For years after the gold rush, the Yukon was a busy place both in summer and winter. River boats were the lifeline from Whitehorse to Dawson. But they were of no use in the winter.
So in 1902, the Yukon government contracted the White Pass and Yukon Route to build the first winter road between Whitehorse and the gold fields. The contract for building 330 miles of road was one hundred and thirty thousand dollars. The overland trail was opened in November.
Then, the White Pass, which had a monopoly on transportation with its railroad and river boats, started the Yukon Stage Line, which carried the royal mail. From Whitehorse the trail headed west, crossed the Takhini River, then through the bush to Braeburn and Carmacks where the trail crossed the Yukon River and followed the east bank to Pelly, where it crossed the Pelly River. On the north side of the Pelly it ran northwest to Stewart Crossing, finally branching off at the Indian River and into Dawson via Eldorado and Bonanza Creeks.
On November 2, 1902, the first overland stage left Whitehorse for Dawson carrying two passengers. One was Herbert Wheeler, the newly-appointed superintendent of the company, and George Jaeckell, a school teacher who later became Comptroller of the Yukon. The trip between Whitehorse and Dawson took from three to ten days depending on the season, the trail and weather conditions.
The overland trail was a tough journey at the best of times and pricey too. A one-way ticket cost $125. Roadhouse meals and beds were extra. Just like today’s air travel, they allowed passengers 25 pounds of luggage free. Excess baggage was 30-cents a pound. Sometimes, if there was too much freight, passengers had to walk or run behind the horse-drawn stage. In the evening, passengers stayed at one of the many road houses that sprung up along the trail. They were about twenty-five miles apart.
Most road houses had liquor licenses and were required to have comfortable bedrooms, a sitting room and dining room. Most featured saloons where a shot of whisky cost 50 cents.
As many as 250 horses were used by the White Pass along the Overland Trail during the winter season. An average of fifteen teams of four horses each were used for a single trip. Each horse had a number stamped on a front hoof and each had a name. The company employed a veterinarian at Whitehorse where it had large stables and a horse hospital. However, the age of the horse and sleigh would not last forever.
In 1901, the Yukon Sun reported that there were three automobiles in the Dawson area. In reality, cars were a novelty and not of much use for transport to the outside because of the primitive road system in the territory. But horses and sleighs were on the way out and one day motorized would rule the roads.
Competition was keen in the Klondike and their was no greater competitor than Big Joe Boyle. Boyle wanted to be the first at everything and usually was. The Klondike mining King and his wife left Dawson in mid-December of 1912, in an attempt to be the first to drive to Whitehorse on the Overland Trail. Their vehicle was a 20-horsepower Flanders car. Yet as Robert Service said: The trail was bad and they must have felt half mad. The poor car was loaded down with fifteen hundred pounds of baggage and provisions. They were forced to abandon the car and wait for the White Pass horse-drawn sleigh.
A few days later their gallant journey to be the first car to complete the overland trail was upstaged when three men - Commissioner George Black, C.A. Thomas of the Yukon Gold Company and driver George Potter in a Locomobile, arrived in Whitehorse. Their driving time from Dawson was thirty-five hours.
It too was a tough journey. The tires were worn down to the canvas and nearly everything that was not strongly riveted shook loose. After fixing the Locomobile in Whitehorse they started on the return trip. However, the car broke down just north of the Pelly River. The tired trio arrived in Dawson on White Pass stage on New Year's Eve.
During 1914-15, the trail was improved with car travel in mind. Modern cable ferries were built where the trail crossed the Yukon, Pelly and Stewart rivers. They also built an overhead carrier at Yukon Crossing to transfer freight, passengers and mail when ice was running on the river.
The golden age of horse-drawn stage coach on the overland trail ended in 1921 when the White Pass gave up its mail contract. River boats still dominated the transportation scene in the Yukon, but motorized vehicles were definitely taking over and would one day dominate the system.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin