Remembering Yukon's sternwheelers, with a 92-year-old former purser

'I was lucky. It was the end of an era,' said Ronald Finlayson of B.C., who was in Yukon this week sharing stories of his time working as a purser on Yukon's iconic sternwheelers, 70 years ago.

'I was lucky. It was the end of an era,' said Ronald Finlayson, in Yukon to see the boat he once worked on

Ronald Finlayson, 92, of New Westminster, B.C. visits with Parks Canada staff at the SS Klondike National Historic Site in Whitehorse earlier this week. Finalyson worked on the SS Klondike as a purser in the early 1950s. (Parks Canada)

Ronald Finlayson choked up a bit when asked what it was like to see his one-time workplace — the iconic SS Klondike sternwheeler — sitting proudly on the riverbank in Whitehorse.

"Oh, it brought back many memories," he said this week. "The Klondike is basically the same as I remember her. She's changed a little bit, not very much."

Of course, the one big change is that the old riverboat is now permanently dry docked and it's a designated Parks Canada National Historic Site. Finlayson's memories date to when she was still a working vessel, carrying people and cargo up and down Yukon's waterways.

Finlayson, 92, worked a purser on the SS Klondike in 1950, right at the stern-end of Yukon's famed riverboat era. He also worked on the SS Keno and SS Casca during the two years he spent in Yukon.

He was visiting Whitehorse this week from his home in New Westminster, B.C., to visit some family and spend some time sharing stories with tourists visiting the historic vessel. 

"It was certainly a very different way of living than what I was used to coming from the coast," he recalled, of being in Yukon 70 years ago. "I sailed on the coastal vessels on the British Columbia coast for five years before I came up here."

The SS Klondike when she was still a working vessel. This undated photo was taken sometime between 1920 and 1949. (Parks Canada Collection)

Finlayson was hired along with two of his friends after they answered an ad.

"I had always thought I'd like to come to the Yukon. And I saw the ad in the paper in Vancouver in 1950 — the White Pass were looking for pursers and they were looking for personnel," he said.

He remembers being struck by the long Yukon summer days when he could sit on deck reading the paper under the midnight sun. Sometimes he was mainly dealing with tourists, especially on the SS Casca between Whitehorse and Dawson City, while other times he would be among more local passengers for whom the paddlewheelers were their main connection to the outside world.

Finlayson shared some of his memories with visitors to the SS Klondike this week. (Parks Canada)

Touring the SS Klondike now, he can see the office he once occupied, and the familiar stateroom, and the wheelhouse where he'd sometimes chew the fat with the captain — but only when travelling upriver.

"You didn't bother them going downriver. But coming upriver, it was a lot slower and lots of time," he recalled.

Finlayson wishes now that he had spent more time talking with and hearing stories back then from some of the old-timers who had been travelling the river for years. 

"Because without the boat, Dawson City and the places on the river wouldn't have been anything," he said.

The S.S. Keno, which Finlayson also worked on, is now a National Historic Site in Dawson City. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

One of Finlayson's other former vessels is also now dry-docked, at Dawson City. Like the Klondike, the SS Keno is also now a National Historic Site.

The SS Casca, however, was famously destroyed by a fire in Whitehorse in 1974 along with the SS Whitehorse.

Finlayson is grateful for his brief time working on Yukon's sternwheelers. 

"I was lucky. It was the end of an era," he said.

"If I hadn't come up when I did come up, I would have missed this part of history for the Yukon, and for Canada."

Written by Paul Tukker, with files from Leonard Linklater