1952 Yukon Nuggets
If there ever was a cowboy town in the Yukon, Champagne was it. After all, the community had horses, fences, log buildings like the American west had in the movies - and most importantly - a rodeo.
In the 1950s, Champagne's summer rodeo days were the place to be. I fondly recall my older brother Fred loading up the Chevy with a picnic basket and we’d be off to the rodeo.
No doubt Alex Van Bibber was there - riding the broncos, as he had all his life. The Chambers boys would be there too. Like everyone else, they were competing for something more than prize money. They were competing for the honour of being the best Yukon cowboy. On the rodeo grounds, we kids of the fifties could savor the smell of frying onions ready to be laced on hefty hamburgers. These were the smells of an earlier time that mingled with genuine horse sweat, dust and other delights of a rodeo ground.
Our annual family summer trip to Champagne in the fifties, over the narrow dusty Alaska Highway, was a thing of beauty. I only asked brother Fred if we were there yet, because I wanted to be there as fast as possible. What kid wouldn’t? Champagne has been associated with horses and the cowboy lifestyle since the gold rush when Jack Dalton established his famed Dalton Trail from Haines Alaska to the Klondike.
Dalton wintered his horses at Champagne as well as at his permanent station, called Dalton Post, on the Haines Road. Champagne also figured in a famous Klondike cattle drive.
In 1897, a cowboy named Gordon Bounds drove a herd of about forty cattle to Dawson. He was probably working for Jack Dalton at the time.
When Bounds and his men reached this location with their unruly herd, they thought the worst of their cattle drive to the Klondike was over. So, it is said, they broke open a case of French Champagne and had a rousing party.
But the importance of the stopping place on the Dezadeash River was just beginning. In 1902, Shorty Chambers built a road house and trading post here to serve the prospectors who were heading for the new mining country around Silver City and Burwash Landing on Lake Kluane.
Then in 1942, when the American military was building the Alaska Highway, they followed the old Kluane Wagon road from Whitehorse to Champagne and briefly set up an operations centre for construction north of Whitehorse. At that time, the Alaska Highway ran right through the community.
But in the 1990s, the realignment of the highway meant that it would bypass some distance northeast of the community. So today, if you want to visit Champagne, you can only get there over the old Alaska Highway and the even older Kluane Wagon road.
Hopefully when you go there’ll be a rodeo underway.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.