Watson Lake is a small town in the Yukon, not far from the British Columbia border. It’s a small town with a population under 1000. Most people make their money in the lumber industry and it sits on the Alaska Highway, a rest stop for people making pilgrimage to Alaska. It’s a quaint town with a long history and it’s the last place you’d expect to have a famous roadside attraction that sees thousands of visitors every year.
Watson Lake is home to the Sign Post Forest, a collection of local and international sign posts that have grown from one sign pointing to Illinois to literally an entire forest of signposts. You’ve probably seen the signpost trees in towns like Halifax, Philipsburg, and other places around the world. Signs that point to the direction of famous cities and state their distance. Well, Watson Lake has a forest of these posts numbering over 100,000.
The Sign Post Forest began in 1942, when a homesick American GI working with the 341st Engineers was ordered to repair a broken sign post. It was a simple job, one that was frequently needed as heavy-duty machinery used roads built for much smaller vehicles. But this particular GI was homesick for his hometown of Danville, Illinois. So, instead of simply fixing the sign, the GI personalized it, putting an extra sign pointing to Danville and stating its distance. Several other people thought this was a good idea and added their hometowns to the sign. Soon, the idea snowballed into what it is today: a forest of signs pointing to nearly every conceivable place on the planet.
In 1942, the Sign Post Forest was a small idea, now it spans two acres, comprising of over 100,000 items ranging from street signs to welcome signs, signatures on dinner plates, and international license plates. Ranging from quirky to seintimental, the Sign Post Forest reflects the town’s daily visitors: people travelling through from different parts, catching a small glimpse into Canada’s most remote areas.
What makes the Sign Post Forest is not its idea, which is one adopted around the world, but its age, method, and adoption by other people. It’s more than a collection of objects, it’s a part of what makes Watson Lake unique. An isolated area where people are prone to homesickness, the Sign Post Forest is an example of how a small, seemingly insignificant place is genuinely connected to the rest of the world. The idea is organic as well, a collection of things from people who want to participate in this small town’s unique art project, and it reflects how Watson Lake itself is a welcoming town despite its location and relative isolation. Watson Lake’s Sign Post Forest is visited by thousands every year despite its remoteness, which makes its art project that much more important for its residents. The signs may point to other places, but they show how everything is really no too far.