WHITEHORSE is the likeable capital of the Yukon and home to more than 24,000 of the region’s 34,000 inhabitants. It’s also the centre of the Yukon’s mining and forestry industries and a busy, welcoming stop for thousands of summer visitors. Although greater Whitehorse spills along the Alaska Hwy for several kilometres, the old downtown core is a forty-block grid centred on Main Street and mostly sandwiched between 2nd and 4th avenues. Though now graced only with a handful of pioneer buildings, the place still retains the dour integrity and appealing energy of a frontier town, and at night the baying of timber wolves and coyotes are a reminder of the wilderness immediately beyond the city limits. Nonetheless, the tourist influx provides a fair amount of action in the bars and cafés, and the streets are more appealing and lively than in many northern towns. One can easily spend a day or two here, stopping at some of the excellent cafés, restaurants and pubs or taking one of the many short trips into the surrounding hinterland – either way, Whitehorse is an ideal place to recoup after a lengthy road journey.
The town owes its existence to the Yukon River, a 3000km artery that rises in BC’s Coast Mountains and flows through the heart of the Yukon and Alaska to the Bering Sea. The river’s flood plain and strange escarpment above town were long a resting point for Dene peoples, but the spot became a full-blown city when thousands of gold prospectors arrived in the spring of 1898, en route to Dawson City. Having braved the Chilkoot Pass to meet the river’s upper reaches, men and supplies then had to pause on the shores of Lineman or Bennett lakes before navigating the Miles Canyon and White Horse rapids (for which the city is named) southeast of the current town. After the first boats attempting this were destroyed, the Mounties allowed only experienced boatmen to pilot craft through. The prospectors eventually constructed an 8km wooden tramway around the rapids and raised a shantytown at the canyon and tramway’s northern head, allowing them to catch their breath before continuing to Dawson City.
The completion of the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad (WP&YR) to Whitehorse put this tentative settlement on a firmer footing almost at the same time as the gold rush petered out. In the early 1900s the town’s population dwindled to four hundred, down from ten thousand. A second boom came in 1942 when thousands of US Army personnel arrived to build the Alaska Hwy, swelling the town’s population almost overnight