The Hougen Group of Companies - A Yukon Tradition
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GI Cameron

As he loaded up his flat-bottomed riverboat on the shores of Lake Laberge, GI Cameron belied his 80 years. He looked like a young whippersnapper getting ready for his first trip down to Dawson. In fact, Cam had made this river trip so many times he could do it with his green bandana covering his eyes. His travelling companion was an equally experienced river traveller, Charlie Taylor, whose company Taylor and Drury, had operated riverboats to deliver goods to their many stores on the rivers of the Yukon.

Cam lived at Fort Selkirk in the 30s and 40s when the river town was a bustling place. Times were interesting for the young RCMP constable. As we motored downriver his comfortable flat-bottomed boat, Cam told a lot of fascinating tales, such as the days when the riverboats would have to reverse the paddle to stop in mid-stream so they could allow thousands of caribou to swim across the river in front of them. Cam described how an RCMP constable of that day had many other related duties...such as that of dentist, pulling absessed teeth with rusty old pliers...or that of doctor...dreaming up concoctions for all manner of ailments...or that of undertaker, giving the last rites and officiating at burial services.

Cam talked about that year in 1936, when the SS Klondike lost steering power near Eagle Rock bluff. The boat was carrying passengers and lots of freight to Dawson. When the steering was lost, the boat hit the bank on one side of the river and a few passengers jumped off. It careened into the centre of the river and headed backwards for the other side, smashing the paddlewheel in the process. More passengers jumped off and freight was washed overbord.

The boat continued its uncontrolled trip for three miles down river before coming to rest on a sandbar. Cam said when he arrived on the scene, passengers were lining both banks of the riverbank for three miles, while goods which would float bobbed up and down in the water.

G. I. and Martha Cameron
G.I. and Martha Cameron, Mr. and Mrs Yukon 1975
Click for larger view.

Ione Christensen
Ione Christensen with her husband Art and father G.I. Cameron 1994.
Click for larger view.

He told me that for years he found sacks of flour along the riverbank, hard as concrete but very useable when chipped off and mixed with water. The Klondike was abandoned on that sand bar where you can still see parts of it lying there to this day.

 

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin

 

 

 

Canyon City

If finding the gold was rough enough for newcomers to the Klondike, getting there was twice as tough. When news of gold by the handfuls in Klondike Creeks reached the outside world in 1897, the rush was on. Not until 1898, did the full flood of gold-seekers reach the Yukon, and young Norman Macaulay was ready for them.

In the fall of 1897, Macaulay moved to the Yukon from Dyea and set up a roadhouse at the beginning of the portage trail around Miles Canyon and White Horse Rapids. He knew that stampeders would have to bypass this treacherous stretch of water.

During the winter of 1897-98 he built a wooden tramway on the east bank of the river. It was a crude log track but the scale of the project was very big by the standards of the early days.

With a crew of 18 men and a few horses, Macaulay cut five miles of trail for his tramway through the thick bush. Wooden tram cars with cast-iron wheels were pulled along the track by a single horse, but two horses could be hooked up for the pull up the steep hills. Macaulay's tramway and roadhouse were centre stage in a new Yukon community called Canyon City.

In the spring of 1898, the stampeders arrived after the torturous trek from Dyea up the Chilkoot Pass to Bennett Lake. The Northwest Mounted Police at Lake Bennett reported that in February 1898 seven thousand men were camped at the site, awaiting the spring break-up.

In that first frenetic year of the Gold Rush more than 28,000 men and women came over the Chilkoot Pass and down the Yukon River. The major obstacle, apart from the mountain passes, was Miles Canyon and the White Horse Rapids.

It's not known how many handmade boats and scows were lost in the churning waters. Macaulay's tramline offered an option. But many could not afford the price.

Still, the Canyon and White Horse Rapids Tramway Company transported freight and small boats around the canyon and rapids for three cents a pound and twenty-five dollars a boat. At the peak of its operation, Macaulay, his men and horses were working 24/7. Canyon City was booming.

By the summer, it boasted a hotel, saloon, restaurant, store, stables, machine shop, and a Mounted Police post. Hundreds of people a day made the journey around the canyon and rapids while hundreds more waited at the Canyon City Saloon.

Macaulay's tramline was so successul that he planned on building a narrow gauge railway in 1899. But the White Pass Railway was on the way and the White Pass and Yukon Corporation wanted exclusive control of the route to the gold fields. In August 1899, it bought Macaulay's outfit for $185,000.

In June, 1900 the first train arrived in Whitehorse and Canyon City was abandoned. Today you can visit the site of Canyon City and see the archeological work that has revealed a short but boisterous era in the Yukon's amazing past.

 

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin

 

 

Schwatka
A view of the site of Canyon City in this 2007 photo. The M.V. Schwatka, built by John Phelps and John Scott is in the foreground.
Click for larger view.

Canyon 1
Exterior view of log tramway building (inland side) with a large group of people assembled in front. Date: June 1900.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4666.
Click for larger view.

Canyon 2
Panorama of Canyon City looking north along the river. Date: July 1899.
Yukon Archives. Anton Vogee fonds, #57.
Click for larger view.

 

The All-Candian Route to the Klondike

"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

 

 

The Starvation Winter

It wasn't fun. Gold rushes never are, but the Klondike stampede was worse than most. There were countless dangers along the trail. An avalanche on the Chilkoot in the spring of 1898 killed sixty-three people.

The previous September, heavy storms and a flood washed away the tent town at Sheep Camp on the Chilkoot trail. If the stampeders had it tough, the pack animals were worse off. Horses were left to die by trail side when they could go no further.

Those who survived the trails, the river, the White Horse Rapids, and made it all the way to the gold fields had not reason to believe that they were now safe once they reached Dawson.

Stampeders who spent the winter of 1897-98 camped along the trails heard rumors of harsh conditions in Dawson, including talk of starvation.

In 1897, more than 1,000 stampeders beat the main rush of 1898 and reached Dawson before winter set in. Many Cheechakos were unprepared.

On September 30, 1897, when the last steamship of the season had unloaded its cargo at Dawson, officials detemined that there would not be food enough for everyone that winter.

NWMP Inspector Constantine posted a notice that read: "I, having carefully looked over the present distressing situation regarding the supply of food for the winter, find that the stock on hand is not sufficient to meet the wants of the people and can see but one way out of the difficulty, and that is an immediate move down-river, of all those who are now unsupplied, to Fort Yukon, where there is a large stock of provisions."

Scary stuff for Cheechakos far from home.

By the end of October, a couple of hundred people had heeded the warning and left for Fort Yukon, Alaska. The Canadian government was reluctant to accept responsibility of the tens of thousands poised to head over the border. That led the Mounties to require that each stampeder carry a ton of supplies.

Determined not to allow Americans to starve to death, American officials decided to import a herd of reindeer from Norway to the Klondike. Almost 600 reindeer and their Lapland handlers left Norway in February 1898. They sailed across North Atlantic, were placed on railcars for the journey across North America and shipped from Seattle up the inside passage to Haines, Alaska. By this time, only about 100 reindeer had survived the ordeal.

When they finally arrived in Dawson City, it was January 1899. Dawson was now a boom town where champaign and caviar flowed freely for the right price. The great reindeer caper designed to overcome starvation became nothing more than a side show in the ongoing soap opera that was the Klondike Gold Rush.

 

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin

 

 
 

Oliver Millet - Cheechako Hill

While countless thousands of prospectors panned for gold in the Klondike valley, only a handful realized that the motherlode did not lay in the shallow waters of Bonanza, Eldorado, Hunker and other creeks. Oliver Millet was not really a prospector, yet he discovered the real source of Klondike riches.

Oliver Millet left his home in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia at age 14 to roam the seven seas. He was working in a saw mill in Seattle in 1897 when the steamer Portland arrived with a ton of gold. He quit his job and headed for the Klondike arriving in mid-October of that year.

He ended up with a claim on Eldorado, the richest creek in the Klondike. But his claim produced no gold. Why, he wondered, when all the other claims below his were rich. He was 33 years old and in poor health when his idea struck. Maybe the source of gold was in the high hills overlooking the creeks.

He climbed the hills overlooking George Carmack's claim on Bonanza Creek and began sinking shafts into the benches. When he had sunk three shafts to a depth of no more than nine feet, he knew his theory was right. But miners working the creeks below looked up at the solitary figure and called him crazy. They even derided him by calling the hill Cheechako Hill.

His third shaft produced unmistakable gravel...gravel so white it could only have been part of an ancient riverbed which had long since disappeared. Millet had discovered the White Channel, the original source of Klondike gold. In his diggings he found gold so rich that on his first day with a rocker, shaking out the gravel, he wound up with more than $800 worth of gold.

Cheechako Hill
Panorama of Cheechacco Hill No. 2 (workings across hill with flumes cabins and tents at bottom)
Yukon Archives. Finnie Family fonds, #76.
Click for larger view.

Millet was suffering from scurvy, but on he worked until his legs turned black. His claim was still unregistered as he made his way to the town of Grand Forks to seek medical attention. In the town, he asked an old Nova Scotia friend Bill Norwood to stake and register his claim. But by the time Norwood got back to what was now called Cheecako Hill the news of the find was out. Most of the ground had been staked. Oliver Millet was too sick to work his single claim on the hill, but he sold out for 60 thousand dollars. It brought the new owners over half a million. By the summer of 1898, most of the hills around Bonanza and Eldorado were staked. Oliver Millet, the lucky Cheechako, had pointed the way to the ancient White Channel.

 

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin

 

 

Belinda Mulroney

To most of us, the Klondike gold rush is a multi-image photograph of grizzled men climbing the steep snow covered slopes of the Chilkoot Pass, of unshaven men mired in the muck digging for gold, of poorly clad men roaming the streets of a shack town named Dawson City looking for their elusive dream. But that's just part of the story.

A picture seldom seen of the Klondike is that of a stately woman tidily clothed in a long flowing back dress, a white kerchief around her neck, a broad brimmed hat tilted ever so slightly to the left. She is standing in front of the Grand Forks hotel beside Eldorado, one of the richest creeks in the Klondike valley.

Belinda Mulroney built this hotel in 1897, ran it for a year and sold it for 24 thousand dollars. Enough to buy two claims on famed Bonanza Creek. Enough to make her fortune and more in the gold fields of the Klondike where only men were supposedly smart enough or tough enough to excel in the search for Klondike gold.

Belinda Mulroney arrived in Dawson City in 1897 from Pennsylvania. By 1899 she had three claims in the Klondike valley. One, called 39 above, produced 19 thousand dollars in one cleanup in the summer of '99. That year she had 12 men working for her on her claims.

But gold mining wasn't Ms. Mulroney's only business venture. With money from her claims, she built the Fairview Hotel, a three story building complete with dining room, office, bar and electric lights.

In 1898, there was a shortage of fresh drinking water in Dawson. Belinda Mulroney setup and ran a company called Hygenia Water, a bottled water company well ahead of its time.

Belinda Mulroney
Belinda Mulroney

A Dawson city newspaper during that tumultuous time in Yukon history summed up the attitude of this Belinda Mulroney. She was quoted as saying "I like mining and have only hired a foreman because it looks better to have it said that a man is running the mine. But the truth is, I look after the management myself".

 

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin

 

 

Soapy Smith - Gangster

He never saw the Klondike. He didn't live long enough and probably didn't want to join the gold rush anyway. But in his few short years in the northwest, he left his mark on many of the miners of his day.

He was the most famous of the gangsters who took up residence in Skagway. He was known as Soapy Smith. His real name was Jefferson Randolf Smith. The nickname came from his days in Chicago when he sold bars of soap on the street corners. He'd tell his gullible customers that some bars were wrapped in a fifty dollar bill. Of course, they weren't. Smith was in Denver, Colorado when he heard of the gold rush. At the time Skagway was virtually lawless. Then, in the fall of 1897 Soapy Smith and his band of thugs arrived.

It wasn't long before Smith owned the town. His men would disguise themselves as town officials, in an effort to rob unsuspecting prospectors. One of Soapy's more prosperous endeavors was the fake telegraph office. For a fee, he would allow citizens to send a message to loved ones in the US and other parts of Canada. Of course at that time Skagway didn't have a working telegraph line. But it was so realistic that Smith even received replies, collect no doubt. Everyday Soapy recruited more men. Yet all the while Smith was distancing himself from the crimes. He even called for stronger laws. He would put on parades, took in stray dogs, and started up collections for widowed families.

As the months passed, Smith's actions became more callous. Perhaps the darkest day in Skagway history occurred in March, 1898. Constable Rowan and Andy McGrath were slain in cold blood. Rowan was hurrying to get a doctor for his pregnant wife, when he and Andy were called into Rice's variety theatre, a saloon, to settle a dispute. Unknown to the two men, Fay, the bartender, was waiting behind the door with a gun. Without warning Fay shot both men as they entered. They died instantly. Smith claimed he had nothing to do with the killings, but it was his men that saved Fay from the hangman's noose, and smuggled him back to the southern United States.

Soapy's last evil deed was perpetrated on J.D. Stewart, a miner from Dawson who had come into town with 2,800 dollars worth of hard-earned gold dust. Stewart disregarded the warnings that the gold should be locked in the hotel safe. He was convinced, by one of Soapy's men, that the best place in town to sell the gold was at Jeff Smith's place. All too soon, a confused Stewart was on the street minus his gold and unable to say who stole it from him.

Some people took pity on Stewart and began to assemble. They vowed to put an end to the tyranny. Finally, at one of the docks, the towns-people met. Smith, who had been drinking since late afternoon, decided that it was time to act.

Soapy Smith
Re-enactment of the Shooting of Soapy Smith Skagway 1947 Click for larger view.

Frank Reid
Frank Reid's granite tombstone in the Skagway cemetery which reads: "Frank H. Reid, died July 20, 1898, aged 54 years - he gave his life for the Honor of Skagway". Date: 1900.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4906.
Click for larger view.

Arming himself with a Derringer, a Colt 45 revolver and a 30/30 Winchester, he stormed towards the docks. Frank Reid was standing guard when Soapy and some of his men arrived. Reid told Soapy that he could not enter the meeting. Soapy started a fight with Reid. Both men fired their weapons simultaneously. Jefferson 'Soapy' Smith died instantly and with his death, peace finally came to Skagway. Frank Reid was shot in the leg and died in hospital twelve days later.

 

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin

 

 

 

Streets of Whitehorse - 3

South of Main Street, some of the streets reveal the presence of the White Pass and Yukon Route.

When the Close Brothers, a London based financial house, dispatched a survey party to study the feasibility of a railroad from Skagway to Whitehorse in 1897, the news was not encouraging. The four man team, headed by Sir Thomas Tancread, said "forget it". Then fate intervened. While preparing to leave Skagway, Tancread met a Canadian Railway contractor Michael Heney, who had just completed an independent survey. Heney argued long and loud that the railway could - indeed must - be built. Tancread was finally convinced and the rest is history.

And that brings us to the streets of Whitehorse south of Main. A small cabin sat on Elliott Street in the '40s and '50s. Today, that cabin sits at the MacBride Museum, a cabin said to be the home of Sam McGee. Elliott Street is named for Frank Elliott, who was lawyer for the White Pass in their Chicago office in 1899. Later he became president of the company.

One street south, sat a school - Lambert Street School - where as a youngster I clearly heard the huge outdoor bell call us primary students to class. Lambert is named for Cowley Lambert, who was a director of the White Pass company in England.

Next, Hanson Street, where the old Whitehorse hospital was located at the corner of Second Avenue. Hanson is also a White Pass street, named for Edwin Hanson, another company director in England in the early days.

E.C. Hawkins was an engineer who, with Thomas Tancread in 1897, decided the railway could not be built. After being convinced otherwise by Michael Heney, Hawkins became the chief engineer in charge of the entire construction project. He was also general manager of the White Pass company when it began service in 1900. Hawkins Street is named for the man who, luckily, listened to Heney.

One day in the early '70s, I had a pleasant interview with an oldtimer who worked with the White Pass as a boy in 1900. He must have been some boy because he became the company's president and held the job from 1940 to 1957. Rogers Street is named for Clifford J. Rogers.

There is one more White Pass street in downtown Whitehorse, the only one located north of Main. Wheeler Street was named for Herbert Wheeler, the third company president, who kept the rails rolling in spite of the great depression of the dirty '30s.

Next, as we continue our tour of the streets of Whitehorse, a collection of famous streets with nothing really to connect them except for the famous names they bear.

 

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin

 

 
 

Bench Claims

In the pell-mell rush to stake and claim any creek bed in the valley's below the rolling hills of the Klondike, few realized that most of the wealth lay not in the slabs of gold, like cheese in a sandwich according to George Carmack, but in the hills above.

By the fall of 1897, lucky owners of rich claims on Bonanza and Eldorado chuckled at the site of a few hapless men digging holes in the ground above them. From their creek claims and from the saloons in the new town of Grand Forks, rich miners could watch hapless prospectors sinking shafts into the permafrost of the high hills overlooking the Bonanza Creek valley.

Californian Albert Lancaster was the first because he noticed a trail of white gravel left in the furrows where miners had dragged trees down from the side hills to build cabins. That white gravel was a key indicator that gold was in "them thar hills" because an ancient river had delivered all the Klondike gold known now at the White Channel.

On the other side of the hill, above Big Skookum gulch, Nathan Kesge and his partner Nils Peterson noticed the same thing and were sinking a shaft into the side of the hill. Suddenly in the fall of 1897, from a hole 18 inches round, they lifted a pail of dirt and pulled out a ten-dollar nugget.

Down the hill they raced to borrow a rocker to separate the course gravel from the sand. Everyone who watched them lug the huge contraption up the hill laughed.

Not for long. In the next ten days they washed six thousand dollars of gold from a piece of ground the size of a cabin floor. On Gold Hill, Lancaster worked the winter on his 100-foot bench claim thawing the ground and digging out the dirt, leaving it in piles until the spring when water would run and the clean-up could begin.

In plain view of men on the creeks, bench miners worked their way along the side hills until they reached French Hill above Tom Lippy's number sixteen on Eldorado.

Oliver Millet worked his way along what would be known as Cheechako Hill. By the spring when the bench miners washed their dirt piles, all were rich beyond anyone's wildest dreams. The rush to stake the benches overlooking Grand Forks was on.

There was suddenly so much action on the bench claims that Reverend Pringle of the newly built Presbyterian Church in Grand Forks said that the only benches not staked around Grand Forks was the benches in his church.

 

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin

 

Editors note: These terrace gravels are the remnants of river-bottom gravels, deposited when larger rivers and streams flowed through these valleys. When the region uplifted following the melting of the great continental icecaps just to the east, the land rose, causing the rivers and streams to cut deeper in there channels. Most of the gravel was re-worked into the lower valleys, but much was left high on the valley walls as terraces or benches.

 

Bench Claim 1
Two miners and their dog standing in front of a homemade gold rocker with a sluice in the background. Possibly French Hill in the background. Date: 1898.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4832.
Click for larger view.

Bench Claim 2
Close up view of one miner shoveling and another using a rocker on Staley's claim on French Hill. Date: 1898.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4843.
Click for larger view.

Bench Claim 3
French Hill in 1898.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4844.
Click for larger view.

 

George Brackett

Tucked away in a quiet residential neighbourhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota, lies the twelve-acre Brackett Park, an urban escape in this big American city. Brackett Park was named in honor of George Brackett, one time mayor of Minneapolis.

And what does the former Mayor of Minneapolis have to do with the Yukon? Quite a lot actually. George Augustus Brackett arrived in Skagway in 1897 with a plan to build a railroad to the Klondike gold-fields. This was almost a year before Michael Heney and Sir Thomas Tancrede agreed to build the White Pass railway.

In 1897, the White Pass and Chilkoot trails were clogged with people and cargo heading for the gold fields. The old trails would not do. As he was once involved in the Northern Pacific Railroad, George Brackett knew a railway was needed. But money and expertise were beyond Brackett's means in 1897, so he decided to build a road up the fabled White Pass and into the Yukon interior. Work on "Brackett's Wagon Road" began on November 8, 1897. Brackett paid the startup costs himself.

By the end of the year, eight miles of road had been opened and Brackett was broke. He travelled to Montreal, where he met with Sir William Van Horne, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, who used his influence with the Canadian government to let Brackett, an American, build his wagon road through Canadian Territory to Lake Bennett, with no interference from Canada. Van Horne also loaned him some money.

Brackett also wanted permission from Canada to charge tolls on his road. This was not forthcoming. He did, however, convince the hastily elected town council of Skagway to give him exclusive use of the right of way through the down town core. He was able to build about eight miles of wagon road up the steep incline of the White Pass. He set up toll gates and began charging for passage. But a private toll road in the mountains of Alaska did not sit well with the packing outfits and freighting companies. The packers said that Brackett had no authority to build a road in the US or to charge a toll.

They occupied the road and tore down his toll gates.

Meanwhile, in Washington politicians had heard that a group of rowdies had taken possession of a wagon road and were holding Skagway in a state of terror. Senior officials informed Colonel Thomas Anderson, officer commanding the US troops in Skagway, to help out. He did.

Hougengroup Yukon History George Brackett
White Pass
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Hougengroup Yukon History George Brackett
George Brackett
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But some packers resisted and were charged with trespassing. Brackett's Wagon Road to the White Pass summit was now operational and earning twelve hundred dollars a day. But George Brackett was always just one move away from bankruptcy so when builders of the White Pass railway came along, he sold his wagon toll road to the railroad for $110,000.

 

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin

 

 

 

Boat Builders

These days a lot of outdoor enthusiasts head to the nearest sports centre and order a Bayliner or a Chriscraft boat. Then comes the summer of fun on the many Yukon lakes and rivers. But when the first gold seekers came to the Yukon in 1897, boats weren’t store bought. They were built on the lake shore from logs hauled down the hillside and whipsawed into lumber.

An amazing number of boats were built this way and the Mounties kept track. By May of 1898, they counted almost 800 boats under construction at Lake Lindeman, 850 at Lake Bennett and nearly 200 at Caribou Crossing and Tagish Lake. By mid summer, that number exceeded twelve hundred boats.

Boat builders got lumber the old-fashioned way — by "whipsawing". It was terrible work. Logs were placed on stands and then sawed by a man standing on top holding one end of the saw and his partner standing below. It was a back breaking and often partnership- ending chore.

Thousands built boats this way and the result is still visible along the shores of the southern lakes. The forests were stripped of trees. Once the boats were built and the ice disappeared, the fun began. One Klondiker wrote of Lake Lindeman.

"The lake is a beautiful sheet of water, about six miles long and one mile wide. It empties into Lake Bennett through a very crooked and narrow stream, full of rocks and rapids, and dangerous for boats."

Bennett was worse. Winds whipped down the mountain passes and tipped boats and their passengers into the frigid water. Hundreds of boats were on the lakes each day. Mounties like Constable Edward Dixon were stationed at Miles Canyon. His job was to inspect every boat and make sure the boat owner was skilled enough to navigate the Whitehorse Rapids. Most weren’t and needed professional pilots to guide them through the raging rapids at a cost of twenty-five dollars.

Boats lined up, waiting to hire an available pilot. The Mounties often ordered women and children to get out of the boats and walk along the banks past the canyon and rapids, but not all obeyed.

Emma Kelly, a reporter for the Kansas City Star, rode the rapids twice. In a story for Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, she wrote, ‘I do not know when I ever enjoyed anything so much in my life. Wild waves rocked and rolled our boat and occasionally broke over us." But stampeders could avoid that thrill.

For twenty-five dollars, they could load their outfits onto Norman Macaulay’s tramway cars and take the easy way around to a townsite then called Closeleigh. Probably a better idea after expending so much energy building the boats in the first place.

 

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin

 

 

 

Treasure Ships

When George Carmack and Skookum Jim discovered coarse gold on Bonanza Creek in 1896, every prospector in the district headed for the Klondike creeks. By the summer of 1897, poor prospectors had become wealthy Klondike kings, and they wanted out. 86 miners boarded two Yukon riverboats that summer and headed for the Alaskan port of St. Michael. Here they caught two grimy ships, the Portland which was headed for Seattle, and the Excelsior bound for San Francisco. The treasure ships loaded with what newspapers described as a ton of gold were greeted by thousands on the docks, who wanted to see first-hand the gold they’d heard about, and see they did. Down the gangplanks came gaunt and weary men barely able to carry their gold nuggets, bulging suitcases, cardboard boxes, and gunny sacks. The crowd stood in awe as miner after miner told tales of gold lying on the ground, ready to be scooped up. Jim Clemens had $50,000, Frank Keller $35,000, and Fred Price $15,000. Others like Clarence Berry, Joe Leduc, and Tip Lippy had much, much more. Reported besieged the miners and they weren’t disappointed as each man told stories of wealth beyond imagination, all for the taking.

There was wealth in the Klondike alright, but most of it had been staked. The American West was in the midst of a depression. The arrival of these Klondikers, and the sight of their gold and fortunes, struck like a thunder-bolt. Seattle went stark staring mad on gold, as one newspaper reported. Men quit what meager jobs they had, scraped together what little cash they could find, and booked passage on anything that would float, bound for the land of milk and honey. They couldn’t know that only a handful of the tens of thousands would gain anything but a bitter memory of hardship and deprivation, such as they’d never known before. All they knew was that the treasure ships the Portland and the Excelsior carried dreams of a golden future in a land where the ground was covered in gold.

 

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin

 

 

 

Clifford Sifton

Clifford Sifton was a lawyer from Brandon, Manitoba who was first elected to the House of Commons in a by-election in 1896. Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier quickly appointed him Minister of the Interior and Secretary of Indian Affairs. Back then, the Interior was everything west of the Manitoba-Ontario border. Sifton had a keen sense of the Yukon’s important role in Canada’s future. The Gold Rush was in the wings waiting to explode onto the world stage. Americans, not Canadians, were running the show in the northwest, and reports coming into Ottawa confirmed that the Yukon, then part of the Northwest Territories, could make a vital contribution to the political and financial well-being of the nation.

In August of 1897 the Yukon was proclaimed as a distinct district, though it remained part of the Northwest Territories, with the capital city in Regina. In the fall of 1897, Sifton decided to visit the Yukon District. In October, he and his federal government colleagues left Vancouver bound for Dyea. They then travelled by horseback over the Chilkoot Pass and into the interior. Sifton saw firsthand what no Canadian federal politician knew: The Yukon was ripe for development, and a gold rush of immense proportions was on the horizon. Sifton decided after that journey that the Yukon should be a separated territory which would be controlled by the Federal Government. Back in Ottawa, he began preparing the legislation which would create the Yukon Territory. Over the objections of the Northwest Territories Government, the Yukon was proclaimed a territory by an act of parliament passed on June 13, 1898. Sifton was personally responsible for the legislation, and refused to allow an elected territorial council because, he said at the time, 90% of the population was American. Sifton also ensured that the office of Lieutenant Governor, as it applied in the Northwest Territories at the time, would not apply in the Yukon. Instead, the Yukon would have a commissioner who would report directly to Sifton. Some years later the first elected members of the Yukon Territorial Council took their seats in Dawson City.

 

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin