Riverboats were the life-blood of the Yukon at the turn of the century. One day - Tuesday, September 25th, in 1906 - one of them was the scene of a disaster which led to the death of six young men.
A photograph tells much of the story. The smoldering ruins show only the paddlewheel, some pieces of engine and other metal gear, and a few boards from her main deck. The Columbian had left Whitehorse, bound for Dawson with 150 tons, of cargo, including potatoes, hams, bacon, apples and canned vegetables. She also carried 21 head of live cattle - and three tons of blasting powder, covered and stored on the foredeck.
The Columbian was built in Victoria in the spring of 1898. It was sailed to Dawson by way of St. Michael and had performed excellent service on the Yukon, plying the river between Whitehorse and Dawson.
On that fateful day in September of 1906, she was five miles below the mouth of the Little Salmon River and 20 miles above Tantalus Butte (now Carmacks). Here, a young deckhand Phil Murray noticed a flock of ducks on the river. Murray had a loaded rifle on board although this was against company rules. The ship’s fireman, Edward Morgan, asked for the gun.
What happened next is uncertain. Some accounts say the gun went off by accident. Others say the flock of ducks flew over the ship and Morgan fired over the bow. What is certain is that there was a massive explosion on board the Columbian. The resulting fireball was carried the full length of the ship. Purser Lionel Cowper, Mate Joe Welsh, deckhands John Woods, Carl Christianson and Phil Murray, and fireman Ed Morgan, all died in the incident.
Passenger, EE Winstanley, a miner from Dawson was severely burned, but recovered. If there were any heroics in this sad affair, it was likely the actions of the ships Captain J.O. Williamson, who steered the stricken riverboat to shore where it smashed into the bank while the fire raged. His actions allowed the uninjured crew members, and what few passengers were on board, to jump clear.
The only body never recovered was that of fireman Ed Morgan, who was supposedly holding the gun when the blast occurred.
Apart from the tragic deaths of the six riverboat men and the loss of the steamboat, the biggest losers were the Barton Brothers whose consignment of 21 cattle died in the blast.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.
Samuel Benfield Steele (1849-1919)
There is a street in Whitehorse and a mountain in the St. Elias Range named for him. I suppose that's the least that could be done to honour someone who dedicated a significant chapter of his illustrous life to ensuring that law, order and good government thrived during the height of the gold rush, where otherwise there may have been none.
Samuel Benfield Steele was born near Orillia, Ontario on January 5, 1849. He joined the newly formed Canadian Militia in 1866 during the Fenian troubles in western Canada and was a private during the Red River Expedition of 1870. In 1873, Steele enlisted as a Sergeant Major in the North West Mounted Police, becoming one of the first to join the newly created force. His inital command as a Mountie was at Ft. Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan in 1879, during construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
It was no easy task to maintain law and order here. In 1885, as disenchanted workers gathered in the town of Beavermouth to examine grievances against the CPR, Sam Steele, Winchester rifle in one hand and the Riot Act in the other, told the rebellious men that if he saw more than a dozen gathered together he would open fire on them. Figuring Steele to be a man of his word, the crowd dispersed.
Later that same year, he became a NWMP Superintendent. On February 3rd, 1898, Superintendent Steele was on board an old ship called the Thistle, sailing up the Inside Passage to Skagway. He was under direct orders from Clifford Sifton, the powerful Minister of the Canadian Interior, to establish a border post on top of the most inhospitable land in the Canadian dominion, the Chilkoot Pass.
When he arrived, Skagway had at least two things going against it. First, the thermometer registered -30F with a bitter coastal wind, and second, gangs of lawless men led by Soapy Smith were making the place what Sam Steele called "a hell on earth".
Steele's first job, as commander of the Mounties on the gold rush trail, was to prevent the same lawlessness from occurring in the Klondike. His second, and more important job, was to convince Americans, either by verbal argument or by Gatling gun, that the country beyond the height of land at the Chilkoot was Canadian territory.
In the appalling weather conditions of mid-February, he and a small contingent of men climbed the pass on February 25th. In a raging blizzard, the Mounties hoisted the Canadian flag and declared themselves open for business. That business was to ensure everyone entering Canadian territory carried a thousand pounds of supplies, paid duties on stuff taken across the border and remitted royalties on any gold taken out of the Klondike.
The Mounties would also ensure that the turmoil men and women encountered on the American side of the border would not happen in Canada. It was a defining moment in Yukon history and essentially ensured that Dawson and the gold fields would be as peaceful as possible under the onslaught of tens of thousands of foreign - mostly American - gold seekers.
Steele's first headquarters in the Yukon was at Lake Bennett. Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids were the most treacherous obstacles for the thousands of ill-equipped stampeders drifting down the Yukon River to Dawson. By June of 1898, a huge boat bottleneck had developed just above the rapids at Canyon City. Far too many boats had been wrecked and at least five people had drowned. The only surprise for Steele was the small number of deaths.
"Why more casualties have not occurred is a mystery to me", he wrote years later in his memoirs. In June, Steele issued an order that only skilled river pilots were permitted to take the boats through. The boats had to be registered and numbered at the Tagish Post and were required to report to the Mountie checkpoint at Canyon City, just above Miles Canyon. Those who tried to avoid the twenty-five dollar fee, charged by licensed river pilots, would have their outfits seized.
In the later summer of 1898, Steele moved his headquarters to Dawson City, where he was shocked to find "deposits of unimaginable kinds of filth". The town was a cesspool, an open sewer waiting to explode in the misery of disease and death. Typhoid raged and by the end of 1898, almost one hundred people would die, far more deaths than were caused by the austere land, the raging rapids and the icy blast of winter.
As well as heading up law enforcement, Steele assumed another duty when he named himself chairman of the Klondike Board of Health. His first order was to bartenders. "Make sure all the water served in drinks is boiled", he wrote.
He also constructed a substantial jail beside the Mounted Police barracks and ensured that the large building was kept warm all winter through the labour of convicts. Judge Sam Steele may not have been classed as a "hanging judge", but poor souls who appeared before his court were fined a significant sum before sentences to spend their days in the bush cutting wood, sawing it in the compound and piling it in neat cords. No Klondike crook escaped in the woodpile under Steele's command.
When the Yukon Field Force arrived to bolster the small contingent of Mounties, Steele immediately placed a number of the newcomers "under cover" since they were not known to the local criminals. He also put them on guard duty. There was a lot to guard since gold was flowing into the two local banks faster than booze was flowing out of the saloons. Steele's strategy was to make life very unattractive to gangsters who tried to relieve honest miners of their pokes. It worked so well that the hardened crooks usually left for greener pastures. Those who did not soon learned first-hand what it meant to receive a "blue ticket". Anyone issued a blue ticket by the Mounties was compelled to leave the Territories, never to return.
Sam Steele's memories of the early days in the Klondike tell a tale of governance "by the seats of the pants". "...my working hours were at least nineteen. I retired to rest about 2 am or later, rose at six, was out of doors at seven, walked five miles up the Klondike on the ice and back over the mountain, visited every institution under me each day, sat on boards and committees until midnight, attended to the routine of the Yukon command without an adjutant, saw every prisoner daily, and was in the town station at midnight to see how things were going." It's a good thing that the word "overtime" had not been in vogue during Steele's tenure as the boss of just about everything during the first year of the gold rush.
But it couldn't last forever, and Steele moved on as things calmed down in Dawson and the newly appointed Commissioner, William Ogilvie, was less inclined to give him free rein. It was not, however, the kind of departure the proud Mountie had hoped for. Steele, Conservative, had become embroiled in a series of messy controversies involving Liberal-appointed officials in Dawson. The man ultimately in charge of everything, and Sam Steele's boss, was Liberal Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton.
Sifton heeded the calls for the removal of Sam Steele. All three Dawson newspapers came to his defense and urged the government to reconsider. It was not to be. When the man now called "the Lion of the Frontier" left the Yukon, thousands of Dawson citizens lined the wharves to bid him farewell. He was presented with a purse of gold nuggets, in appreciation for his services, by Big Alex McDonald. The speech by the Nova Scotia - born, Klondike gold millionaire was succinct: "Here Sam - here's a poke. Poke for you. Goodbye." Big Alex McDonald, the Klondike King, was a man of few words.
In October, 1899 Sam Steele signed up to join the Canadians sent to the South African War, and was given command of Lord Strathcona's Horse, a mounted regiment. The unit saw plenty of action in the brutal guerrilla war and Steele won favourable attention from the British high command. After returing to Canada early in 1901, Steele went back to South Africa that same year to command a division of the South African Constabulary, a position held until 1906.
By 1907 he was back in Canada, but he was ill-prepared for the quiet life. The old warhorse was commanding Canada's military district No. 10 in Winnipeg in 1914 when World War I broke out. Steele signed on for active duty though he was sixty-four years old. He was given the rank of Major-General and put in charge of training all Canadian land forces from the Great Lakes to the Pacific. He served in Europe but again became involved in a bitter, political struggle over who should command the Canadian forces overseas.
He was now on the 'outs' with the Canadian government and he was overlooked for the British Empire's highest honour in 1918. Canada did not include him on a short list of names for knighthood. Instead, it was the British Home Forces Command that put his name foreward.
Sir Sam Steele wasn't a knight for long however. Shortly after receiving his title, he became another victim of a silent killer. The Spanish flu, which was devastating London, snuffed the life from a man who seemed larger than life itself.
The Lion of the Frontier, who could easily have died during the blizzards of a Chilkoot winter, succumbed instead in a small house in Putney, England in 1919. The troop ships returning from the First World War had no space for a corpse so it took six months before his body was returned to his old home in Winnipeg.
Strangely, the body of Sam Steele arrived in the middle of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Riots were raging along Main Street but, the following day, there was a lull in the ongoing violence when the largest funeral procession Western Canada had ever seen made its way through the city streets.
Rioters, who hours earlier had pelted the Mounties with rocks and bottles, stood heads bowed, caps in hand and watched as Mounted Police officers in full uniform followed behind a riderless black horse with Sam Steele's boots reversed in the stirrups. Not a single voice was raised in anger. At his funeral, as in his colourful career, Sam Steele was bringing order to the Canadian West.
Note: Mount Steele, located in Kluane National Park, is Canada's fifth highest mountain at 16,664 feet above sea level. Steele Street in downtown Whitehorse, is also named for the famous Mountie.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin