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When Booze Ran Dry in the Klondike

When Booze Ran Dry in the Klondike

In the tipsy Yukon, prohibition was a buzzkill. Would bush planes full of liquor quench their thirst?
By Tristin Hopper
Dec 21
From the December 2012 Issue

It was one of the greatest electoral landslides in Yukon history – and the winner was booze. In 1921, just over a year after enacting prohibition, the far-flung territory came out in historic numbers to abolish it – thus ending one of the world’s shortest-ever dalliances with temperance.

Word that the rowdy Gold Rush capital could drink again became international news (“Yukon Territory Overwhelmingly Defeats Drys,” declared the Los Angeles Times), and territorial officials quickly moved to send for a whisky ship from Vancouver.

That same day, however, Gold Commissioner George Mackenzie, the Yukon’s de facto premier, received a chilling telegram from a railroad agent in Skagway, Alaska, the territory’s only link to the outside world.

The Alaskans, wrote the agent, were patrolling their harbour to block any “beverage having alcoholic content of more than one half one percent.” Alaska was three years into its own experiment with prohibition, and it wasn’t going to let Yukoners run booze through their turf. The Great Yukon Beer Shortage had begun.

EVER SINCE George Carmack celebrated the discovery of Klondike gold with a round of frontier whisky, the Yukon had earned a fierce reputation as one of the hardest-drinking corners of North America.

Only the patriotic fervor of World War I could have convinced Yukoners otherwise. Mountie and fur trader alike had erupted into peals of “God save the king” the moment the struggle with Germany had been announced from the stage of Dawson City’s Palace Grand theatre. By next morning hundreds of men had begun hiking south to enlist. Those left behind, meanwhile, vowed to build their Klondike into a sober, morally pure homefront. Women’s groups mobilized for the cause, questioning the “manhood” of any red-blooded Yukoner who imbibed while their sons and brothers were at war. A prohibition plebiscite lost narrowly in 1916, but two years later a “dry” order came from Ottawa, banning alcohol to sober up Canadians for the war effort.

Soon after the armistice, the ban expired – but the Yukon’s “drys” once again took up the cause. Do it for the “sake of the beautiful Yukon children,” implored a Whitehorse women’s group. Newspaper ads featured skeletal hands pouring spirits down the throat of an innocent child. 

In the 88 years of unrestricted drinking ever since, the Yukon has made itself into Canada’s most booze-soaked jurisdiction. The modern Yukoner drinks more wine than a Quebecer, more whisky than a Maritimer and nearly a keg of beer more than any other Canadian. 

The drinkers, meanwhile, found their champion in Yukon council member – and Whitehorse-based liquor importer – Robert Lowe. The plebiscite was a sham, said Lowe. He called his fellow council members “messenger boys” for the temperance movement and said the will of the territory was being held hostage by a bunch of newly enfranchised women. Lowe implored his comrades to “be men” and not to submit to a “soviet and petticoat government.”

Yet in 1920, the petticoats and soviets won, by a thin margin of just 40 votes. The Whitehorse Star predicted that the last days before prohibition would be an “extended period of orgy and debauch,” but Yukoners took their enforced sobriety remarkably quietly. For the drys, their territory had “thrown off its renegade status and finally joined the rest of English Canada in endorsing the noble cause of prohibition,” wrote Yukon researcher Nancy Cameron in 1988.

The only problem, Robert Lowe soon reminded them, was the territory was now broke. The battlefields of France – and the 1918 sinking of the Princess Sophia off Juneau – had decimated the Yukon’s population. And in a wave of post-war cost-cutting, Ottawa slashed funding to the now-depleted territory. The Yukon’s fiscal situation, the gold commissioner admitted, had become “most embarrassing.”

With schools and hospitals on the verge of being shuttered, mothers and clergymen suddenly warmed to the revenue potential of the demon drink. Prohibition advocates emerged again from the woodwork, but this time they were shouted down. “Intelligent electors know better, and will not be influence by misleading, weak and puerile statements,” read a July 1921 newspaper ad by the loftily named Citizens’ Personal Liberty and Moderation League. With Lowe’s backing, another plebiscite was called, and by a margin of two to one, the wets won the day.

Dawson City Museum

OR AT LEAST, they would have won the day, if not for the puritanical Alaskans. While booze was not cut off from the Yukon entirely (occasionally the Americans would let pass a few thirst-quenching train cars) the demand for drink in the territory far outstripped the supply. By 1923, the Yukon had built up a $1.3 million stockpile of alcohol in a seaside Vancouver warehouse, but had no way of getting it to the White Pass railway.

Perhaps the Alaskans enjoyed teasing their Canadian neighbours. Alaskans had tried prohibition once before, in the earliest days of the settlement, and Canadian moonshiners had delighted in spoiling their plans by slipping contraband over the porous 2,500-kilometre border. Regardless, complained Yukon Member of Parliament Alfred Thompson in 1921, the Americans’ behaviour went “far beyond the bounds of what is to be expected between friendly nations.”

In the near-ghost town that was now Dawson City, meanwhile, the skeleton crew of remaining bureaucrats began concocting schemes to break the U.S. blockade. In July 1923, after meeting with a shadowy group of “wealthy operators of Chinese distilleries,” liquor officials briefly floated the idea of sneaking whisky past the Americans by claiming it was for “medicinal purposes.”

When that failed, they proposed bringing in booze by air. The first airplane to touch Yukon soil had sputtered into Whitehorse only a few months before, following a daring cross-continental military expedition. Planes were rickety, unreliable and notoriously dangerous, but Yukoners surmised it was just what they needed to make a beer run.
Americans countered by inventing the concept of “air sovereignty.” Up until then, countries had worried little about what happened in their skies during peacetime. But with the prospect of Canadian whisky soaring over their heads, prohibition officials concluded that the U.S. ban on alcohol “extends upward in the air indefinitely over American territory,” read a news report.

Luckily, Canadians had one last bargaining chip. Down south in the border regions, Ontario rum-runners were routinely loading rowboats to the gunwales with booze, winking to customs agents that they were heading to Cuba, and then pushing off for Michigan. 

At an anti-rum-runners summit convened by furious Americans in 1923, Canada coyly pledged to post more vigilant customs officials – as long as Alaska lifted its alcohol blockade of the Yukon.

The Americans agreed, and in June 1924, Canada’s justice minister, Ernest Lapointe, took a train over the border to ink the agreement in Washington. In the House of Commons, Prime Minister Mackenzie King declared that Yukoners could now import booze through Skagway. Of course, he added, to satisfy Alaska’s dry agents, the shipments would have to be sealed, guarded, and moved quickly through Alaskan territory.

IN THE 88 YEARS of unrestricted drinking ever since, the Yukon has made itself into Canada’s most booze-soaked jurisdiction. The modern Yukoner drinks more wine than a Quebecer, more whisky than a Maritimer and nearly a keg of beer more than any other Canadian. And miraculously, despite teamsters’ strikes, avalanches and the virtual U.S. invasion that was the construction of the Alaskan Highway, Yukoners have never faltered in keeping their liquor cabinets stocked. They’ve always been drinkers, but since 1924, they have been drinkers with vigilance.