The Hougen Group of Companies - A Yukon Tradition
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Faith Fenton, Journalist

Though much has been written over the years, the first news accounts from the Klondike came from a pioneering journalist. In the spring of 1898, the Toronto Globe newspaper got caught up in the incredible story unfolding in the Yukon Territory. The Globe would be the first to print first-hand descriptions as told by one of Canada's first women journalists.

Faith Fenton had already made a name for herself in eastern Canada, but this was to be different. She was going to the Klondike.

Faith teamed up with the Victoria Order of Nurses and the newly formed Yukon Field Force to travel from Toronto to Vancouver, and up the Inside Passage to the Stikine River in northern B.C. Then they would travel over the tough land route from Telegraph Creek to Teslin Lake, down the Teslin River to the Yukon River, and then on to Dawson City.

Faith wrote in great detail about the gold seekers who chose this all-Canada inland route over the route through Alaska.

She vividly described the human chain of more than 5000 desperate men carrying all their possessions on wagons pulled by dogs, horses, mules or - in many cases - by themselves. She told of fights on the trail. Luckily, the men of the Field Force were able to ensure the safety of her party.

A picture of Faith Fenton, somewhere in the wilds of Stikine valley, shows her sitting on a log in front of a tent in a wide-brimmed top hat, a stiff flowing dress, holding a kitten she had brought with her. It looked like she was ready for a walk in the park, except for the big boots she was wearing.

When the party finally reached Fort Selkirk on the Yukon river, it was late August. The land already had a look of fall about it as they boarded a paddlewheeler for the final 200-mile journey to Dawson. Here, Faith Fenton could scarcely believe the seething humanity in this newly established city of gold. A telegraph line was being built but, for the time-being, Faith filed her stories by mail - up the Yukon River by steamer, back down over the Chilkoot Pass and on to the outside world. The accounts she produced for the Globe were an extensive, detailed picture of the unbelievable events occuring in the Klondike. Her stories took eastern Canada by storm. The Globe featured each on its front page.

In December, the first of many fires took hold of the downtown sections of Dawson. Faith reported in great detail how the clapboard buildings, forty in all, were consumed. Most of downtown Dawson City lay in ruins, as the prospect of rebuilding during the coldest months of the year gripped the already beleaguered citizens of this frontier town.

Faith Fenton
Faith Fenton portrait from the book "Frontier Spirit" by Jennifer Duncan. Click for larger view.

One incident, during the winter of 1899, showed Faith's zest for getting a good story out quickly. In this case, too quickly. Four men were convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. Since the mail run was leaving before the hanging was scheduled, Faith wrote the story and sent it by special dispatch with a packer she hired. The packer left Dawson on the overland trail to Whitehorse. The story was on its way. But the hanging wasn't. It was postponed. A frantic Faith Fenton convinced her friends with the Royal Northwest Mounted Police to chase down the mail packer and retrieve the story. Once again, the mounties got their man, to the relief of this faithful frontier journalist. The next time, Faith wrote about the difficulties in filing stories from the frozen north.

Faith stayed in the Klondike long enough to see the coming of the telegraph line. She filed story after story during those tumultuous years. She stayed on long enough to marry the Yukon Medical Officer of Health, Dr. John Brown, in 1900. The couple left the Yukon for good in 1906. Back in Toronto, Faith continued her journalistic career. In January 1936, Faith Fenton died, bringing to a close a unique chapter in the saga of the Klondike Gold Rush.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




Robert Service always said all of the characters in his poems were fictional. Well, we know now that this is not quite true when it comes to Sam McGee. There was a Sam McGee in the Yukon at the turn of the century. As for Dan McGrew - well no-one to my knowledge has discovered a character name Dan McGrew. He is likely a figment of Service's fertile imagination.

But when Klondike Mike Mahoney left the Yukon a relatively rich man, he loved telling tales of his days in the gold fields. He talked at length about Robert Service and claimed he knew many of the people who were featured in his poems. Mahoney would often recite Service to almost any gathering that would listen to him.

He was especially fond of Dan McGrew - both the poem and the man. Mahoney insisted he knew Dangerous Dan. In 1936, he was invited to speak to the Sourdough Reunion in Vancouver and to recite some Service poetry. A newspaper reporter had been writing about Klondike Mike, who had gained fame as the man who packed a piano over the Chilkoot Pass. The sceptical reporter didn't seem to believe much of what Mike had to say. The reporter even went so far as to write to Robert Service asking him to write out an affidavit stating that Dan McGrew never existed. Service did so in a letter to the reporter.

Thus, when it came time at that Sourdough Reunion for Mike to recite Service and tell of the characters he personally knew, the reporter was ready. As Mike began to speak to the crowded hall of sourdoughs, the reporter jumped up and read the letter from Service saying Dan McGrew did not exist.

There was a moment of stunned silence. It's said Klondike Mike's face turned beet red. For a moment, he thought he was trapped.

Then a strange thing happened. The crowd began to boo and shout at the reporter. They told him to take his phony letter and leave the ballroom. Mike's reputation - along with another Yukon legend - was intact.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



The Gleaner

The sternwheeler, the Gleaner, a three decked boat more than one hundred feet long, could carry 150 passengers and a lot of freight. Yet the river boat never ran the Yukon River. Instead, she operated in the Yukon southern lakes.

The Gleaner was built at Lake Bennett in 1899. Her operators, the John Irving Company, obtained a mail contract in June and ran the boat from Bennett to Taku. In July 1899, the Gleaner and another lake boat, the Australian, brought 200 Klondikers to Bennett from Carcross loaded with half a million dollars in gold. The rich miners were heading outside. In July 1899, the Gleaner delivered the first development party to stake the future Engineer Mine on Windy Arm.

In August, she brought $240,000 in gold from Atlin, to be transferred to a pack train at the end of Lake Bennett for delivery to Skagway.

In April 1901, the Gleaner and seventeen other lake boats were bought by the British Yukon Navigation Company. The Gleaner continued to operate through the decades on the southern lakes and was at her busiest after 1905 when the Engineer Mine went into production. She delivered workers and goods to the mine site from Carcross and brought back ore to be loaded onto the White Pass Train bound for Skagway.

But in 1917, the company (BYN) launched a brand-new state of the art boat, called the Tutshi, that would become the darling of the southern lakes fleet and, in 1918, they did not put the Gleaner into service.

She did operate for a while in 1919 when the Tutshi lay high and dry on a bar, where she had grounded the previous fall. However, it was short lived and when the Tutshi floated again, the Gleaner was dry-docked.

Things looked up for a while in 1923, when the Gleaner hauled material from Carcross to the head of the Yukon River during construction of the White Pass control dam, which can be seen today near the bridge crossing the Yukon River at Marsh Lake.

She spent the winter at the Marsh Lake Dam. But work was slim from then on. In 1936, the BYN company removed her from inventory and beached her at Carcross. Finally they scuttled her in Nares Lake, probably to act as a dam to channel the water through the lake for the SS Tutshi, which ran until 1955. Today, the remains of the Gleaner can sometimes be seen in Nares Lake, while the remains of the Tutshi rest forlorn on the shore.

The Gleaner in Carcross - Built on Lake Bennett 1899 - Beached 1936 (Hamacher photo).
Click for larger view.

The Tutshi at Carcross - Served Atlin and Ben My Chree from 1917 until 1955 (Rolf Hougen photo). Click for larger view.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Riverboats as Archaeology

You wouldn’t think the Yukon river-boat days are gone long enough to attract the attention of archeologists. Nevertheless, a British Columbia archaeologist, sponsored by the Institute of nautical archeology at Texas A & M University, is conducting a multi-year research project. John Pollock has been leading a team of researchers for the past few years, poking around the remains of river boats, either beached somewhere between Whitehorse and Dawson or - as with the first SS Klondike - boats that are underwater.

The riverboat Klondike, that hit the bank with a load of passengers and freight in 1936, is a prime candidate for study, as are the boats in the shipyard graveyard near Dawson.

The first Klondike, a classy boat back in 1936, was sunk below Hootalinqua on June 12, 1936, when the captain misjudged a corner and hit the bank. She was licenced to carry seventy-five passengers, with ten passenger rooms on the saloon deck, six on the Texas, with a total of thirty-two berths. The dining room could seat thirty people.

She was built in 1929. The present day Klondike, which sits elegantly at the south end of Second Avenue in Whitehorse was built from material salvaged from the original riverboat, and began operations in 1937.

The deck of the original can sometimes be seen above water, and is, amazingly, in good condition. But researchers want to get inside the boat when the water in the river is low, and that will involve divers. They want to see what kinds of systems were used by riverboat builders to withstand the trying conditions of the Yukon River system.

Because the river was shallow, had narrow choke points such as at Five Finger rapids, and flowed so fast, the Yukon boats needed heavy re-enforced winches and steering gear unlike the boats that operated on the rivers and lakes of B.C., and on the Mississippi .

Archeologists have also done extensive research at the grave-yard on the west bank of the river at Dawson, where six sternwheelers have been beached for years. Here lie the remains of Schwatka, the Tyrell, the Seattle3, and other wrecks that have been a gold mine for archeologists because, though the place is a mess, much of the metal work that made up the boats has remained intact among the rotting hulls.

At the northern end of Lake Laberge, there are remnants of the first of three boats with the name, Casca. The third sternwheeler named Casca burned down at Whitehorse in a tragic fire in June 1974.

Riverboat 1
Remains of Schwatka of Nome at old shipyard. Below Dawson 1971.
Yukon Archives. Richard Harrington fonds, #430.
Click for larger view.

Riverboat 2
Casca Wreck.
Yukon Archives. Donald McLean fonds, #13. [Photo cropped]
Click for larger view.

Archeologists are using high-tech imaging systems to plot out the unique shapes of the Evelyn, which lies high and dry at Hootalinqua post. The researchers say it’s a race against time to discover and preserve a written and photographic record of the famed Yukon river paddle-wheelers.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Sinking of the first SS Klondike

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