History Hunter: The Chamber of Commerce has its origins in the earliest days of Whitehorse

A look at the earliest days of business associations in what is now the Yukon's capital

When I was invited recently to speak about the history of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce at their annual general meeting, I was provided with a backgrounder which states that the Board of Trade (the Chamber’s predecessor) was founded on July 22, 1948. Background information I subsequently found at the Yukon Archives placed the beginnings in the previous year.

I don’t want to quibble about a year here or there, but both documents got the date of the original formation wrong by a half century.

If you want to learn about the origins of a Board of Trade, you must look way back, to the founding of Whitehorse in 1900. The first president of the Whitehorse Board of Trade, at that time, was Robert Lowe, Whitehorse businessman, who was born in Brampton, Ont. Lowe came to the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush, but rather than stampeding to Dawson as thousands of others did, he established himself as a businessman and political leader, who represented the southern Yukon in the Territorial Assembly from 1903 to 1912, and then again from 1920 through 1925.

Lowe ran a freighting and hauling business in Whitehorse, and became involved in the development of mining in the Whitehorse copper belt. He had a variety of other business ventures, such as selling wholesale liquor, and operating a hotel.

In 1920, Lowe cleared a strip of land on the bench above the village of Whitehorse to accommodate the landing of the Black Wolf squadron — the first aircraft to arrive in the Yukon. This primitive landing strip evolved in the years that followed, into the international airport that we all utilize today.

In 1922, the small suspension bridge constructed over Miles Canyon was named after him, and officially opened by Governor-General Byng during a visit to the territory.

The year after Whitehorse was established, the Board of Trade collaborated with the Whitehorse Star to produce a first anniversary special edition to celebrate the new village and its “many advantages as a place for profitable investment.” They also lobbied the territorial council for better postal service, improved roads and the establishment of a school.

The board was still active ten years later, but by the First World War, the fate of the Board of Trade reflected the diminishing economy of the Yukon. The departure of hundreds of Yukon volunteers to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force added to the population decline, which reduced the number to a fraction of what it was during the gold rush.

In editorials, the Whitehorse Star called for the reconstitution of an organization to guide the economic development of the community. “The revival of the Board of Trade is in order,” the Whitehorse Star insisted in 1917.

But no action was taken for another two decades. On Jan. 27, 1938, a large turnout at a public meeting revived the Board of Trade. William MacBride (after whom the MacBride Museum is named) was elected president, and Geoffrey R. Bidlake, a White Pass employee, vice president. The board acted as a voice to represent the interests of the business community. Its first job was to counteract the negative reports of the condition of the Whitehorse airport, which, residents claimed, was better than any that could be found in Alaska at the time.

Among the trustees of the re-constituted organization was Isaac Taylor, a member of the original board, who brought with him to the meeting the original corporate seal from the Board of Trade established three decades earlier. Taylor was a senior partner in the community’s most prominent business partnership, Taylor and Drury, widely known as T&D.

Taylor and Drury came into being when Isaac Taylor and William Drury formed a retail business in Atlin in 1898. Taylor was born in Yorkshire, England in 1864, and eventually came to Atlin by way of Australia. From Atlin, Taylor and Drury moved to Bennett, B.C., and, in 1901, to Whitehorse, which had become the transfer point for the shipment of goods into the territory. Taylor eventually married Drury’s sister, thus making the partnership a family affair as well.

William Drury, another Englishman, was born in Lincolnshire County. He came into the territory via the old overland trail from Telegraph Creek, British Columbia. Before entering into partnership with Taylor in 1899, he used his training as a shoemaker to repair worn-out boots and sew sails for the fleet of vessels that floated their way to Dawson City.

Over the years, T&D expanded, establishing 16 branch stores or trading posts throughout the territory, including Fort Selkirk, Champagne, Teslin, Mayo and Minto.

As many as ten of these branches were operating at one time, with a transportation network that included riverboats, horse and wagon, dog teams, snowmobiles and trucks. Taylor and Drury survived the depressed economy of the 1930s, and were there to accommodate the overwhelming surge of demand during and after World War II.

Their main base of operations during this time remained in Whitehorse, where the T&D store at the corner of Main Street and Front anchored the business section of town. By 1969, T&D had expanded their Whitehorse operation to include the former Northern Commercial store next door. Today we know this complex as the Horwood’s Mall. I remember going to T&D to pick up supplies that I needed for my various trips, as a history hunter, during my early years in the Yukon.

Taylor and Drury became a multi-generational operation when their children became involved in the family business, but the Taylor and Drury store closed in 1974, after the business had been operating for 75 years, when no third generation emerged to carry on the family tradition. The Taylor House, which accommodates the Commissioner of the Yukon today, is a reminder of the legacy of Taylor and Drury.

But back to the Board of Trade.

The Second World War intervened and the Board of Trade, that had been revived the year before the conflict started, was overwhelmed by the circumstances surrounding the construction of the Alaska Highway, and the activity of the board disappeared from the pages of the local newspaper. But after the war, the need for a common voice from the business community emerged again, as post-war Whitehorse became the main commercial and transportation hub in the Yukon.

In June 1947, at a Kiwanis Club banquet, Bert Hardy, manager of the local Bank of Commerce, spoke out about the need for a Board of Trade in Whitehorse. A few weeks later, in September 1947, businessmen gathered in the Whitehorse Inn Café to discuss the formation of a Board of Trade, which would work closely with a Chamber of Mines.

Much discussion and more meetings followed. By the end of that month, the Board of Trade had been organized. A. E. Hardy was elected president, and R. B. Rowan chosen as secretary, with Leo Procter, William Drury, Roy Bowers and Gordon Lee elected as trustees. Formal incorporation followed in 1948. Leo Proctor and Bill Drury were later inducted into the Yukon Transportation Hall of Fame.

Among the objectives of this new body were: promoting mining in the territory, tourism and expanding tourism infrastructure, and the improvement of transportation, education and postal service.

Sixteen years later, in November 1963, Bob Cousins gave notice of a motion to change the Board of Trade to the Chamber of Commerce, and on Dec. 27, 1963, the Governor General of Canada signed an Order-in-Council making the name change official.

Over the years, business innovations in the Yukon have had a major impact not just locally, but world-wide. The development of containerization by White Pass has had global implications. Rolf Hougen led the charge to provide satellite communications across Canada; thus, Cancom was formed, and Canada became the first nation to put a commercial communications satellite into orbit. When officials were looking for somebody to build an airstrip in Antarctica, Keith Byram and Pelly Construction were up to the job.

These are just a few examples of what progressive members of the Whitehorse business community have been able to contribute to the betterment of not only our community, but to the world beyond our borders. I wonder what we can look forward to in the future!

Michael Gates was the Yukon’s first Story Laureate from 2020 to 2023. His latest book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Whitehorse stores. You can contact him at [email protected]