The Watson Lake ATB was designated a Yukon historic site for its aesthetic, historic and cultural significance. Built in 1942, the Watson Lake ATB is the last remaining air terminal building from the Northwest Staging Route still in use in Yukon. It is significant as the main administration and air traffic control building at one of the key refuelling bases on the Route and for the integral role it had in the development of Yukon’s transportation system, as well as for its role in advancing scientific research for northern air transportation.
In 1939, a crudely cleared civilian airstrip on Watson Lake became part of an emerging Department of Transportation project to develop the Northwest Airway System which, at the start of World War II, grew into a joint Canada-US military project to assist with the defense of Alaska, known as the Northwest Staging Route. By 1941, the RCAF, US Army and civilian contractors descended upon the area and, over the course of the next year, built nearly 100 buildings, paved runways with lighting radio communications and meteorological facilities to support the airport operations. The ATB and the nearby hangar are the only two buildings remaining from this period. After the US entered the war, thousands of US Lend-Lease planes travelling the Northwest Staging route stopped in Watson Lake for refuelling and maintenance.
The construction style, with logs sawn on three sides using butt and pass cornering, is reflective of the haste needed to construct the large number of buildings required to support the military operations at the Watson Lake airport. The early expansion of the control tower from 2 to 5 stories illustrates the increased demand for the site during the Lend-Lease program and tells an important part of the evolution of the of Air Terminal Building.
The Watson Lake ATB was a Royal Canadian Air Force Base until 1957 when its operation was transferred to the Department of Transport. It also served as an advanced base for the Winter Experimental Establishment from 1947-1951. Its continued use as a commercial airport facility further adds to the social significance of the terminal. The ATB is a cultural site that serves as a reminder of Watson Lake’s strategic location for air travel in Yukon and the period of intense growth and development of air transportation systems in the North-west during World War II.
Source: Historic Sites Unit file #3630-32-16, Cultural Services Branch, Government of Yukon.
Character Defining Elements
- Location and orientation of the building to the airport runway and aprons and spatial relationship with the hangar;
- One-storey building with hip roof and four-storey control tower;
- Log construction with logs sawn on three sides using butt and pass corners that encompasses the ground floor walls up to the underside of the second floor of the tower including the corbelled remnants of the original exterior tower walkway;
- The building’s original design elements such as fenestration and style associated with 1940s-era Yukon Northwest Staging Route air terminals; and
- Viewscapes to and from the airport and Watson Lake.
Historical Sources Location
Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office. Building report 86-44: Watson Lake Airport Terminal by Julie Harris
Pho 213 81/5 Sheldon Jones Collection: photo of air terminal building 1944-45
Pho 46 82/363 Hannington Collection: aerial view of airport July 28,1944
Pho 264 85/27 Steve Galigan collection #11. Photo with captain "Watson Lake Control Tower" no date, but must be before construction of new tower in 1944.
Bruce McAllister & Peter Corley Smith. "Wings Over the Alaska Highway". Boulder, Co. Roundup Press. 2001
Stan Cohen. "The Forgotten War, Vol. 2." Missoula Mo. Pictorial Histories Publishing Co. 1988
Blake W. Smith. "Warplanes To Alaska". Surrey, BC. Hancock House Publishers. 1998.
Watson Lake Airport Master Plan. Transport Canada, Western Region. DS-Leas Associates Ltd. 1985.
Frank Hamilton Fonds, 81/51. Yukon Archives
Sheldon Jones Collection, 81/5. Yukon Archives
Steve N. Galigan Collection, 85/27. Yukon Archives
Bob Love Collection, 96/10. Yukon Archives
Canada Department of Defense, 91/37. Yukon Archives
Constructed in 1942 as a one storey building with a two-storey tower, the Administration and Operations building, as it was originally known, was quickly expanded a year later, to add a third storey to the tower. The original design had a square tower constructed of log, with five rectangular windows per side, and a hip roof. In 1943 the hip roof was removed, and an octagonal third storey added with 9 lite windows taking up the entire wall on all eight sides. These windows were angled outward, similar to the upper walls of the existing control cab (upper level/floor). The tower was built using 8” x 10” timbers with log cabin siding. A walkway (balcony) with wood railings wrapped around each of the second and third floors of the tower. In 1944 the third floor was removed, and three new floors were added, including the upper level control cab.
In the 1970s air traffic control at the Watson Lake airport was transferred to Edmonton and the upper floors of the control tower went unused. In 1973-74 extensive renovations to the ATB were completed. The eastern area between the north and south wings was filled in and the front (groundside) entrance and vestibule were moved from the east side of the connecting link to the south (groundside) of the building. The ticket counter, baggage area and passenger waiting rooms were renovated and the passenger entrance to airside was enlarged. An extension to the east side of the north (airside) wing was added for CP Air for use as a cargo bay, including a large overhead door on the north side plus a smaller entrance door on the east side.
In 1993, the terminal once again underwent renovations. With the tower no longer being used, the internal staircase to the control tower was removed and replaced with a fold-down staircase. After 1998 further renovations to the first floor were undertaken. The windows have been replaced with contemporary fixed and awning wood sash windows. The window openings have otherwise not changed. New entrances have been installed on the south and north sides of the building, including wheel chair access, all entrances have gable roof overhangs.
The Watson Lake Air Terminal Building is typical in design and scale to other Northwest Staging Route air terminals at Teslin, Aishihik and Snag but has evolved over time with the use and growth of the Watson Lake Airport. It is a single storey building originally based on an ‘H’ shaped floor plan and constructed with logs sawn on three sides using butt and pass cornering. The building was extended to the east and a portion of the connecting link of the ‘H’ filled in utilizing similar materials and construction techniques. A five-storey control tower is centrally located on the airside (northern side) of the building. Medium pitched hip roofs cover the wings of the original ‘H’ plan with a gable roof over the connecting link. The hip roofs were extended to cover the additions in the east end and a flat roof was installed over the now enclosed void between the wings. Screened gable roofed ventilators are located on the roofs of the one storey sections of the building. Smaller gable roofs of varying pitches are found over the doors to the building. Historic windows have been replaced with fixed and awning wood sash windows irregularly located within the walls according to functional requirements. The original airside main entry to the building was altered from a single door enclosed in a porch to a larger vestibule with separate entry and exit doors. The groundside main entrance was expanded and relocated to the addition on the east end of the building. Single doors are located around the perimeter of the building as required for functional and egress purposes. A large overhead metal door providing access to the baggage area is located near the east end of the added space on the airside of the terminal.
The control tower is five stories in height including the ground floor and upper level control cab. Although the tower has been modified a number of times through the addition of floors and to the exterior cladding of the floors, it appears that the structural system originally employed has been continued through the additions. The tower is framed with heavy timbers above the ground floor and clad in wood drop siding. Trim is minimal and consists of painted window surrounds and corner boards. The top level (control cab) has continuous glazing on all walls to allow views in all directions. The windows in the south wall (groundside) are interrupted by a glazed door. The walls, including the windows, of the control cab level are angled outwards. This has resulted in the corner glazing having an irregular (trapezoidal) shape. A catwalk with an open metal railing encircles the building on the fourth floor. Antennae are visible on the roof and provide for the operational requirements of the airport. Each of the three mid-levels of the tower has three grouped 6/6 wood single hung windows cantered in the north and south walls. Solitary 6/6 wood single hung sash window are on the south side of the east and west walls on each of these floors. The airside (north) of the tower has large wooden letters announcing “Watson Lake” between the second and third floor windows.
The logs used in the walls of the ground floor carry up to the underside of the windows of the original tower and are corbelled on all sides of the tower to provide support (and possibly decoration) for a walkway around the second-floor level. The corbelled logs remain in place although the walkway was removed with the addition of new floor levels to the tower. The walls above this point appear to have always been frame, originally covered in log cabin siding or slabs.
The Northwest Staging Route was conceived as early as 1934 as a way to bring military supplies and personnel to the northwest of the continent. Construction of the airfields began in with the outbreak of WWII 1939. The airfields linked Edmonton with Fairbanks, Alaska. A series of refueling and service stops were built at Grand Prairie, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, and Whitehorse. They included navigation aids every 200 miles along the route. When Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941, the US came to the aid of the Russians with the offer of loaned and leased military aircraft. There were other routes for transporting these planes but the shortest, and most used. was the Northwest Staging Route. Over 1800 aircraft made the trip to the USSR. The airfields were rapidly upgraded to accommodate the large bombers that flew the Polar Route to the USSR. The Alaska Highway was built to allow the United States to bring war material to Alaska to face a potential Japanese invasion, however its route was influenced by the Northwest Staging Route. The highway could support the airfields and vis-versa.
The Watson Lake Airport was once a complex of over 100 buildings with the Air Terminal building and the Airport Hangar the focus of the working area. Barracks, storage buildings, a mess hall, a recreation centre, a curling rink, and residences were used by the RCAF and later Department of Transport employees. Only the ATB and hangar remain from the war years.
The Watson Lake airport was a re-fueling stop for short-range military aircraft Because of this, the runway was lengthened, and finished with a hard surface, the height of the ATB control tower was increased, and the first floor was expanded. Radio communication, meteorological facilities, runway lighting, and navigational aids were installed. After the war, the airfield continued to be used, serving miners, loggers, and prospectors in the area. Canadian Pacific Airlines ran scheduled flights from Watson Lake on a regular basis until the late 1990s. The Watson Lake Terminal is the oldest non-residential structure built for the Northwest Staging Route still used for its original function. The Watson Lake Hangar is privately owned and used for airplane storage and maintenance. It was constructed in 1943, one year later than the ATB.
The Watson Lake Air Terminal Building is a landmark for the town of Watson Lake, as it is one of the earliest buildings in the area. The town of Watson Lake owes its existence to the construction of the airport and the Alaska Highway. The ATB is the oldest public building in the area and provides an attraction for the tourists travelling on the Alaska Highway and a sense of pride in the community.
42: Bob Hesketh, ed., Three Northern Wartime Projects, Canadian Circumpolar Institute, University of Alberta, Edmonton & District Historical Society. Occasional Paper Series No.38.
43: Yukon Historic Sites Inventory, Watson Lake Air Terminal Building.