YK History – The First Inn Under The Rock

The Molly Hogan was not an elegant vessel. It would not win any awards for craftsmanship, nor was it the quickest ship on the northern waterways, but for the prospectors and miners in Yellowknife, the small diesel-driven tugboat and its barge was a lifeline to the outside world.

Northern Transportation Company Limited (NTCL) first sent the boat to Yellowknife Bay in 1935 when the Burwash Mine made an order for machinery and supplies. NTCL was a brand new entity with a mandate to create a network of commercial shipping from Fort Smith to Great Bear Lake where radium and silver was being mined. It owned six tugs and ten barges and was increasing in scale and efficiency as a common carrier. The Molly Hogan was their most cumbersome vessel, built from a simple shallow-draught barge with a wooden box on its deck for the wheelhouse and engine. The stern and bow were indistinguishable. “The product of a marine architect’s nightmare,” one observer called it, “Patently unsuited for lake traffic.” For four entrepreneurs destined for Yellowknife Bay in 1936, it was the only ride.

It had been a hell of a summer for the miners at Burwash. The gold vein was petering out and to make things worse, a massive forest fire encroached on their camp and everything stopped to fight the flames with bucket and shovel. The sight of the lofty Molly boat on the horizon was a needed reprieve, just as much as a wharf was a welcome change for the seasick passengers. They landed on July 1, 1936.

Jock McMeekan was among the welcoming horde on the camp dock. There were three men, Ted Hickmont, Gordon Latham, and Roy Caskey, together with the latter’s well-dressed wife, Florence. “Immediately, chivalry was born in Yellowknife,” McMeekan wrote, as the miners scrambled to get presentable and make the lady’s acquaintance. Major Burwash himself was less enthusiastic over the new arrivals. Hickmont wondered where they might pitch their tent. The Burwash docks seemed a natural choice and the labourers at the mine sure agreed. Alas, their gruff boss did not, and the Major imposed a swift booting of the weary travelers from company ground.

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They had expected a warmer welcome. Together with a large marquee tent, the businessmen and woman had brought in merchandise the likes of which the miners and prospectors hadn’t seen in months, such as chocolate, fresh reading material, and a few bottles of evening drink. But they were not traders. Hickmont and the others were starting a hotel and restaurant for an anticipated influx of outsiders. With the assistance of the excited Burwash workers, they found a spot on the west side of Yellowknife Bay in the draw where the Back Bay Cemetery is today.

They pitched the large marquee tent, made rooms with canvas dividers, and called it the Corona Inn. Business began swiftly and the demand for a hot meal and a place to roll an eiderdown was so great that within three weeks the partners were thinking big. They decided that Latham Island’s scenic west shore was prime real estate for a permanent log hotel. Meanwhile, Pete Racine came down from Great Bear Lake’s silver and radium mining district where he had operated a pool room. Racine thought gold was even better than silver, and signed on as a partner in the hotel. He instigated the expansion and with the help of Pierre Liske, a former Dene chief, they found a stand of spruce trees up the Yellowknife River, and with skiffs and motor floated the logs to the new site. It was the first permanent log structure in what we now call Old Town, on Latham Island, a short distance before where today’s southbound drivers on Morrison Drive intersect the four-way stop.

It was a sheltered location, tucked behind the island and the mainland peninsula that juts north into Yellowknife Bay. This large cove has since become known as Back Bay. Here was safe harbouring for boats and floatplanes and thus the west side of the Island and mainland was a logical choice for the settlers of 1936-1937. Hickmont, Latham, and Racine were not the only new arrivals in that first summer. Harry Weaver and Bud Devore, successful free traders on the Peace, Slave, and Mackenzie rivers, heard about the new mining activity and checked in with a small barge of trade goods. They returned in 1937 and constructed what was probably Yellowknife’s second log building  at a different location, choosing to build on the mainland rather than the island. That area, just below the rock promontory jutting up from the bay, soon became a centre for the burgeoning district.

But in that first winter of 1936/1937, the little Corona Inn on Latham Island was the only evidence of commerce. It was an eclectic place of business, serving simultaneously as hotel, restaurant, game hall, post office, and barber shop, while also being the temporary office for visiting RCMP constable Al Fenton from Fort Rae, and Dr. Dodds the dentist. For many years, the Mounties were the only government officials for hundreds of kilometers, handling everything from criminal investigation, to liquor permitting, to claim staking regulations.

Inside the inn was a large dining room and a central wood-burning barrel stove, with guest ‘cubicles’ on either side for those who could afford the privacy. Everybody else slept on the floor. Even when ‘No Vacancy’ was hung above the door, nobody was ever turned away from the use of the kitchen, but they had to be prepared to sleep outside, with no reduction in the rate. Few visitors were pleased with paying full price to sleep under a tree, but what choice did they have when the Corona Inn was the only game in town?

When the Arden family dogsledded into the Bay in March 1937, they had no expectations for what services might be like here. After 19 days and 600 kilometers on the trail, Darcy Arden and his son, Darcy jr. (Sonny), were just happy to see a cozy cabin full of cheerful prospectors. They had left their home at Great Bear Lake convinced, like many were, that Yellowknife was the place to be. Tales of gold were circulating all across the North. They gave Pete Racine $2 to sleep on the floor of the Corona Inn. The next day, the Arden’s were off again, for the gold strike at Gordon Lake another 80 km through the bush by dog team.

And that was the nature of Yellowknife in 1936-1937. It was a transient camp, where people stopped only briefly, before catching the whiff of gold and disappearing into the bush. Yellowknife could not be called a town but rather a series of camps for the many prospectors and miners. There was no organized government, no property for sale or lease, and only a handful of people willing to invest in something that wasn’t a gold mine. By year-end 1937, this was a happening place. A hotel, a restaurant, a post office, two trading posts, an RCMP detachment, and a government radio station were built below The Rock. 1938 would prove that Yellowknife Bay had the makings of a real town.

To be continued….

Ryan Silke is a Yellowknife historian

Culture

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