1954 Yukon Nuggets
The Day the Duke Came to Town
It was hot that Sunday in August back in 1954. By mid-day, the temperature had risen to 80° F. The quiet town was livelier than usual. The water truck, that would normally be parked in the city garage, was rushing up and down Fourth Avenue, pumping gallons of water on the dusty gravel streets. School teachers were handing out Red Ensign Flags. Alex Seely was pruning pansies in a 45-gallon oil drum. Shop-keepers were busy hanging red, white and blue bunting. The door to Sam McGee's cabin on Elliott Street was wide open. Taylor and Drury's mechanics were putting the final polish on a snazzy Oldsmobile. This was no normal Sunday.
Royalty was coming to Whitehorse. The imminent arrival of the dashing Duke of Edinburg would mark the first time a member of the Royal Family would visit the Yukon. Only a year earlier, Prince Phillip had wowed the world with his smashing good looks and courteous personality when his wife was crowned Queen Elizabeth II, ruler of the vast British Empire including the far-off Yukon.
The Duke arrived in Whitehorse at noon, August 8th on a four-hour, direct flight from Vancouver, where he had been the Royal representative at the British Empire Games, where he had witnessed fellow Brit Roger Bannister break the fabled four-minute mile. That was a special moment for Prince Phillip, who was now known around the globe as an avid sportsman, a man in love with the great outdoors, a fabulous horseman and strong swimmer. However, a deep gash on his royal nose proved that he could use some lessons in the art of Olympic diving. He had cut himself while plunging into the UBC swimming pool during the Vancouver games. Like everything with the Royals, that nose gash was big news.
Now this world figure was coming to tiny Whitehorse, where the streets were unpaved, wooden sidewalks creaked in winter and heaved in summer, and there were no traffic lights. There was no city sewer system, although a plebiscite in June had just approved the hotly debated topic of whether Whitehorse should rid itself of back-yard cesspools and open wells in favour of a modern system of running water carried in - of all things - underground pipes. What would they think of next!
The plebiscite was fiercely contested, since many taxpayers thought they could not afford such luxury. One of the ads in the paper that convinced the rate-payers to fork over the dough was a banner full-page, edged-in-black message claiming that the Queen, on a visit to Australia earlier in the year, had to wear rubber gloves to avoid contamination of her regal personage by foul water. The Yukon ad asked if Prince Phillip would have to wear rubber gloves to avoid contamination and the possibility of contracting polio from tainted water in the Yukon's capital. "If we don't get it - we've had it" blazed the headline. The plebiscite carried.
At noon on that idyllic August Sunday, Commissioner Wilfred Brown, Mayor Gordon Armstrong, and a bands from the RCAF base met the Duke's royal plane. They ushered him into a polished yellow Oldsmobile and drove down the winding, old Two Mile Hill to the newly constructed Whitehorse Elementary High-school on Fourth Avenue, for a meeting with the children of the Yukon, including Lena Tizya, to whom he was introduced as she had represented the Yukon Girl Guides at the Queen's Coronation in 1953.
The Fleet Street Press from London, a photographer from the world's most popular news magazine "LIFE" (on the cover of which appeared a photo of the Duke in front of WHS), and a contingent of Canadian cameramen and writers recorded the Duke's every move, so much so that an editorial in the Whitehorse Star a week later praised the visit, the Duke, the kids and Yukoners in general, but slammed the "outside" press, calling them rude, crude and impudent in pushing aside anyone who got in the way of their "photo-op."
Later that memorable Sunday, Prince Phillip embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime trip down the Yukon River a few miles, on board the newly renovated paddle-wheeler SS Klondike, that had just been put back into service by the White Pass and Yukon Route, who in co-operation with Canadian Pacific Airlines began an ill-fated and wildly expensive gamble to bring tourist dollars to the awakening, but still largely unknown Yukon tourist industry. On board the Klondike, Phillip observed a large painting depicting Cancan girls dancing up a storm, and asked Mayor Armstrong:
"Do you have any around here like this?" Diplomatically, the gracious mayor offered instead an ivory desk pen set that he had bought earlier in the day from the Yukon Gift and Ivory Shop.
That evening the RCAF mess was the location of a gala - or what in Yukon terms in the fifties could pass as a gala evening of food and conversation. The Duke talked at length with 88-year-old Martha Louise Black and her 81-year-old husband George, both of whom had spent some time in England when they were Members of the Canadian Parliament. George had been speaker of the House of Commons in the thirties, and when he fell ill prior to the 1940 general election, Martha ran for his Yukon seat and became only the second woman to sit in the House of Commons.
The Duke was fascinated by Martha's tale of her life as one of the few women who climbed the Chilkoot Pass on her way to the Klondike in 1898. With some irony, Prince Phillip also listened intently as aboriginal elder Patsy Henderson told him the story of his days as a young boy, back in 1898, in a camp with his uncle Skookum Jim, on the banks of the Klondike River when Jim, Tagish Charlie and George Carmack found the gold that made the Yukon famous, and drew Martha and her husband George to the Yukon.
Urban legend has it that a server during the evening meal advised Prince Phillip not to give up his fork so quickly after the main course, because "there's still pie coming, Duke."
Bright and early, Monday morning, August 9th, 1954, the royal visitor boarded his Canadian government plane and headed north to Coppermine, in the Northwest Territories, for a quick tour of the Arctic. Of the visit, Life Magazine noted "the Duke not only enjoyed himself hugely but brought back a winter's worth of dazzling tales of the wild north world to tell the queen, as well as a pair of Eskimo soapstone carvings for Princess Anne and Prince Charles."
Which leads me to wonder if Charles still has those carvings. Maybe someone should ask him. They'd be worth a fortune on eBay.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.