The ‘Impertinent, Wacky Disorder’ Of Whitehorse In The ’50s

For over 70 years, Pat Ellis has been collecting stories from Yukon’s history by going right to the source—to the people who lived it

When Pat Ellis walks around downtown Whitehorse, she sees evidence of the past because she knows just where to look.

She sees parts of Quonset huts and barracks left behind by the U.S. Army and subsumed into new buildings that are still in use today. She sees remnants of former “squatter” homes that once dotted the riverfront. And she sees the foundations of buildings from the short-lived CANOL refinery, still intact in the industrial area.

“Many people don’t know these parts of our history: there was a major refinery, right in downtown Whitehorse, that smelled like rotten eggs when it was running,” she said. “It opened in April 1944, with lots of fanfare, and then less than a year later it closed. Soon after … forgotten.”

Ellis came to Whitehorse in the mid-1950s. Over the years, she has been preserving, documenting and presenting stories from Yukon’s history, especially ones that she thinks deserve more attention.

For example, she became interested in the CANOL (short for Canadian American Norman Oil Line) project after hearing the incredible story from friends who were involved.

During the Second World War, the U.S. Army needed a reliable supply of oil to fuel the war effort in Alaska. So it constructed a 2,600-kilometre pipeline to move oil from Norman Wells, NWT, to Whitehorse—where a refinery was built to process the oil.

As it turned out, the price of fuel produced was high, and the war ended, so the project was shut down in 1945. The U.S. The Secretary of War later referred to it as “a waste of public funds.”

“It’s kooky,” she said. “The whole thing was approved based on a two-page letter.

Ellis self-published a book called The CANOL Adventures, in 2008. It’s a collection of historical documents and memories from people who were involved with the project in different ways, including Alex Van Bibber, who worked with the team that surveyed the pipeline’s route; and Gertrude Seidel, a refugee from the Nazis who worked in the CANOL’s Whitehorse office.

“When I talked to Gert [Seidel] about it, she said it was a big deal in the town,” said Ellis. “She was puzzled that it was just forgotten.”

Though she’s long-since retired, Ellis keeps working hard to keep her friends’ stories alive. She wants to help people understand what happened in the past and to forge connections to that history through first-person accounts from people who lived it. “I think people should be asked if they have a story to tell, and those stories should come right from the source.”

Lured by the promise of high wages, Ellis arrived in Whitehorse as a “starving art student” looking for a summer job in 1953. She rented a room and quickly got a job as a “sort of scatterbrained secretary” with a busy construction company.

At that time the streets were unpaved and the city was “grey with gravel, but green with money,” she said. “You could make about double what was being offered in the rest of Canada.”

It was nearly a decade after the U.S. Army left. Scrounging for wartime leftovers—such as windows, doors and oil stoves—was a lucrative pastime. Construction was haphazard (Ellis called it “impertinent wacky disorder”), and rent was cheap.

“Without nosy building inspectors, many buildings were several per legal lot, at whatever angle they landed,” Ellis wrote in her first impressions of the city.

After another year of school, she returned in ’54 and found a job at the Taylor and Drury department store, located where Horwoods Mall is now, on Main Street.

She and a friend rented a small cabin in Whiskey Flats, a squatter community located where the SS Klondike National Historic Site and Rotary Park are today. Built from a cut-down U.S. Army barrack, the cabin was just one partitioned room with a “temperamental wood stove,” a water barrel and a chemical toilet. The door didn’t lock.

After a few months, her friend left to get married in Vancouver. Ellis found another place to live but decided to stay in Whitehorse. And over the years she raised a family of three children. For a while she worked as a stay-at-home mom, supplementing her income by selling her paintings. Then she got a job at the Whitehorse Star print shop where she learned “paste up,” a now old-fashioned method of laying out newspapers by hand.

“There were a lot of people coming and going, like Flo Whyard, a very talented editor; and Bob Erlam, a wheeler-dealer owner who knew how to keep the business going,” she said. “It was a very stimulating time in Whitehorse.”

In 1969, she created her own job after hearing that the federal department of Indian Affairs had started collecting local handmade crafts. She helped open a shop, to sell the crafts on Main Street, and stayed on a contract for five years.

She bought crafts from local craftspeople who sewed, such as Annie Smith, Sophie Miller and the Chambers family.

“These people were artists: They knew how to cut stuff that fit, and they would come up with the most-spectacular designs for hats and mitts,” said Ellis. “It was all so creative and unique. You couldn’t order a crate of mukluks, and that’s what made them so beautiful.”

Ellis still sees some of the designs that were sold through the shop, still in use on the streets of Whitehorse today.

After Ellis’ contract ran out, Lorraine Joe took over the business and has been running the Indian Craft Shop ever since. The money from product sales was used to fund grants through the Yukon Foundation.

Meanwhile, Ellis used savings from her salary to purchase a small home at the foot of the clay cliffs, but just a few years later, the City of Whitehorse bought her out as part of the escarpment clearance in 1974.

Once her kids grew up, she travelled and found her strengths in writing, drawing and painting. As a member of the Yukon Art Society, she found many opportunities to use her artistic skills.

“I always enjoyed sketching and history. It all sort of grew out of that—like a mushroom on a manure pile,” she added with a laugh.

In 1992, she published Yukon Sketchbook: A Travellers Companion, a collection of her drawings of historical places and events. Over the years, she’s also painted public murals in Atlin; and in Whitehorse at City Hall, Shipyards Park, Copper Ridge Place and a giant 30-panel mural (at the Yukon Transportation Museum) that she drew out with Edith Jerome.

“We never made much money at it, but it was fun,” she said. “You can’t be too serious about art; people try, but that’s just silly and pretentious.”

In 2015, Ellis published a collection of stories and photographs (from former residents of Whiskey Flats, Moccasin Flats and Sleepy Hollow) calledThe Squatters of Downtown Whitehorse.

“I wanted to do it because I was mad: There were lots of convoluted stories about who was living in these squatter areas,” she said. “I wanted to set the record straight: there were really hard-working people living there.”

Throughout the years, she’s also written countless stories for local newspapers and worked on several other projects including a book on riverboats (a collection of stories about the Trump family’s connection to the Yukon) and some research for the Anglican Church in Whitehorse.

In 2016, Ellis was recognized with a Heritage Award from the Yukon Historical and Museums Association. And in 2019, she was one of the first inducted into the Order of Yukon.

Despite all she has accomplished, Ellis is humble. She would much rather tell a story about history than talk about herself.

Most recently, she has received a heritage grant to work on collecting information about Father William Judge and the former St. Mary’s Hospital in Dawson.

“There’s so much history, and the stories are so interesting; you can just keep going and going.”

At age 88, Ellis has no plans to stop anytime soon.

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