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Herschel Island – the Greatest Whaling Station in the Yukon Territory

Nikola Petrovski

Located some 7 miles off the coast of Yukon in Canada, this island in the Beaufort Sea was once the home of some mighty whale hunters. According to archaeological finds, the Thule culture inhabited the island more than a thousand years ago.

The climate on the island can be unforgiving, as is the case with many places in the Arctic. During the summer, the temperatures can rich up to 30 °C but during the winter it can go as low as -50 °C. Every year, between 19 May and 24 July, the island is under constant daylight.

The abandoned houses on Herschel Island. Author: Ansgar Walk CC BY-SA 3.0

The abandoned houses on Herschel Island. Author: Ansgar Walk CC BY-SA 3.0

It was Sir John Franklin who first spotted this place during his expeditions in the Arctic. He named the island Herschel Island. In accordance with the journal of Sir John Franklin, he wished to honor the name Herschel. The most famous people bearing this name are Sir William Herschel, his sister Caroline Herschel, and his son Sir John Herschel, all of them great scientists, astronomers, and mathematicians.

In the 19th century, the whale hunters realized that the Beaufort Sea was where the Bowhead whale found refuge. This whale was precious for its baleen, blubber, and oil.

Whalers’ graveyard. Author: Ansgar Walk  CC BY-SA 3.0

Whalers’ graveyard. Author: Ansgar Walk  CC BY-SA 3.0

For this reason, the Euro-American settlement was established in 1890 at Pauline Cove. During the height of the whaling season, this island was home to more than 1500 residents, making this island the largest community in the Yukon Area.

Sled With Sail, on the Hershel Island.

Sled With Sail, on the Hershel Island.

 

In 1915, Mr. Christy Harding, hired by the Hudson Bay Company, arrived on the island to establish a post. He constructed a store, a house, a warehouse, and some other buildings. But the business was not going according to plan and in 1937 the Hudson Bay Company left the island.

Former whaler station. Author: Ansgar Walk CC BY-SA 3.0 

Former whaler station. Author: Ansgar Walk CC BY-SA 3.0 

Several buildings were constructed on the island but the whale hunters, being first and foremost sailors, found their ships to be more comfortable than land. In 1893, the Pacific Steam Whaling Company built the community house together with a recreation room, an office for the manager and storekeeper, and storage facilities.

Meat store hut in permafrost. Author: Ansgar Walk  CC BY-SA 3.0 

Meat store hut in permafrost. Author: Ansgar Walk  CC BY-SA 3.0 

For only $1,500, the Royal North-West Mounted Police bought the island off of the Pacific Steam Whaling Company. To this day, the community building is still standing strong and is still in use today as a park office and visitors’ center.

The historic buildings at Pauline Cove. Author: Maedward CC BY-SA 3.0 

The historic buildings at Pauline Cove. Author: Maedward CC BY-SA 3.0 

The island was still being used in the 1970s when it was a temporary harbor for oil-drilling ships. The last residents who were living year-round on the island, the MacKenzie family, left the island for good in 1987.