Old Town, by Fran Hurcomb

I walked past this book for years before picking it up and reading it. When I finally did, I found a concise, beautifully illustrated history of Yellowknife, with just enough personal charm to make it a bit of a page-turner.  

Yellowknife photographer and writer, Fran Hurcomb, lived in Old Town for nearly 40 years before she published this book, first in a scrappy house just behind the brew pub, then in a skid shack in the Woodyard, then out in the woods at Watta Lake, then in a houseboat she built herself, then finally, in Willow Flats, where I’m going to presume she remained. 

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I mention all that because where you live, in Old Town, is crucial, and here’s where I might lay bare my complicated feelings towards the residents of Old Town, or any other group defined by real estate, however cheap and scrappy. Moral righteousness (though attractive in young people, and a sign of intelligence) should never be based on the property you own or even rent. Especially when you’ve just arrived in town and are quick to assume rights and privileges (tax free houseboat living anyone?) that stem from a history having little to do with you. The whole thing frequently makes me (and many Yellowknifers) scoff, particularly when one of the fancy houses next to the shacks sells to another doctor/lawyer household, which is why it took me so long to read this book. 

But how can I hold this against someone who sees it herself, and calmly observes it in others without getting all worked up about it. “Old Town has become a trendy place to live. Its charms are not lost to dozens of professionals who appreciate its rebellious reputation, its proximity to ‘The Big Lake,’ and the year round recreational promise of the wilderness that is mere footsteps away.” 

This polite, understanding, matter-of-fact tone is a big part of this book’s appeal.

I loved Hurcomb’s straightforward, yet provisional, account of how houseboats came to Houseboat Bay. 

“The whole concept of living in houseboats was mainly a result of Yellowknife’s skyrocketing housing prices,” she writes, noting that “the first permanent houseboat was probably Tim Shandruk’s.” The “probably” is the charm. It was 1981, she says, when Gary Vaillancourt and John Alexander first upped the ante, building two large houseboats on barrel barges, featuring solar panels for electricity and water pumps in the summer. 

There’s other great city history in here too. In fact, this book is likely the fastest (and funnest) way to get up to speed on what Yellowknife is all about.

Old Town recounts the much-mythologized series of battles with City Hall, which at several points sought to (gasp!) organize Old Town (further unifying its feisty residents) and regain some kind of control over the waterfront. After describing both sides of this debate even-handedly, Hurcomb quotes former mayor Bob Findlay: “It’s a slum area of Yellowknife in one way, but it is the nicest area of Yellowknife in another.” 

Hurcomb has written other books, including one on the history of the Canadian Championship Dog Derby sled dog race, and she delivers what she promises in this one. The book is a complete tour of Old Town, explaining the origins and history of several individual homes, shacks, houseboats, businesses (Bullocks and Weaver and Devore both get a chapter), and even the sewage and water system.

She names everyone, and captures the personalities in vivid photos. These were her friends and neighbours. 

“People came and went, friendships deepened, babies were born, there were deaths and many near misses. It was an amazing time for all of us, living on the edge of Great Slave Lake, in tiny shacks, under the burning skies. The community of Old Town became the cement that shaped our lives.” 

Old Town
By Fran Hurcomb
Old Town Press 2012
96 pages

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