Photos courtesy of Mike and Joan Sinnwell June 2010
Carcross Yukon Territory Ghost town
At the time the first prospectors came over the Chilkoot Pass, this place was known as Caribou Crossing because of the large herds of caribou that crossed the narrows between Bennett and Tagish Lakes twice a year on their annual migration. Artifacts of aboriginal people, like flaked stone tools estimated to be 4,500 years old have been found here.
Following the discovery of Klondike gold in 1896, it became a popular stopping off place for stampeders in their migration to and from the gold fields of Dawson City.
Mike King owned the largest sawmill in the territory. He also built boats and scows for the gold rush trade from early 1897. Speaking of boats. WOW! A total of over 3,000 in one year. It stripped the mountainsides of timber. In late May of 1898, the North-West Mounted Police counted 778 boats under construction at Lindeman Lake, 850 in Bennett, another 198 at Caribou Crossing and Tagish Lake. It was further estimated that another 1,200 boats were built in these areas over the next few weeks.
The Royal Mail and the Dominion Telegraph Line were housed at Caribou Crossing. It served as a communications point on the Yukon River. From the tent towns to hotels in 1898. The Caribou Hotel was built here in 1898, and still enjoys the distinction of being the oldest operating hotel in the territory. In 1899 Fred Trump, grandfather of American millionaire playboy Donald Trump, and his partner Ernest Levin, opened a restaurant in a tent at Bennett, which they called the Arctic. Trump and Levin fed their customers well and, before the year was out, they replaced their tent with a two storey building that offered food and sheltered accommodations. When the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway (WP&YR) threatened to draw business away from the old trail, Trump and Levin floated The Arctic to a new site across from the Bennett depot. When the partners later relocated to Whitehorse, their hotel was burned.
On July 29, 1900 the WP&YR was completed between Skagway and Whitehorse with a golden spike ceremony at Carcross, Yukon. During construction of the White Pass Railway, tracks were laid north from Bennett and south from Whitehorse. They met at Carcross, linking Skagway with Whitehorse over a distance of 110 miles. WP&YR also completed an administration building next to the rail depot at Second and Broadway and they built a hospital.
Anglican Bishop William Bompas moved his headquarters here from Forty Mile in 1901 and established a school for Indian children. Two years later he petitioned the Canadian government to change the name of Caribou Crossing to the abbreviated 'Carcross'. This was due to frequent mix-ups in mail delivery with other communities. The post office made the name change official in 1904. In 1911 the Canadian government built a new residential school for Indian children at Carcross. This began a dark and difficult era for Yukon native people as the Chooutla School often forcibly removed children from their families and kept them apart for months or years at a time.
Basic writing and arithmetic, loyalty to Christianity and the British Empire were the mainstay of the school. Native languages were forbidden. Indian culture and traditions were considered irrelevant and not part of the academic program. Many Indian children suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse. In 1942, two black American soldiers entered the girls' dormitory of Chooutla School. This occurred during construction of the Alaska Highway. A fine of $24 and $20 was leveled against the two soldiers when they were found guilty of having sex with under-age girls.
Not readily accepted by white society, many children left the school before graduation only to face new problems in trying to adapt to life back in their home communities. They had been cut adrift from both cultures. By the late 1960s the Canadian government had changed its policy of assimilation of native people into mainstream society and residential schools were phased out.
Carcross-Tagish people remember Skookum Jim's deal with the railway, probably the first land claims deal of its kind in the territory. After gaining fame for his role in the discovery of gold in the Klondike, Jim gave permission for the railway to build across his land in exchange for jobs for people in his community. He proved to be an early supporter of his community.
Construction of a road link between Skagway and Whitehorse began in the 1950s and was completed to Skagway in 1978. The South Klondike Highway roughly follows the trail of the stampeders of 1898. Carcross was a major depot for the WP&YR until the railway ceased operations during the recession of 1982. The legendary White Pass train made its first appearance back in Carcross in 15 years on July 12, 1988. The celebration carried gold rush descendants, dignitaries and others as part of the re-enactment of the first shipment of Klondike gold from Skagway to Seattle.
Numerous Yukon pioneers are buried here, including Bishop Bompas, Skookum Jim Mason, Kate Carmack, Tagish Charlie and Polly the Parrot. He gained international fame for singing opera as he held court. Polly held court at the Caribou Hotel for more than 50 years. He shocked unsuspecting hotel guests with colorful profanity. Polly died in 1972 at the age of 126 years, older than the gold rush itself, and his grave boasts one of the finest bronze markers in the cemetery.