The mountain passes into the interior of the Yukon were both feared and fearsome. So it is little wonder that it took an event of the magnitude of the Klondike Gold Rush to entice more than a brave few to take the challenge.
Prior to 1898, only a few dared enter the territory this way and few stayed. The first European to enter by way of the southern mountain passes was George Holt. Sometime between 1875 and 1878, Holt, with two native travellers from the Sitka region of Alaska, managed to elude the Chilcat Indians around Dyea and make the trek. They had to avoid the Indians since the Chilcats jealously guarded the route over the Chilkoot and White Passes. Non-Chilcats were not welcome.
In 1869, Frederick Whymper, fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, wrote that the Chilcats of the coast were believed to make the portage over the Coastal mountain ranges from salt water to the headwaters of the Yukon River to trade with natives of the interior.
Holt and his two partners reached inland as far as Marsh Lake. From there, they followed an old trail to the Teslin River, prospecting along the way. They returned to the coast by the same route and claimed that they had found coarse gold. Future prospectors were unable to verify Holt's story.
Holt had really stumbled upon the headwaters of the fabled Yukon River in the high ground at Crater Lake, just thirty miles from the ocean, though he did not know it. Holt entered as far as the Hootalinqua River. Historians agree that Holt had escaped with his life - such was the importance of the pass to the Chilcats.
In 1879, U.S. Navy Commander L.A. Beardsley reached an agreement with the coastal Tlingit whereby miners would be permitted to reach the Yukon via the passes, but would not interfere with their regular trade.
It was not long before surveyors like William Oglivie and George Dawson were striking out for the interior over the passes and so by 1898, when the gold rush brought tens of thousands, the route was well charted, but still no less arduous.
When the miners arrived with tons of goods to transport across the passes, the local natives were the primary packers until the arrival of wagons and horses, then an aerial tram, and finally the White Pass Railway.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin