"The All-Canadian Route to the Klondike!" The headlines trumpeted the news. "Edmonton to the Klondike and return in six months." Those headlines struck a chord with Albertans mired in the depression at the turn of the century. Edmonton was not alone in hyping Klondike fever back in 1897. City officials in Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, San Francisco and other places had done the same. They all wanted a piece of the action and the money that went with it.
Still, by boasting about the Edmonton route to Dawson City, these stories were condemning those who took the advice to untold hardships with death a mere step away. Around Edmonton in the late 1890s, tales of gold filled the air. In every boarding house, on the streets, in the saloons, the talk was of gold. Men had prospected the rivers and streams of central Alberta for years. It was no surprise then that between 1897 and 1898, more than two thousand starry-eyed would be Klondikers converged on Edmonton.
They were determined to walk what was touted as the easy back-door route to the incredibly rich Yukon gold fields. The Edmonton Board of Trade said the overland trail was suitable all winter. Gold seekers could reach the Klondike in ninety days. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was two thousand miles to the Yukon ... miles of unexplored wilderness featuring mud holes, muskeg, mosquitoes, raging rivers, hardship, hunger and death. There were actually three routes from Edmonton. One that roughly followed today's Alaska highway; another to the MacKenzie River and over the divide to the Yukon. A third went through Lesser Slave Lake and continued on over an impossible wilderness. As for real trails, there were none.
Arthur Hemming, a noted outdoors-man and writer, published an article in the Hamilton Spectator that was widely reprinted across North America. He called the Edmonton route, "the inside track". All you needed was a good constitution, some experience in boating and camping and one hundred and fifty dollars. Then he added the clincher: "If Klondikers are lucky enough to make their pile, they can come back by dog sled in the winter".
That did it. At Athabasca Landing people heard of the gold strike two months before major American newspapers made "Klondyke" a household word. Thirty or more groups of prospectors had a head start on the main stampede from California. Nearly eight hundred Yukon gold-seekers passed through Athabasca Landing in the next twelve months.
Many used pack horses. Some were willing to walk and live off the land. Still others pushed or pulled cabooses. One guy, later known as Barrel Smith built a contraption that resembled a Red River cart, caboose and wagon all in one, perched on top of four whiskey barrels. He got about two miles out of Edmonton before the barrels collapsed. He was lucky.
Others were not. Taking the Edmonton route to the Klondike proved a death sentence for a former mayor of Hamilton who died of scurvy on the Peel River in 1899, far from the gold fields. As for ninety days, well a Seattle dentist set out from Edmonton in September of 1897. He reached Dawson in July of 1899. Two years too late, but he too was one of the lucky few. Most spent the winter in hastily-built cabins along the untold rivers of the North. Along the so-called trail over the Swan Hills, signs hacked in trees often read like this one: "Hell can't be worse than this trail. I'll chance it."
Those who travelled the entire distance to Dawson City mirrored the epic journey of R.H. Milvain. He started up the Athabasca River to Fort McMurray and Lake Athabasca, northwards from Fort Chipwyan along the Slave River to Fort Resolution on Great Slave Lake, west across the Lake to Fort Providence at the head of the Mackenzie valley, and then down the Mackenzie River through Fort Simpson, Fort Norman, and Fort Good Hope to Arctic Red River and Fort McPherson at the southern end of the Mackenzie Delta. The most difficult part of the route was a fifty-mile toil up the Rat River to the height of land between the Mackenzie Valley and the Porcupine River Basin, but once through the Richardson Mountains, it was downstream again on the Bell and Porcupine rivers to Fort Yukon. The last stage, three hundred miles southeast to Dawson, was against the current of the broad Yukon River to its confluence with the Klondike river where gold supposedly lay like hen's eggs in a chicken coop.
Of those Klondikers who forged ahead, at least thirty-five died along the way mainly from drowning or scurvy. Of the more than two thousand who left Edmonton, perhaps one hundred and sixty eventually reached Dawson. Most simply turned back, though some people stayed in the Peace country to carve a legacy and help open a new land.
They were people like Alex Monkman who spent his boyhood around the Metis settlement at Fort Garry, now Winnipeg, where he grew into a tall, handsome man. He drifted into Montana, where he became known as a bronco buster and rodeo-rider. He followed the lure of gold until he ended in Edmonton on the Trail of '98 and succumbed to the challenge of the Overland Route.
When he reached the village of Peace River, he met two of the greatest free-trading and transportation characters in the North, Fletcher Bredin and Jum Cornwall. Monkman decided to abandon his Klondike ambitions and hired on to drive dog-teams through the Grande Prairie country carrying freight and furs. Monkman had the flair for good living that drove him to new enterprises as long as he lived. Monkman Pass is named for this pioneer Klondiker who made the Peace country his home and is considered a founder of Grande Prairie.
Dave Sexsmith was another would-be gold seeker. He was born in Ontario in 1871 and came west to Manitoba in 1890 where he heard glowing tales of the north country and moved to Edmonton. From there he traveled into the Peace River district, where he spent the years 1898 to 1901 trapping, prospecting and freighting. There his Klondike dreams died, but he remained in the country for the rest of his life, and cut the first road between Spirit River and Grande Prairie. He was a true Peace pioneer who now has a vibrant community named for him.
Hector Tremblay was another adventurer heading to the Klondike down the Parsnip and the Pine Rivers from Kamloops when winter overtook him. The Peace country's possibilties for ranching impressed Tremblay. He realized that here was the source of another kind of gold. When the rest of his party gave up and went home, Tremblay stayed. By then, surveyors were coming in to lay out the 'Peace River Block". Tremblay joined a survey party and cut the first trail from Pouce Coup&233; to Peace River to connect with the steamboats. As time went on and they needed wagon roads, men like Hec Tremblay widened the old trails.
There was Barney Maurice who came to Canada from Sweden as a young man. He left Edmonton in May 1898 bound for the Klondike on horseback. He crossed the Athabasca River at Fort Assiniboine on a raft, then over the Swan Hills by Indian Trails to what is now Joussard on Lesser Slave Lake. He continued on to Peace River Crossing and followed the north side of the river to Dunvegan. He eventually reached Fort St. John where fortune smiled on him. All his money was stolen. That ended his dreams of gold riches. Eventually Maurice travelled back to Grouard, became a blacksmith, built a large trading post and operated the steamer "Neskaw" between Athabasca Landing and Grouard. He moved to High Prairie during World War II and when the community became a village, he was elected its first mayor.
The Klondike yielded virtually no gold to trekkers from Edmonton over the "all-Canadian route". However, it did leave the country with a brotherhood of pioneers who found a different kind of wealth in the land of mighty Peace.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin