The most northerly highway in North America, the Dempster, roughly follows a route taken by early North West Mounted Police patrols between Dawson City and Fort McPherson. It is named for Corporal Jack Dempster, because he led the expedition to find the Lost Patrol.
In 1905, the NWMP began a yearly winter patrol of some 550 miles over some of the toughest, coldest terrain in Canada. These patrols, though very tough on men and dogs, went without incident until 1911. The patrol that year was led by Inspector Fitzgerald, with Constables Kinney, Taylor and ex-Constable Sam Carter. They began the return journey from Fort McPherson to Dawson on December 21, 1910. They had three dog-teams, totalling 15 dogs and provisions to last about 25 days.
Somewhere around the Little Wind and Hart rivers, they lost their way. The winter conditions were severe and their rations were getting low. So it was decided on January 18 to return to Fort McPherson, a distance of about 250 miles. Soon, the provisions had run out. They began to kill the dogs one by one for food. With all the dogs dead, they began to boil their buckskin thongs and dog harnesses.
Within 35 miles of Fort McPherson, Kinney and Taylor could go no further. Fitzgerald and Carter carried on. Within 25 miles of the village, Carter, unable to continue, died. Fitzgerald laid his body in the snow and covered his face with a handkerchief. Fitzgerald made it only a few hundred yards more before he too lay down and waited for death. He had time to scratch his will on a crude piece of paper.
In February, when the party failed to arrive in Dawson, Corporal Dempster, along with three Constables and an Indian guide, were ordered to begin a search. They left Dawson on February 28th, 1911. On the 12th of March, they found a snow-covered trail on the Little Wind River and followed it finding the bodies of the four policemen.
Jack Dempster went on to become an Inspector and served the force in the Yukon for 37 years. He retired in 1934 and died in Vancouver in 1965. The highway named for him, running from the Klondike Highway at mile 26 to Fort McPherson and beyond, was opened by Public Works minister Erik Nielsen on August 18th, 1979.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
A group from Ft. McPherson attend the official opening of the Dempster Highway. Erik Nielsen, centre, G.I. and Martha Cameron with Ch/Supt. Harry Nixon RCMP in the back row., 1979,
Click for larger view.