Once in the mid 70’s I took a boat trip on the Yukon River with G.I. Cameron. The former mountie who had been stationed for many years at Fort Selkirk was a wealth of knowledge about the river. He had seen it all, including the funny and faibled aftermath of the sinking of the first SS Klondike.
The first Klondike was built in Whitehorse in 1929 by the BYN company, a division of White Pass. She was a state-of-the-art boat that could carry 50 per cent more cargo than other boats on the river. Yet, she still had a shallow draft to be able to avoid the tricky parts of the sandbar-laced river. She was definitely the proud queen and the workhorse of the fleet.
On June 12, 1936 the Klondike was making an uneventful run from Whitehorse to Dawson with stops along the river. She carried the usual amount of freight including food stuffs that residents in the goldrush capital had not seen in a year. The arrival of the largest boat on the river was an affair to remember. Only this time, the Klondike would not arrive.
On that pleasant June morning in 1936, the Klondike was sailing in a stretch of river between Lake Laberge and Hootalinqua. The captain had decided to go to the dining room for breakfast, leaving his first mate in charge.
On our river trip in the 1970’s Cam Cameron told me what happened. The majestic riverboat was coming around a point and there was a big rock bluff on the left side. When navigating around this sharp point, the boat was literally sitting on top of the water more or less sliding inward. The pilot failed to make allowances for that and the Klondike slid along and crashed into the rock bluff tearing out the whole side. After hitting the wall, the boat hit a rock or a reef that tore the steering lose. As the SS Klondike started to float aimlessly down the river, the crew tempted to get a line to shore, but the current was too strong. Whenever the boat drifted close enough to shore, some passengers and crew members jumped off. This went on for about three miles as the Klondike creened down the river until she finally came to rest high and dry on a sandbar.
Some of the passengers’ gear was salvaged, but others were not so lucky. One newly married couple lost all their stuff including their furniture they were shipping to Dawson. Two geological survey teams lost all of their equipment while two of the four horses on board drowned. The other two jumped into the river and swam to shore.
The SS Klondike 1 was a write-off. A salvage crew was sent to retrieve the machinery, fittings and the superstructure and the BYN immediately built the Klondike 2, a virtual carbon copy using salvaged parts.
From 1937 to 1952, the second SS Klondike was operated primarily as a cargo vessel. In 1954 she was jointly operated by Canadian Pacific Airlines and the White Pass as a tourist venture, but that project was far ahead of its time. It lost a lot of money and the Klondike made her last Yukon River trip in August.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin