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The Day the Beer Dried Up

The Day the Beer Dried Up

After the Second World War, miners and prospectors flocked to gold-rich Yellowknife and drained the town’s most precious commodity. What ensued was a uniquely Northern crisis.

After the Second World War, miners and prospectors flocked to gold-rich Yellowknife and drained the town’s most precious commodity. What ensued was a uniquely Northern crisis. Duke DeCoursey was new to Yellowknife when, in May 1945, he launched the town’s first proper newspaper, News of the North. In his first few issues, he prompted readers to submit story ideas – good local topics that would get them reading. It turned out DeCoursey didn’t have to look far. After all, this was the frenzied post-World War II goldrush era, when a sudden influx of prospectors, miners and all manner of opportunists were exhausting the town’s supply of housing, services, and – most critically – beer.

Alcohol and mining stampedes have always gone hand in hand, and when gold was discovered on the shores of Yellowknife Bay in the autumn of 1934, the situation was no different. Within four years the area’s population had grown from a few scattered Dene to 3,000 mostly male, mostly single newcomers: miners, prospectors, geologists, surveyors, labourers and the like. It was a free and easy time; people were making good money and spending it on what apparently really counted: lots and lots of beer. The Second World War brought the good times to a screeching halt. Men heeded the call of king and country, signed up for active duty and left the North. By 1942 the once-bustling town of Yellowknife had shrunk to barely 500 people. War-time rationing meant remaining residents had to make do with less, and that included less alcohol. Yellowknife’s annual allotment of suds came in on the summer barges. The shipments were split among the vendors – in this case, between the community’s one and only liquor store and the “beverage room” of the town’s only hotel. During the war there may not have been lots of beer, but it always seemed to last until a fresh stock arrived on the first spring barge. Sure, the system had problems: Come May, a miner might have had to opt for a Bohemian Maid or Lethbridge Pil when his favourite brand, Black Label, had run out. And there was always the problem of skunky suds that had gone way past their best-before date. But that was the nature of wartime, and people made sacrifices. Early in 1945, with talk of peace in Europe, Yellowknife began to wake up. The men and women who’d vacated to serve the wartime effort began filing back north. Optimists predicted the town’s population might double by summer; pessimists claimed it would triple and Yellowknife would be crushed by overpopulation. It turned out to be much worse than that. In June 1945, two months after his newspaper had debuted, DeCoursey wrote and published an open letter to the government noting Yellowknife’s population had increased six-fold, back up to 3,000. There were 2,500 new prospectors, mining-company representatives, diamond drillers, geologists, surveyors and labourers in town. These extra bodies, he wrote, were straining Yellowknife’s housing supply: Cabins and shacks built for two people were housing six, tents were springing up everywhere, and packing crates were being converted into dwellings. All of which was bad, DeCoursey wrote. But worse, he said, was that all of those newcomers were thirsty. Like the proverbial plague of locusts, they had made short work of Yellowknife’s meagre beer supply. The first barge to cross Great Slave Lake that year had arrived at the Yellowknife dock in the early morning of June 22. It was packed with mining equipment, building supplies, food and beer. The liquor store’s shelves were quickly restocked, but within two days they were empty again. The hotel faired only slightly better. To help conserve the beer, the owner decided to open the bar for only a few hours each Saturday night. That summer it became common to see thirsty Northerners milling around the hotel on Saturday afternoons, anxious for the bar to open. By 7 p.m., when it did, the lineup would often span blocks. Arrive late and chances were you’d go home sober. DeCoursey’s News of the North editorials didn’t just rail against the beer shortage, they suggested it was a threat to law and order. On July 21 he wrote, “Because of the fact that so many follow the urge to get as much as possible of a rationed commodity, Yellowknife has not been the well-behaved town Saturday nights it was during the pre-ration days. In fact we are quite certain that during the past four weekends, the RCMP have been very busy.” Bootlegging, public drunkenness, and loud and often violent shack and bush-parties kept local police unusually busy over the summer of 1945. DeCoursey and many others in Yellowknife blamed the government for not only failing to prepare for a post-war boom in the North, but for doggedly setting Yellowknife’s beer quota according to outdated population statistics. It was the government’s fault that Yellowknife had become, at least on Saturday nights, an unruly and crime-ridden town. A reasonable person might assume that Ottawa, in the aftermath of the war, had bigger fish to fry than Yellowknife’s beer quota. But DeCoursey was persistent. His column continued the attack, suggesting that the gold-mining town was the only community in Canada where beer was in short supply, and claiming there was no other licenced hotel in Canada that was selling beer for fewer than 15 hours a week. He wrote that the North wasn’t “asking for as much beer per capita as in Quebec – nor even Manitoba. However, if we should receive three times the quantity which we are now allocated, there would be only half as much beer per capita as there was in 1942.” Ottawa wasn’t quick to respond, but it did eventually recognize there was a problem. At an August meeting of the Yellowknife administrative district board (the equivalent of a town council), the agenda included road grading, extending the water-delivery system, garbage pickup – and beer. The board’s secretary had some good news. Word had been received from Ottawa that the annual beer allotment had been substantially increased. While far short of what was needed or asked for, the increase did allow the hotel bar to stay open between 7 and 10 p.m. every day except Sunday. And the really good news was there was still time to get that extra beer into Yellowknife before freeze-up, so residents didn’t have to face the prospect of a dry winter. Randy Freeman is Up Here’s history columnist. He was introduced to skunky Northern beer in Norman Wells, NWT in 1973. It took him years to get over it.