The Klondike Gold Rush created the greatest mass movement of men, women and supplies in modern peacetime history. In the beginning, however, the transportation facilities available were totally inadequate to cope with this human assault.
Of the six trails that led into the Yukon interior during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1898 the most popular by far were the Chilkoot Pass based on Dyea and the White Pass based on Skagway – both cities being principal Alaska Panhandle gateways to the Canadian Klondike.
By the time gold rush stampeders had moved their ton of supplies by five mile relays from tidewater to Lake Bennett, some forty miles inland, it is estimated that they had walked some two thousand five-hundred miles.
From the Margaret and Rolf Hougen collection of Hamacher photos – on display at the Yukon Transportation Museum.
After arriving at Lake Bennett the stampeders built boats or scows from whipsawed lumber, or rafts of logs, to transport their outfits down the Yukon River to the Klondike. These huge barges and rafts were capable of carrying some 20 tons of supplies.
Their first obstacle was navigating through the confining basalt walls of Miles Canyon just south of Whitehorse. Having survived this ordeal the stampeders immediately faced the turbulent white water of Whitehorse Rapids that has since been tamed by a hydro-electric dam.
Control of the rafts and barges was maintained by the use of long “sweeps” located both fore and aft of the craft. Sometimes skilled pilots were hired, the most famous one of all being author Jack London.
Most stampeders headed north from Seattle, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Victoria, as well as other west coast ports, without any idea of what they would be facing once they arrived at Dyea or Skagway. There they soon discovered the brutal facts of the Klondike Trail.
After moving the required ton of supplies across the pass to Lake Bennett they were faced with the task of constructing a boat capable of transporting 2 or 3 men and up to 3 tons of supplies down north to Dawson City and the Klondike.
These boats were constructed by largely inexperienced stampeders out of timber which had been whipsawed into lumber and caulked with hot tar. Thousands of them sailed down north past Whitehorse in 1898.
It was not long before heavy machinery for powering sternwheel riverboats under construction at Lake Bennett and Whitehorse were being transported by raw horsepower and beefed up wagons – some transporters provided with eight wheels to support the load.
This was frontier commerce conducted by mackinaw-clad businessmen and cursing teamsters – the whole relentless enterprise fueled by bacon and beans, bags of oats, bales of hay, and illegal beer. The work was relentless, the weather unforgiving, the pay twenty-five cents an hour.
This was the way it was until the White Pass Railway was completed in the summer of 1900. But to this day the hundreds of horses that died in harness are still remembered as tragic heroes of the Trail of ’98.
Strangely, few dog teams were employed on the Trail of ’98, although they were used extensively for inter-camp communications. It was mail contractor William Moore and his team of dogs who carried out Ogilvie’s report to Ottawa containing details of the discovery of gold in 1896.
When the frantic rush to the Klondike subsided during 1899-1900 there was a rise in the standard of community living as well as the establishment of a highly visible social order. As a result, it was not long before many citizens were using dog teams for hunting and recreation.
While the driver in the picture above is not known, it is clear that he is not dressed for the trail, but rather for a social outing in that he is sporting an overcoat, collar and tie.
After Whitehorse and Dawson were established and the White Pass Railway was up and running, other technical advances of the age began to appear in the Yukon Territory. Here, at the turn of the century, two officials survey the Whitehorse scene from an early product of Detroit.
Bicycles were a popular means of local transportation. Some early Yukoners actually biked to Dawson, but the best way to Dawson was by the Str. Casca, which was owned by the Casca Trading and Transportation Company, but later purchased by the White Pass River Division.
While Yukon was often regarded as a remote frontier, populated by bewhiskered miners, it was always up to date. In fact Whitehorse possessed one of the first dial telephone exchanges in Canada.
Some engineers who were heading for the Klondike in 1898 stated that it would be impossible to construct a railway through the White Pass. Yet, it was the belief of the railway builders that the Yukon’s future would depend on the availability of a reliable transportation system.
With British financing, American engineering and Canadian contracting, construction began at Skagway, Alaska on May 28, 1898. While the labour force never exceeded two thousand workers at any one time, some thirty-five thousand names were recorded on the White Pass construction payrolls.
The last spike was driven at Carcross, Yukon on July 29, 1900. Present were hundreds of onlookers and Samuel H. Graves, the railway’s president, E.C. Hawkins, Chief Engineer, and Michael J Heney, contractor.
By early 1900, Whitehorse had become a centre for upper Yukon River steamboat traffic. With the arrival of the railway on June 8, 1900, railway president, Samuel H Graves, purchased most of the independent steamboats to create a through passenger and freight service from Skagway to Dawson.
Now, with coastal marine services operating out of Pacific coast ports to Skagway, coupled with the railway and the upper Yukon River steamboats, it was possible to travel from Seattle or Vancouver to Dawson and the Klondike in eight to ten days – a great boon to the North.
This picture illustrates early Whitehorse shipyard operations after spring ice breakup – some steamers in the water while others remain on the ways. There are many people on and around the ships. Can you count them?
By June, 1900, Whitehorse had become the virtual hub of the Yukon’s transportation system. The railway, together with sternwheel riverboats, and two huge shoreline freight sheds, demonstrates the growing commercial and industrial importance of the Yukon’s railhead and shipyard operations.
Despite the introduction of modern transportation technology there were still gold seekers straggling north to the Klondike in the early 1900’s making their way in Bennett-built boats. A fleet of these handmade craft can be seen tied to the bank on the far right of the picture.
Every spring the shipyard gangs and the steamer crews would launch the steamboats, fire up their boilers, stock them with supplies, sail them through the summer, and when freeze-up came return them to the ways.
The “Columbian” was built in 1898 in Victoria, B.C. for the Canadian Development Company. After steaming from Victoria to St. Michael, Alaska, she worked on the Yukon River three seasons for her owners. She was finally purchased in 1901 by White Pass for service between Whitehorse and Dawson.
On September 25, 1906, while sailing for Dawson with a compliment of passengers and a load of explosives, a crew member accidentally fired a shotgun blast into a barrel of dynamite. This precipitated a massive explosion killing 5 people. The vessel was a total loss.
The destruction of the Columbian was the worst accident ever to occur on the Yukon River. From that day forward the White Pass outlawed the use of firearms aboard their vessels.
Winter freeze up on the Yukon River stopped the steamboats cold. To keep passengers and freight flowing down north the Canadian Development Company, before the turn of the century, scuffed out a rough winter trail from Whitehorse to Dawson and the gold fields.
These facilities were eventually acquired by the White Pass who upgraded the trail and employed specifically designed freight sleighs to move thousands of tons of freight from railhead at Whitehorse to Dawson during the winter months when temperatures could plunge to sixty below.
These operations illustrate how the gold seekers had to learn the art of living and surviving in a cold and hostile land far removed from the great supply centres more than a thousand miles to the south.
The Yukon’s first highway, known originally as the “Overland Trail”, was constructed in 1902 by the White Pass and Yukon Route under contract with the Yukon Territorial Government. Over this winter trail hundreds of passengers traveled in reasonable comfort between Whitehorse and Dawson.
Besides passengers, tons of “Royal Mail” were carried by the stage line which was known as “The Royal Mail Service”. More than two hundred horses were employed during the winter months, and roadhouses that served hot meals and warm beds were established every twenty miles on the trail.
The White Pass withdrew from the service in 1921, handing it over to independent contractors who first used horses – later employing trucks and caterpillar tractors hauling freight and passenger sleighs.
A cook for the passengers and stableman for the horses were an essential part of each roadhouse staff. At peak periods there would be up to twenty roadhouses spaced about twenty miles apart. The sleighs made about three roadhouses a day – or about sixty miles of travel.
After a day on the trail the last roadhouse was a welcome sight to passengers and horses alike. Passengers started chatting and the horses, knowing that food and rest were at hand, would give a final burst of speed that set all of the sleighbells ringing. It was a Christmas card scene.
Moose or caribou steaks with steaming bowls of vegetables were waiting. On the table were pitchers of hot coffee and squat teapots grouped with sugar bowls, evaporated milk and fresh bread. There were few complaints.
The demand for lumber in the Yukon’s burgeoning communities never ceased. Lumber camps and saw mills were soon in business wherever a mature stand of trees could be found. Large timbers and high grade lumber for shipbuilding were imported.
Winter, with its frozen ground and rivers, provided a firm footing for moving heavy loads of lumber and freight from camps to building sites. In the early days horses were used but with each advancing technology the internal combustion engine emerged as the prime source of power.
This tractor is pulling four sleigh loads of lumber and a caboose into Whitehorse on the frozen Yukon River, the Yukon’s prime axis of commerce – winter or summer.
Yukon pioneers, Isaac Taylor and William Drury, founded the Taylor and Drury Department Store in Whitehorse during the Klondike Gold Rush. In 1927 the obtained a General Motors dealership for Whitehorse and Mayo and their first shipment of cars arrived in 1928.
These two early Yukon businessmen had a talent for predicting the course of events. While there are now thousands of kilometers of main and secondary roads in the Yukon there were less than fifty kilometers of rough roads in the Yukon when their dealership first opened its doors.
The creation of an automobile outlet on the last frontier is evidence of the confidence and vision displayed in 1927 by two Yukon pioneers who founded a car dealership when Yukon roads were only a dream.
In the middle thirties the White Pass and Yukon Route founded a scheduled airline that operated between Skagway, Whitehorse, Mayo and Dawson, in addition to a bush plane operation that flew prospectors, miners, doctors and businessmen to the far outposts of the Yukon.
The company’s workhorses were Ford Tri-Motor aircraft, a Boeing 247D twin engine all metal plane, a variety of float and ski equipped bush planes, and a Condor biplane, which at that time was the largest passenger-carrying aircraft in Canada.
In the early forties the airline was sold to a company formed by Grant McConachie which, in later years became part of Canadian Pacific Airlines – now known as Canadian Airlines International.