1939 Richard Finnie’s Yellowknife

In 1939, when Yellowknife was a new and very raw mining town, it was visited by photographer, filmmaker and writer Richard Finnie. Finnie had been making films about the north since 1924 and his 1939 trip north was to make a documentary film and book that shared the title Canada Moves North.

Finnie had flown over Yellowknife Bay (map) in 1934 when there were only a few scattered Dene tents and cabins along the east shore; in 1939 there were houses, stores, warehouses, and mines along with countless boats, barges and floatplanes all competing for space on Yellowknife Bay and Back Bay.

Finnie wrote that Yellowknife was a “place of surprises, of contrasts, of anachronisms, [and] of curiosities”. There were tents and shacks everywhere; the government apparently had failed to anticipate the rapid growth of Yellowknife so it hadn't surveyed lots or roads and people just built wherever they wanted.

The largest building was a thirty-two room hotel owned and operated by Vic Ingraham. There six stores including two pharmacies, several restaurants, a pool hall, a bank, a brokerage and real estate firm and a 175-seat theatre. Some of these buildings even had generators and electric lights, yet none of them had plumbing!

According to Finnie, outhouses were visually the most distinctive aspect of Yellowknife. He said that everywhere you looked there were outhouses, or privies as he called them, and he even claimed that shacks and outhouses were so jumbled together that one persons outhouse partially blocking his neighbours front door! These outhouses were also unique as they were all padlocked; offering someone the key to your outhouse was a gesture of friendship!

The lack of plumbing in Yellowknife also meant that there were no showers or bathtubs in private homes. If you wanted to take a shower there was a homemade one attached to the side of one of the restaurants, it cost 50 cents to use and you needed to make a reservation!

Within the total population of approximately 1000 Finnie said there were fewer than 200 women. Among these women there was a social hierarchy with the wives of the mine managers on the top of the heap! These women lived in their comfortable apartments at the mine sites and on their infrequent trips into town kept to themselves, aloof in their stylish dresses and snobbish mannerisms!

Next in the social hierarchy came pilots wives and the wives of businessmen. These women were the pillars of the community, many of them active in an organization they called DMS, short for Daughters of the Midnights Sun. At the bottom of the social hierarchy were the women who described themselves as laundresses and seamstresses.

Again according to Richard Finnie drinking was a big problem in Yellowknife. To buy liquor you needed a permit, which would only allow you to bring in 2 gallons of spirits per year. With all the thirsty miners around, the permit system, which was in place all over the NWT, didn't work well in Yellowknife and bootlegging was rampant.

Since beer parlours were also illegal Finnie claimed that on a Saturday night you could see hundreds of miners and prospectors wandering the streets of Yellowknife drinking from concealed bottles and trying to keep away from the Mounties!

Finnie concludes his less than complimentary, though probably quite accurate, description of 1939 Yellowknife by stating that by 1941 a water system, operating only in the summer, had been installed; Yellowknife's first road had been built and a new hotel, with a 24 hour per day beer parlour, was about to open!