In the 1970s the Watson Lake Hotel was the place to be.
“Everybody would go there–it was like our living room,” said Teri McNaughton, who moved to Watson from Dawson City for a job at the hotel’s restaurant. “We’d go there to play cards, people like Gillian Campbell would perform and The Canucks had a canteen show during the summers in a tent nearby.”
At that time, Watson Lake’s population was growing, the mines at Cantung and Cassiar were booming, and two flights a day brought people and cargo in and out of the community. It was a golden age for McNaughton and her friends.
When the Watson Lake Hotel closed in 2007 and then sat empty for years, McNaughton saw an opportunity to preserve those cherished memories. With permission from the owner, she went into the hotel and salvaged dozens of historical photographs that once hung on the walls. As it turned out, she got there just in time as the building was destroyed by fire just a little while later. McNaughton had rescued boxes of photographs showing the southern Yukon town in its heyday, and with that newly acquired collection, the Watson Lake Historical Society was born.
Since 2010, the small-but-mighty society, made up of local volunteers interested in seeing significant places in and around Watson Lake recognised and preserved, has turned its attention to a number of different projects.
Recently it led the charge to have the Signpost Forest recognised as a Yukon Historic Site, achieving this designation in 2014.
The forest began in 1942, when the US Army Corp of Engineers were in Yukon constructing the Alaska Highway. At that time, it was common for the army to put up directional signs that indicated the distance to a handful of major cities and nearby communities.
This signpost took on a new life when one US Army soldier, who was homesick and missing his girlfriend, added a sign to honour his hometown of Danville, Illinois. Other soldiers soon followed suit, and now nearly 80 years later the forest contains more than 80,000 signs.
It has become one of the most famous landmarks along the Alaska Highway and its historic site status means that the forest will be protected and preserved. The forest
was designated as a site that lives and changes as time passes–new signs are put up and damaged signs are retired.
The designation was a big achievement for McNaughton and the society.
“It’s important to me that these places are recognized as important,” said McNaughton. “I grew up in Dawson City, where the history is all around you, and I think Watson Lake deserves to have that attention to its history too.”
Recently, the society has turned its attention to the Watson Lake Airport Terminal building. Like the Signpost Forest, the airport was also built in the 1940s by the US military. It was used as part of the Northwest Staging Route, a series of refueling stops for American aircraft enroute to Alaska, and eventually Russia by way of the Alaska-Siberian air route, during the Second World War.
After the war in the 1950s, the Royal Canadian Air Force took control of the airport. Then the Government of Canada did. Currently, it is owned and managed by the Government of Yukon. The airport terminal building is close to McNaughton’s heart. In fact, she worked at Canadian Pacific Airlines at the Watson Lake Airport for 10 years as a ticket agent.
“The pilots and crews all thought that Watson Lake was the best place to stop,” she said. “They would come off the planes and talk to us and sometimes would even join in on the community bonspiels.”
The terminal building was officially designated as a Yukon Historic Site by the Government of Yukon in September 2019.
McNaughton hopes these designations along with the many other attractions in the community, will help put Watson Lake back on the map as a destination for tourism.
“There’s so much to see here, and I hope Yukoners come visit and see these sites that I have come to love,” she said.
This series is provided by Government of Yukon Historic Sites to highlight the work of Yukoners and their connections to the territory’s heritage.