale re-examination of the almost universally held assumption that conventional transportation solutions — that is, the provision of physical links — constituted the most effective answer to the problem. The lesson of the silver-lead industry was that the installation of a concentrator proved to be a far more effective answer to the problem than transportation itself. Another question that merited closer consideration was whether or not the provision of these physical links fostered or inhibited development. Put another way, had the emphasis on traditional transportation solutions obscured the fact that a lack of markets and the absence of conditions making for "economies of scale" were more significant, in certain instances at least, to the Yukon's remoteness than a dearth of transportation facilities? A major reason for the abandonment of the Canol pipeline, for example, was that an ancillary system, the Skagway-Whitehorse pipeline, made it cheaper to import California oil for local consumption despite the fact that in purely spatial terms Norman Wells was much closer to Whitehorse. In this particular instance, the provision of a physical link not only inhibited development, but also underlined a lesson long appreciated by students of transportation but seldom applied to the northern scene; transportation frequently destroys local industry by making local markets more accessible to a metropolitan centre. Seen from this perspective, any attempt to make the Yukon less dependent economically with the aid of transportation may well be self-defeating.

Until transportation ceases to be a scapegoat or panacea for all the Yukon's problems, those problems which have traditionally beset the territory will remain. It is too often ignored that transportation has historically had to operate within the same limitations of remoteness, small markets and climate as the primary producer. To assign to transportation a role which should properly be performed by another economic sector, as was the case with the Whitehorse copper industry where transportation was called upon to compensate for a marginal mineral deposit, or to expect transportation to function as a substitute for the absence of "economies of scale," is to demand too much from what is only one instrument, albeit a crucially important one, in the exploitation of the region's resources.

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