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Clara Nevada

Clara Nevada. Sounds like the name of a movie starlet from a Hollywood flick of the Thirties. Not so! Instead, it was a three-masted sailing barque with a wood-fired boiler producing steam for power from an inboard engine. The old wooden hulled ship - at almost 200 feet long - worked out of San Francisco in the days of whaling on the Pacific coast.

By 1897, the ship was past her prime. But when the word of gold in the Klondike reached a depression-ridden US west coast, any ship that floated was good enough for men who thought their future was in finding an instant fortune in the far-off Yukon goldfields.

The Clara Nevada - like other unseaworthy ships - was Shanghaied into service to deliver poor wretches from Seattle to Skagway. Her first voyage north in January 1898 was plagued with problems. Overloaded, she hit another ship while leaving the Seattle dock. On the voyage up the inside passage in stormy January, constant problems plagued the boilers. At one point she even caught fire!

When the Clara Nevada somehow reached Skagway, most of her passengers got off, but some were already so discouraged by the whole "adventure" that they stayed on board. They were ready to head home before they even reached the goldfields.

Others, like Robert Banks, had journeyed to Alaska from his farm near Seattle in the fall of 1897. He did get some work, but after a few months in Skagway, he decided to take the next ship home because he missed his wife and six children. That ship was the Clara Nevada.

On February 6, 1898, the Clara Nevada headed south, reportedly with 60 passengers and 800 pounds of gold on board. There is speculation that she also carried an illegal load of dynamite. What exactly happened as the Clara Nevada passed through Berner Bay near Elred Rock, about 30 miles south of Skagway, is uncertain. But the ship ran aground on Eldred Rock. Witnesses reported a flash and a burst of flames. The ship was blown out of the water. Everybody on board was reportedly killed in the explosion.

However, one week after the sinking, divers said the boilers were intact. They had not exploded. But they did report a blackened hole in the side of the ship. Newspapers engaged in wild speculation about the gold on board and the cause of the sinking. A month after the disaster, the ship's carpenter notified The Seattle Daily Times that, although the newspaper reported his death, he remained "alive and hardy and well".

Strangely, that same newspaper posted ads after the accident recruiting miners for an expedition up the Yukon River. The skipper of that Yukon riverboat was listed as C.H. Lewis, the captain of the Clara Nevada.

Yukon History Hougengroup
Clara Nevada
Click for larger view.

Yukon History Hougengroup
Eldred Rock near Skagway Alaska
Click for larger view.

Even more curious, a boilerman on the Clara Nevada later showed up in the gold fields of Nome. Two other miners onboard showed up in their homes in Indiana after a prosperous Klondike trip. So it appears that not everyone went down with the ship, but at least 60 lives were lost, including farmer Robert Banks.

Whether the loss of the Clara Nevada was an accident, or an act of sabotage, may never be known, but the US Congress viewed the incident as sufficient evidence that a lighthouse on Eldred Rock was needed and the lighthouse was activated June 1, 1906, making it the last of the ten lighthouses constructed in Alaska between 1902 and 1906.

Today, the wreck of the Clara Nevada lies in pieces in 40 feet of water and is a popular spot for divers, although none have ever found traces of the gold.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



The Great Chilkoot Avalanche

It wasn't the first time that an avalanche had claimed lives on the trails to the Klondike. But on April 3rd, 1898, a natural disaster of monstrous proportions claimed the lives of more stampeders than any disease or crime.

For two months, during February and March of 1898, an intermittent storm had been raging in the mountain passes leading to the Yukon. On most days, travel was impossible. Snow that fell on the glaciers was wet and heavy weighing down the monster glaciers which overhung the rocks of the rugged peaks. Those who dared travel did so only at night. There were literally thousands of men and women waiting for the area to clear.

Then there was a lull in the storm and anxious gold-seekers decided to try the climb from Scales in spite of the obvious dangers. Experienced climbers and packers would not attempt the climb. On the morning of April 3rd, the distinct rumble of tumbling snow could be heard. Still the ravines leading up the Chilkoot were filled with travellers.

Then, at noon, it happened. First, loose snow from the glaciers began drifting down and people raced for cover. Then the main body of the avalanche rumbled down the ravines with snow thirty feet deep. Within 20 minutes, it was over. Thousands of people, who had not been caught in the slide, began a frantic search for survivors. They dug furiously in the snow. They could hear the cries and moans from those entombed below.

A handful of people were rescued from their icy graves. Some were buried in 30 feet of snow. But as the hours wore on, it became apparent that a tragedy of massive proportions had occured. As the digging continued over the next few days, nothing but bodies were brought to the surface. Sled after sled carried corpses down the mountainside to a make-shift grave.

When the search ended, over 60 bodies had been recovered. And then the long line of gold-seekers again began the climb up the Chilkoot and on to Dawson leaving behind a grim reminder of nature's devastating power.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


A famous photo of the climb up the Chilkoot Pass. Click for larger view.

Chilkoot 1
Men digging bodies from snow slide near summit of Chilkoot Pass. Date: April 3, 1898.
Yukon Archives. Anton Vogee fonds, #69.
Click for larger view.

Chilkoot 2
Hauling dead bodies on sleds from the snow slide near summit of Chilkoot Pass. Date: April 3, 1898. Yukon Archives. Anton Vogee fonds, #71.
Click for larger view.


Copper Belt - Whitehorse

The original Copper King mine, just off the Fish Lake road, is the site of more than one mining tragedy. Two mountains in the Whitehorse area are named for men connected to the site in life and in death.

The first high-grade copper ore in the Whitehorse copper belt was discovered in 1898 by John McIntyre, who had come to the Yukon from California. In 1899, William Grainger, who came to the Yukon from Kentucky, acquired an interest in the property. Located just off McIntyre Creek, which was named for John in 1898, the Copper King mine delivered its first shipment of ore in 1900.

McIntyre was doing odd jobs during the winter of 1902-03 and was contracted to carry the mail from Atlin to Log Cabin on the White Pass rail line. On November 25, 1902, McIntyre and his partner left Atlin by dog sled with a load of mail. They never arrived at their destination. A long search resulted in the recovery of the sled and mail beneath the ice of Windy Arm. McIntyre's body was recovered on the shores of Windy Arm in May of 1903.

Four years later, the Copper King mine was showing signs of making money for William Grainger. For some days in May of 1907, the miners had been monitoring a fire they had lit in a shallow shaft to thaw the ice. On Friday, May 10, Grainger and a mine worker - Gilbert Joyce - went down the shaft to inspect the progress of the burn.

When they didn't return, a search party discovered the shaft had been filled with deadly gas known to miners as black damp. The bodies of Grainger and Joyce were eventually recovered near the ladder of the 50-foot shaft. Grainger had been a respected member of the Whitehorse community always boasting that a Greater Whitehorse would some day be a reality because of the many mining prospects.

The funeral was a large civic affair with many of the Whitehorse townsfolk standing outside the church, which was over-flowing with mourners. Sam McGee was one of the pallbearers.

Copper 1
A view from Grafter Hill (Whitehorse Copper Belt) near Whitehorse showing the valley of the Yukon. Date: 1922.
Yukon Archives. Claude & Mary Tidd fonds, #7209.
Click for larger view.

Copper 1
Copper King, White Horse, Y.T.
Yukon Archives. John Patrick Kingscote fonds, #37.
Click for larger view.

The 5000-foot Mt McIntyre is located seven miles southwest of Whitehorse. The 6500-foot Mt. Granger is located 16 miles southwest of Whitehorse.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Famous People

At the height of the Klondike gold rush in 1898, Dawson City was rightly called the Paris of the North. The boom towns had just about everything you could imagine. And it had characters...some of whom were already rich and famous...and some who would become so later in life.

The Klondike made millionaires out of people who arrived early...before 1898, people like Big Alex McDonald, Swiftwater Bill Gates, Joe Boyle, Belinda Mulroney and others who owed their fortune to gold. But there were many people in Dawson City during that tumultuous year (1898) who would gain fame and sometimes fortune after leaving the Klondike. Examples are numerous.

Augustus Mack from Brooklyn, New York was here. Later he would design the world renowned Mac Truck. Alec Pantages was here too. Later he would be the most famous movie theatre owner in North America. Sid Grauman, whose Chinese theatre in Hollywood is home to the hand and foot prints of the world's most famous movie stars, looked for gold in the Klondike at the turn of the century.

Duff Pattulo, came to the Klondike as an assistant to Major J.W. Walsh, who was sent by the Canadian government as gold commissioner. Pattulo would later become the Premier of British Columbia. Tex Rickard, who gained fame as the manager of Madison Square Gardens in New York City, walked the streets of Dawson in 1898, as did Joe Juneau, who ran a restaurant in Dawson. The State capital of Alaska is named for Joe because he had discovered gold on the Alaskan panhandle.

Jack London lived a year in the Klondike district, mining the land and its people for their stories. His Yukon experiences resulted in two of the world's most famous books... Call of the Wild and White Fang. It's said that Belinda Mulroney who made her fortune with various business enterprises in the Klondike, owned the dog which London used as inspiration to write Call of the Wild. Arthur Treadgold, who set about gathering up mining claims to build a vast network in the mining district, came from England. He was a direct descendant of one of the world's noted pioneering scientists, Sir Isaac Newton. Calamity Jane, who had gained notoriety as a sharp-shooter in Wild Bill Hickok's wild west shows, ran a boarding house in the Klondike.

Famous 1
Joe Juneau's Restaurant.
Yukon Archives. Dawson City Museum & Historical Society collection, #14.
Click for larger view.

Kate Rockwell danced her way to stardom in Dawson and remained the darling of the American press until her death in the 50s - remembered for all time as Klondike Kate. Fame and fortune came early for some...and for some it didn't last long. For others it came after they left. But that part of the Yukon, known the world over as the Klondike, left its mark on many people from around the world.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Postal Service in the Klondike

Lake Bennett, April 21, 1898.

I sent a letter off this morning by a man from Massachusetts who was going to Dyea. I went up to Lindeman to look for mail but was disappointed. My walk was about 33 miles today, 16 of those for a letter that did not come.

Alfred McMichael, from a letter written at Lake Bennett.

To prospectors on the Klondike trails and in the mining camps, mail was often as important as gold. Trouble is, both were hard to come by. Hardly any of the rabble who rushed to the Klondike in 1898 were rewarded with nuggets.

Most found themselves in a cold and God-forsaken land thousands of miles from home and without prospects of a bright futures. More than whiskey, a paying job or gold, they longed for letters from home.

Yet postal service to the Klondike was primitive at best. The gold rush was not likely to be permanent, reasoned the Canadian government, so it made little effort to expedite mail delivery to the distant gold fields.

Thus, freelance mail carriers like Mike Mahoney were able to earn a small fortune delivering letters for individuals along the trails leading from the Alaskan coast to Dawson City and from the creeks to the towns. In the winter of 1897, Mahoney delivered a load of mail from Dawson to Skagway on a two-week trip that earned him $2500.00 for his troubles. There was money in mail, all right.

In the beginning, Klondikers were stuck in tiny tents stretched out along Lakes Lindeman and Bennett during the bleak winter of '97-'98. They had little to occupy their dreary days and lots of time to long for news from home.

Got your letter on Thursday last. The post office delivers our mail to Sheep Camp, from there a private carrier brings it to Lake Lindeman for which we pay 15 cents per letter, and am glad to get them at that price.

Harley Tuch, from a diary he kept on the trail.

It is surprising that they carried the U.S. Mail up the Chilkoot trail to Sheep Camp. However, beyond that, private, unoffical mail carriers delivered letters to the tent towns.

Lake Bennett May 8, 1898

My Dear Clara,

At last I have been rewarded for my trip after mail. When I reach camp again, this will have been a forty mile one, but I have seven letters to show and a few supplies which I picked up. Think of my doing forty miles on foot when a two and a half mile trip downtown on foot was quite a consideration. I have not paid $1.75 with as much pleasure since leaving home. I hope more will come.

Alfred G. McMichael's letter from the Chilkoot Pass trail.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin


Post 1
Post Office at Wrangel. Date: September 1898.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #5662.
Click for larger view.

Post 2
A line up of miners waiting to enter the post office on Pearl Street in Atlin. Date: June 20, 1899.
Yukon Archives. Anton Vogee fonds, #32.
Click for larger view.

Post 3
View of Royal Mail stage (horse-drawn sleigh) with passengers standing in front of the C.D. Co. Post No. 3 at Lower LaBerge.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4919.
Click for larger view.


Swiftwater Bill Gates (No. 1)

There must be something in the name Bill Gates which attracts money. The only difference between the Bill Gates of 1998 and the guy with the same name in 1898, is that one saves all his money. The other spent all his.

Thanks to the computer world of 1990s, Bill Gates is a billionaire. He's a Microsoft genius in a micro chip world, and it's likely he couldn't spend all his money if he tried. Bill Gates of 1898 is another story. Known as Swiftwater Bill, he came to the Klondike from Idaho. In 1897, he lucked out on a claim on Eldorado Creek...claim number 13, which no miner wanted to touch because of its unlucky number.

The claim made the five-foot five-inch prospector a millionaire. Unlike Microsoft Bill Gates of this century, Swiftwater Bill Gates of the last thought money was made to spend...foolishly. And he did. It seems he was a gambler by birth. In three weeks in 1898, he lost $50,000 dollars playing pool in Dawson. Swiftwater Bill rarely went anywhere without wearing a fine silk shirt, a necktie with a diamond stick pin, a Prince Albert coat and a silk top-hat. He made sure everyone knew he had money.

It's no surprise that he was a ladies man. One day, Bill fell madly in love. But when he discovered the woman of his affection dining with another man, on expensive eggs no less, he bought up all the eggs in Dawson - at two dollars each. He then had them cooked in a restaurant and fed to the dogs hanging about outside. His lady love threw in the towel and followed him to San Francisco but refused to marry him. No matter. Gates married her sister, a marriage that lasted three weeks. Swiftwater Bill went back to the Klondike, but found that his expensive lifestyle had taken a toll on his bank account.

He hightailed it for Alaska and, remarkably, struck it big again...this time on a rich find known as Cleary Creek near Fairbanks. He also married for the fourth time. This time, he was really on the wrong side of the law. His bride was 16 years old. Bill Gates was arrested for bigamy and taken back to California. While due process of law was taking place, he handed out Klondike souvenirs to the nuggets wrapped in 20 dollar bills. Somehow he escaped the wrath of justice and set about looking for another wife.

yukon history Hougengroup Bill Gates
Joe [Boyle] with Swiftwater Bill Gates, 1897, Joe 29 yrs. old.
Yukon Archives. Oxford Historical Society, #34.
Click for larger view.

He never went back to the Klondike, but became a character of some note in the American west during the roaring twenties. The end came for Swiftwater Bill Gates in 1935 in Peru where he was still trying to find more of that yellow ore. Bill Gates of the last century made and lost a fortune in a precious metal called gold. Bill Gates of this century made and kept a fortune in a precious metal called silicon.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Eric A. Hegg

He captured the Klondike. Almost single handedly. And because he did, the images of the great Klondike Gold Rush are as fresh today as they were in 1898.

Eric Hegg was a studio photographer in Bellingham, Washington when news of the gold strike in the Klondike reached the west coast. Here, he thought, was a chance to make some money. Hegg loaded up his pack with the tools of photographers...cameras, tripods, glass plate negatives, and chemicals to develop his pictures on the spot.

He boarded the Skagit Queen in Seattle, in September of 1897, and headed up the inside passage for Dyea. As one of the first photographers in the region, he saw first hand the arrival of hordes of gold seekers in the spring of 1898.

What Hegg was able to capture on film has become the Yukon's legacy of the Klondike. His photos of the would-be miners struggling with heavy back packs up the White and Chilkoot passes tell a gripping tale of hardship and endurance. His photos of dead horses, of "Cheechakos" collapsing on the trail, of heaps of supplies piled high in the snow tell in dramatic detail the Klondike story as no written account could.

Incredibly, he was on the scene when a great avalanche of snow buried hundreds on the Chilkoot Pass in the spring of 1898. His gripping photos show men feverishly digging in the snow, searching for survivors. At least 63 men died in the disaster.

Hegg went on to Dawson with the large flotilla which left Lake Bennett when the ice went out in 1898. Along the way he took pictures of people, equipment, and the hand hewn boats they had built. In Dawson he photographed buildings, mining camps, and the people who made and lost a fortune.

His pictures of those Dawson days of long ago are a priceless legacy of Yukon history. Many of them survive to this day because of sheer luck. The glass negatives Hegg used were heavy. When he left Dawson to photograph the new goldstrikes in Nome, Alaska in 1900, Hegg couldn't take the plates with him. So he left them in Dawson with his former partner, Ed Larrs. When Larrs left the Yukon, he couldn't carry the plates either so he left many of them in-between the walls of their studio.

Hegg 1
Looking south along Broadway from 4th Ave. in Skagway. Exteriors of Hegg's Photographic Office, Rainer Hotel, Pioneer Store are shown. Date: 1900.
Yukon Archives. Anton Vogee fonds, #218.
Click for larger view.

Many years later a woman who rented the building found the glass plates and wanted to turn them into a greenhouse. But someone familiar with photography recognized them for what they were. Thus much of the Klondike legacy was saved.

Eric Hegg retired from the world of photography in Washington State in 1953. There were other gold rush photographers but perhaps more than any other, Hegg captured the Klondike.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Routes to the Klondike

There were many trails to the Klondike. The most popular was the Chilkoot Pass from the Alaskan villages of Skagway and Dyea. But there were many other routes. None was a very good option.

How to get to the riches of the gold fields was on the minds of every would-be miner as they pondered riches untold. One way was by open sea to the mouth of the Yukon River in Alaska and from there up river to the Klondike. Although it was the easiest route, it was also the most expensive and could only be used in the summer. The second was the perilous Stikine route. It went through the interior of British Columbia from Ashcroft, BC, where the Thompson and Fraser rivers met. Then it was on to the upper Skeena River valley and through to the village of Glenora in the northern part of the province. This route crossed swamps and river gorges. Half the horses that attempted it drowned in mud holes. Many times a bitter man gave up and turned back.

Those who went on to Glenora met other prospectors who were going up the Stikine River from Wrangell, a growing Alaskan town near the mouth of the river. Glenora was a tent city filled with men waiting to cross the mountains to Teslin Lake and then on to the Klondike, 1600 kilometres away. Not half of the seven thousand who started up the Stikine trail made it to the gold fields. This was by far the poorest route but it had been well advertised by newspapers as an all-Canadian trail.

Another route wasn't much better. It followed an old fur traders trail which led from Edmonton to Athabasca Landing then over the mountains to the Yukon. Once over the mountain passes, the gold seekers had to pull their boats upriver 640 kilometres to Dawson City. Of the two thousand who took this route most turned back. Some died on the way. The few who finally made it to Dawson took almost two years to do so.

With all the trails Klondikers could take, through mountain ranges and summits, up rivers, streams and creeks, the most famous is the Chilkoot pass. The Chilkoot started at Dyea and, although it required physical endurance, it was perhaps the safest and best way to reach the Klondike. As with all the routes, settlements resulted along the way. At the foot of the Chilkoot there was Sheep Camp, the last safe place before the steep climb to the summit.

Here, goods were weighed and packers could be hired or aerial tramways used to carry provisions up the pass. The Chilkoot pass itself was ominous. It sloped upward at an angle of 35 degrees for 300 meters. Then it went straight up. Ant-like, one right after another, the seemingly endless line of seekers climbed the 1500 ice steps. Anyone who stepped out of line would have to wait hours for a space to get back in again. Once at the top, the prospectors would have to drop their packs, slide back down, pick up another pack of goods, and once again make the climb to the summit. These then were the routes to the Klondike. None were very good. And for the late-comers during the stampede of 1898, none were any good at all. If they got to the Klondike, they found that most of the ground was staked and their journey was really for nothing.

Routes 1
Panorama of Sheep Camp located approximately 13 miles from tidewater along the Dyea Trail.
Date: 1899.
Yukon Archives. Anton Vogee fonds, #205.
Click for larger view.

The company would have built riverboats there instead of at a little place north of the Whitehorse Rapids and Miles Canyon...a little place called Whitehorse. Had it not been for Miles Canyon, Carcross would likely have become the transportation hub leading to the gold fields. The Alaska Highway would likely have gone through Carcross on its way north to Alaska.

The American military building that road in the early 40s would not have needed to go through Whitehorse because there would not have been rail or riverboat systems based there. The military airfields, built along the route of the highway, would have included Carcross, not Whitehorse as a staging point. Cyr's woodlot on the clay bluffs overlooking Whitehorse, would still be just that...a wood lot. Not the Whitehorse International airport as it is now.

Because Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids were there, the history of the Yukon was changed dramatically. Undoubtedly, Carcross and not Whitehrose would have been the Yukon's capital city today. The sprawling bedroom communities now attached to Whitehorse would instead have bloomed down Lake Bennett, over to Crag Lake, up to Lewis Lake and beyond.

So the next time you visit Miles Canyon, think for a moment about what that beautiful vista meant in shaping the Yukon's future.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



The Klondike Nugget

The first newspaper to hit the streets in Dawson City was the Klondike Nugget. Actually, the first edition didn't hit the streets at all. Instead it was nailed to a telephone pole.

Gene Allen was the fiesty editor of the Klondike Nugget. In Seattle, he and his partner Zack Hickman decided there was gold to be made by publishing a newspaper in the wild frontier town called Dawson City.

In 1898, they bought a printing press, loaded it on a boat to Skagway and hauled the thing over the Chilkoot Pass. At Lake Bennett, Allen heard of competition so he went on alone to Dawson leaving Hackman to follow with the press.

On May 17, Gene Allen tacked a hand-written news sheet onto a pole in downtown Dawson...the first edition of the Nugget. It carried whatever outside news Allen could get from newcomers. But more importantly, it ran stories from Dawson and the surrounding gold fields. It started as a weekly, became a daily, and 18 months later it went bust.

Allen wrote about politics, religion, business and the social life of the bustling city. He loved reporting on court proceedings and the work of the Northwest Mounted Police. So-and-so got 50 days on the woodpile for drunken brawling, and he deserved more...wrote Allen.

Dawson's only reason for being was gold. In one edition, Allen reported on a group of kids he watched as they gathered sawdust and rubbish which had been swept out of a local saloon and put it in a large washpail filled with water. Then they began panning the debris. When finished, they had panned out nearly seven dollars in gold nuggets.

Hougengroup Yukon History Klondike Nugget
The Daily Klondike Nugget.
Click for larger view.

Allen, in his Nugget, reported on the shaninigans of the local rich and the problems of the poor. It lasted 18 months. The good ground was staked, and most of the men who could only work for wages left for the goldfields in Alaska. As Dawson's population dwindled, the Nugget fell on hard times.

In February of 1900 Allen was bankrupt. He picked up stakes and headed for Alaska.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Klondike Mike

He was a big, bold and brash farmboy from eastern Ontario. When he joined the Klondike stampede in 1897, his youthful vigor and incredible strength got him into and out of a lot of trouble. In later years, so did his Irish wit.

As a teenager in Ontario, Mike Mahoney was a boxer. His life on his father's farm involved a lot of hard work. Mike was a big man. When he got to the Klondike, he was lucky enough to stake some claims. Some were good; some weren't. He'd often augment his earnings by working for others.

Mike Mahoney loved the unusual. So when he was approached in January of 1898 by an entertainment entrepreneur named Hal Henry to help bring a six-woman singing troupe over the Chilkoot pass and down river to Dawson, he jumped at the chance. Mike travelled from Dawson to Skagway. What he found amused him. The women were dressed in New York finery. Hardly the kind who could tackle the Chilkoot. He also found they had with them a piano they used in their show. They were billed as the Sunny Samson Sisters Sextette. Performing in Skagway, they had been making a good sum of money. Mike could see that Dawson City, with all its gold, would be even more profitable.

It was late February of '98 in Skagway, when Mike hired a team of four dog drivers to take the women and their belongings over the Pass to Lake Bennett. But they had one piece of equipment that could cause problems. It was the piano.

Story has it that the piano measured three foot six by four feet by twenty inches. The piano could be taken to Sheep Camp high up on the Chilkoot Trail by dog sled. But the final climb from there to the summit had to be done by a human packer. On this trip over the Chilkoot, only belongings and equipment would be taken. They'd come back to pick up the Samson sisters the next day.

Mike devised a leather harness with shoulder pads. When the dog teams got to Sheep Camp, Mike loaded the piano on his back and joined the long line of men. When he reached the summit, Mike decided to carry the piano a couple of hundred more yards...perhaps to show off.

This phase of the journey ended when they reached to newly built Canadian customs house staffed by Mounted Police. When the officer saw that Mike had a piano to declare, he invited him in for a long chat. It soon became apparent to Mike that under no circumstances would the mounties allow a troupe of six showgirls to cross the border into Canada.

Disillusioned, Mike went back to Skagway to deliver the news to Hal Henry. Thus ended the promising association of Klondike Mike, Hal Henry and the Sunny Samson Sisters Sextette.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Dawson City Post Office: Alfred G. McMichael, from a letter to his wife.

In Dawson City itself, the first crude post office was operated by the Northwest Mounted Police from a tent on Front Street. Then, in 1897, Frank Harper was appointed the first post master; but the Mounties still staffed the office. When the newly built NWMP compound called Fort Herchmer opened, they moved the post office into a small log building beside the guard room.

The first delivery that arrived in the spring of 1898 proved that mail was more popular than gold. Lineups were so long they filled the soggy streets for endless blocks. Those who could not leave their claims hired others to stand in line for them. The little log shack in the compound was far too small to hold the volumes of treasured letters. Harper had to do something so he leased a saloon to expand the existing facilities.

During the summer, the Dawson post office was moved to a building owned by Big Alex McDonald on Front Street. However, on October 14, 1898 came the first great Dawson fire. Gone was McDonald's building and the post office in a puff of smoke. The raging flames consumed most of Front Street. In all, twenty-six buildings were destroyed. By this time, saloons were a dime a dozen and the local government leased another called the Brewery and set up permanent quarters. They were not permanent for long. Nor were they adequate.

July 14, 1898

"I am so disappointed in not getting a letter from you or in fact from anyone, we are feeling so anxious to hear from you. I do write so many letters and do not get but a few, that sometimes I get almost discouraged. I received your letter with this Easter card and pin but dear the pin was broken. I almost cried.

Despite criticism from politicians and the public in the Klondike, they did not convince the federal government in Ottawa the Gold Rush would last. Thus, it reasoned there was no need for an elaborate postal system. Nevertheless, the gold did not "peter out" as it had in so many other places. Dawson began to have a look of permanency.

More or less permanent businesses such as butchers shops, bakers, grocers, clothiers, tobacconists, blacksmiths, gambling halls and at least twenty-two saloons were becoming the norm. Six sawmills could not keep up with the demand for lumber. Still, the postal service lagged.

Frustration grew in the town and on the creeks and threatened to become the key issue in local and federal elections. People grew tired of lining up outside the post office for hours and sometimes days to get their mail. More often than not they lined up only to find the queue, slip the sorters some gold and get their mail quickly.

In the late fall of 1898, the Federal Post Office Department agreed to take over the mail service from the Mounties. I.J. Hartman, the first federally appointed post master, arrived in Dawson in October. His bold undertaking to sort out the mail mess failed, but in January of 1899, a minor miracle occurred. Canada's Post Master General recommended that funds be included in the federal budget to build a real post office in Dawson.

In February, the Harper and Ladue Townsite Company offered the Postal Service a building lot on the corner of Third Avenue and King Street and the Department of Public Works appointed architect Thomas W. Fuller to design the structure.

He was a good choice, coming as he did from a long line of famous architects in Canada. His father, Thomas Sr. had won a competition back in 1859 to design the new Parliament Buildings (the Centre Block) in what was then known as Bytown, but soon to be called Ottawa.

Queen Victoria herself had selected a permanent seat of government on March 16, 1858 and the Legislative Assembly approved funding "not exceeding two hundred and twenty-five thousand pounds", or about one million dollars, for the construction of the Parliament Buildings.

Later, Thomas Sr. became the supervising architect for every project on Parliament Hill and from 1881 to 1897 was Chief Architect for the Dominion of Canada. While the post office in Dawson was not the architectural league with the Parliament Buildings, his son, Thomas Jr. must have made a good impression with his Klondike post office. He too was eventually appointed Chief Architect of Canada and through the years, designed many significant public buildings in Canada.

Thomas Fuller Jr. was a hands on architect who took his job of building the post office in the Klondike very seriously. Building costs in Dawson City were astronomical compared with what civil servants in Ottawa were used to. The call for tenders produced eye-opening sums for the pencil pushers of DPW in Ottawa.

Federal bureaucrats were not eager to pay Dawson's inflated prices but they were not able to delay the opening of the building either. So young Fuller himself was seen swinging a hammer while keeping a close eye on his unique design. Carpenters skilled in building anything more than a clapboard saloon were rare in Dawson and specialized workers were hired from as far away as Montreal.

Though Joe Ladue's sawmill could readily produce boards for houses, it was necessary to order many building materials from "the outside" at exorbitant prices. Imported supplies like glass were not only expensive but also difficult to obtain.

McMichael 1
View of the east side of Front Street in Dawson. Next to the arch are exteriors of the Martony Hotel, the Monte Carlo, and the Orpheum Theatre.
Date: August 1900.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4761.
Click for larger view.

McMichael 2
Exterior view of the new Post Office on the south-west corner of King and 3rd. in Dawson.
Date: 1901.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #1901.
Click for larger view.

Construction conditions in Dawson haven't changed much through the century. The land presented its special problems then as it does now. Architect Fuller quickly discovered the delights of permafrost but had no more success in dealing with the soggy stuff that anyone else. The ground melted into an oozing mass of mud when the top layer was scraped away. One novel idea he had was to dig two large metallic boxes into the muck to provide a foundation for the heavy furnaces in the basement. At least that plan worked.

In November of 1900 when the new post office opened, the Dawson Daily News heralded it as: "... a thing of beauty and a monument to the architectural skill of the man who designed it. It contains all the most modern fittings known for convenience and dispatch, including a large vault and almost eighteen hundred brass-faced postal boxes and large, neat drawers to hold the mail. The postmaster's office, the delivery offices and the telegraph receiving room are also located here."

High praise from a generally cantankerous press, but it was warranted.

The post office was one of the first fully designed buildings to adorn the marshy streets of Dawson and it was versatile. The first floor housed the post office. On the second floor, offices were occupied by the Customs Service, the Crown Lands Department, the Registrar of Crown Lands and the Telegraph Service. Fuller even installed an elevator so that workers could deliver messages and parcels within the building without runnig up and down the stairs.

The Post Office was the first of many public buildings constructed in Dawson by the Canadian government. For Klondike residents, the efficiency of the new post office was a major miracle.

"Your last letter received today" wrote a niece to her uncle in Dawson. "One would not think it came all the way from Dawson since the envelope was as clear and whole as though it had just been mailed in town here."

Architect Thomas Fuller Jr. had done his job well. The Fuller Construction Company is still active from its Ottawa headquarters operated by sons and grandsons of Thomas Fuller. It has been responsible for more than six hundred construction projects including office towers, hospitals, university buildings, research facilities, shopping centers, and heritage restorations.

Yet the Parliament Buildings and the Dawson City Post Office remain the lasting legacies of the Klondike architext, Thomas W. Fuller.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Frank Slavin

In his days, he was the toughest man in the British Empire. He'd beaten everyone he'd met in the ring. But he never had the chance to fight the best in North America. So when he came to the Klondike, he was ready to take on all comers.

Frank Slavin was an Australian. He was also the heavyweight boxing champ of the British Empire. But he was never given the chance to fight in North America for the world title, and that bothered him. Slavin, while past his prime when he arrived in Dawson in 1898, was nonetheless a tough customer. He was tall and agile and known as the Sydney Cornstalk. For one celebrated match at the Monte Carlo in Dawson, he was billed as the Sydney Slasher.

Prize fights were as much a part of Dawson's entertainment as were the dance hall girls. Customers paid twenty-five dollars a seat and were seldom disappointed especially if Frank Slavin was on the bill. In one memorable bout, Slavin faced a fellow Australian, Will Perkin, who had stopped in Dawson just long enough to raise funds to work his mining claims on the Stewart River. The fight between Perkin and Slavin lasted 14 brutal rounds. Perkin was paid eleven hundred dollars for his part in the bout. Eighteen months later he died from internal injuries he had received during the fight.

Tex Richard, who went on to become the world's greatest fight promoter at Madison Square Gardens, learned his trade in Dawson. Frank Slavin and Big Joe Boyle had come to the Klondike together and were close friends. They were also sparring partners staying in shape by play-boxing with each other. Rickard, however, saw money to be made but only if the two big boxers could be depicted as arch-rivals...bitter enemies. Rickard was so successful in this ruse that the match between Slavin and Boyle was the biggest draw in Dawson.

A standing room only crowd paid $25 each to witness the match. However, there was no winner as each fighter vowed in private not to hurt the other. Later, when Joe Boyle became the biggest owner of Klondike claims, he put Frank Slavin on his payroll, though he wasn't expected to do anything but spar with Boyle to keep him in shape.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




Yukon becomes a Territory

Back in 1897, the government of the Northwest Territories decided to capitalize on the influx of miners into the gold fields of the Yukon. They decided to impose a liquor licensing system and charge each outlet an annual fee. The battle of booze resulted in the creation of the Yukon Territory.

In 1897, the Yukon was legally part of the Northwest Territories which had its capital city in Regina. Since 1895, the Canadian federal government had been financing a sort of district government which had been administering the Yukon and its growing population of largely American miners.

Clifford Sifton, was the federal minister responsible for the NWT. He took his role seriously and wasn't going to be pushed around by any territorial government under his jurisdiction. In 1897, without informing Sifton, the NWT government sent its agent to Dawson to impose an annual license fee of $2000 on each drinking establishment.

This move so angered Clifford Sifton that he announced the Yukon would be made into a separate district under his authority. The premier of the NWT, Frederick Haultain, was equally angered. He wrote to Sifton accusing him of overruling his authority and invading the self-government rights of the NWT. The protest fell on deaf ears and the power over the liquor trade was transferred to the commissioner in council of the Yukon.

That winter, the Yukon act was drawn up and debated in the House of Commons. It was almost a duplicate of the NWT act which had been passed in 1871. The notable exception was that unlike in the NWT, where the chief executive officer was the Lt Governor, the Yukon's chief officer would be called commissioner and report directly to Clifford Sifton. In addition, the territorial council would be appointed not elected as in the NWT. At the time, Sifton said 90 percent of the people in the Yukon were foreigners so the Canadian federal government was going to run the show.

Yukon Territory
Group of men gather by a roadhouse with liquors for sale.
Date: 1901.
Yukon Archives. Adams & Larkins fonds, #9195.
Click for larger view.

The Yukon act creating the new Territory was passed by the House of Commons and the Senate on June 13, 1898.

It's difficult to say when the Yukon would have become a territory unto itself had the Northwest Territories not decided to profit from the lucrative booze business during the early days of the gold rush.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Yukon Field Force

They were a smart looking bunch. Two hundred and three men in scarlet jackets and white helmets, carrying bayonets. They marched over the tough trail through the BC interior, sailed down the Teslin and Yukon Rivers and into the history books. They were called the Yukon Field Force.

The massive influx of gold seekers trekking to the Klondike in 1898 raised alarm bells in Ottawa. The small band of Northwest Mounted Police would soon be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers...mostly foreigners heading for the Yukon interior. On March 21, 1898, the Canadian government passed an order in council to authorize the formation of the Yukon Field Force. They were made up of officers and men from the Royal Canadian rifles, the Royal Canadian dragoons and the Royal Canadian artillery.

Their final destination was Fort Selkirk which was selected as the future capital of the Yukon. When the Field Force arrived in September of 1898, they quickly set about building an impressive military-style fort. In a short time, they had constructed twelve buildings using local logs. There were three barracks, a store-house, a hospital and quartermasters stores, a bakery and, not to be missed, both officers' and sergeants' messes.

However, most of the action during those few short years of gold-rush activity was taking place in Dawson. The field force was divided between the two areas. In September of 1899, Dawson was officially made the headquarters for the Force. But the city of gold proved less difficult to police than the government expected. By June of 1900, the last of the troops was withdrawn from the Yukon.

As for the impressive fort they had built at Selkirk: once the riverboat trade on the Yukon River expanded, Fort Selkirk became an important location. It was surveyed as a townsite, with neat streets crossing first and second avenues. New buildings were constructed using the logs from the structures built by the Yukon Field Force. Thus, little of the work they did in Fort Selkirk in 1898 remains today.

Yukon Field Force 1
Three log buildings in Fort Selkirk. Date: 1900.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4978.
Click for larger view.

Yukon Field Force 2
Exterior view of log hotel in Fort Selkirk. Date: 1901.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4979.
Click for larger view.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




I’ve often thought that Whitehorse is such a proud name for the Yukon ’s capital city. The name has a ring about it and tells a story too. A story about the nearby Whitehorse rapids whose waters once churned and rolled - leaving little doubt about the power and majesty of the Yukon River. To Klondikers, the foaming waters looked like the mains of white horses racing to the gold fields.

But Whitehorse was very close to being called something else. Close is the operative word. For a time, the original settlement here was called Closeleigh, a name chosen by officials with the White Pass Railway. The railway owed its existence to the Close Brothers, a group of British financiers who had bankrolled the construction of the railway. So who were they?

In 1878 Close Brothers Investors, led by W.B. Close, was formed in England. The company bought cheap farm land in Iowa that they sold to settlers for a handsome profit. Then the company recruited young Englishmen from University and sent them to become farmers in Iowa. The company was always on the lookout for investments. In 1885, Close Brothers began a long and profitable association with the First National Bank of Chicago.

Then, in 1897, against the advice of his advisors, senior partner, W. B. Close decided to invest in construction of the White Pass railway. He paid ten thousand pounds to acquire the right of way to build the railway from Skagway to Whitehorse, not knowing if the railway could be built through this imposing wilderness. Fate played a remarkable hand in the spring of 1898, when the Close Brothers railroad engineer Sir Thomas Tancrede happened to be in Skagway the same week that a Canadian railroad builder, Michael Heney, was looking over the same possibilities.

Heney, who had worked on railway construction throughout Canada, convinced the British engineer that they could build the railway. The White Pass and Yukon route was created. On May 27, 1898, the first men, horses and material were landed at Skagway and construction of the rail project - which would eventually cost seven million dollars - began.

In the two years it took to build, many thousands of men worked on the railway and thirty-five died on duty. However, the Close Brothers investment firm did get their money back and more. Only determined opposition by a small group of Whitehorse residents in 1900, prevented the town at the end of the Close Brother’s White Pass rail line from being called Closeleigh.

And today, Close Brothers is still a powerful investment and banking group based in Britain.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin





Railways have a way of making - or breaking - a community. Such was the case for the boom and bust town of Dyea, near Skagway. This summer, I stood at headwaters of the Taiya Inlet where Dyea once stood and tried to imagine what was once a town of eight thousand people.

Today there is nothing to show for it but, in 1898, the town had lots of hotels and restaurants, twenty saloons, busy freighting companies and a makeshift dock where countless thousands of tons of goods bound for the Klondike were unloaded. After a journey up the Inside Passage in any boat that would float, the Klondike Stampeders ended up on the mud flats of the Taiya River, and gazed upward toward the awesome Chilkoot Pass that would take them to the interior and on to the goldfields near Dawson City.

Dyea was busy in the summer of 1898. The local native people were willing and able to pack goods up and over the Chilkoot Pass.

The Tlingits of Dyea had controlled the Pass for years as they traded with the people of the interior. It was supposedly off-limits for non-Tlingits until 1879, when a United States Navy Commander L.A. Beardsley reached an agreement with the coastal Tlingits that allowed white people to cross the pass. On the coast, near Dyea, was the tiny community of Skagway, situated at the foot of the White Pass. In 1898, competition for Klondike business between the two was intense. Only one town would survive. The winner would have the best transportation system across the coastal mountains. A single project turned the tide in Skagway's favour. That event was the construction of the White Pass & Yukon Route railway.

Yukon History Rolf Hougen
Click for larger view.

Although they had built aerial tramways up from Dyea across the worst part of the Chilkoot Pass and a railway was on the drawing board for that community, the first White Pass train to leave Skagway, on July 20, 1898, signaled that the race for survival between the two towns was over.

Today, standing on the silent grass-covered mud flats where Dyea once prospered, there is little to show that a town existed at all. There is cemetery in the woods beyond the flats that marks the final resting place of about sixty-five Klondike stampeders who died in the Chilkoot pass avalanche that occurred on April 3rd, 1898. Nearby, the Taiya River has washed away the old townsite, including the main cemetery. Any other indication of the once-bustling community is gone.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




Getting There was not Half the Fun

Are we there yet? The Klondike gold seekers who left the west coast and sailed the inside passage to Alaska could be forgiven for uttering that famous childhood phase. The journey to the goldfields began with a scenic boat ride north and ended abruptly at the ramshackle, lawless port of Skagway, or Dyea. Seasick passengers were quickly dumped at the waterfront or - sometimes - in the water. Their troubles were just beginning.

Many boats left the west coast ports every day. They were a dingy lot– coal ships, schooners, barges, fishing boats — anything that could float. Passengers often stood elbow-to-elbow on decks that were crammed with crates of food, dog sleds, tents, pack animals, and hay. Famous photographer Eric Hegg sailed north on a coaltender called the Skagit Queen. It was no Queen and Hegg was happy and lucky to get off on the tidal flats at Dyea, his bulky camera gear intact.

Others arrived on board real passenger ships like the Islander. Unfortunately, it would hit a rock and sink with the loss of more than lives. Deep in the hull of the Islander, 600 horses were wedged together in long rows, so tight that they could not lie down or move away from the ship's engines. The horses bit and kicked in terror.

Goldseekers on other vessels had their own hardships to bear. In August 1898, more than 800 stampeders crushed their way aboard the Willamette, an old coal carrier bound for Dyea.

Only a few hours before the ship's departure, workmen had hastily moved tons of coal from the lower decks. In its place, carpenters built rough wooden bunks for the first-class travelers. No one had taken the time to sweep out the coal dust left behind. Every passenger, first class or not, was coated with the dirty, black dust.

To pass the time, stampeders sat on rancid hay bales in wet buckskin outfits and mining gear, discussing the upcoming journey. Passengers who had been strangers when the sea voyage began now decided to become partners and face the dangers ahead together. There were plenty of dangers ahead - if they survived the sea voyage to the Alaskan coast.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




Watson Lake

Frank Watson was among about 1500 people who attempted to reach the Klondike via the almost impossible route from Edmonton. When he arrived in the Upper Liard River area in the spring of 1898 Watson had lost all hope of going any further – the route was just too difficult. However, he liked the country and he decided to stay. He became a trapper and prospector. He married a Native woman from Lower Post. The Upper Liard River and its tributaries became his trapping territory. He built his home on the shores of what was then known as Fish Lake, and now Watson Lake. In the spring of 1941 the construction of the Watson Lake airport was underway. Two runways, along with administrative buildings and staff houses for DOT and RCAF personnel were built. A year later the Alaska highway brought thousands troops and civilian workers to the area. The highway passed 10 miles to the east of the lake, and a small community then called the Watson Lake Y sprung up. The work was completed in the fall of 1943, though a post office had been built in 1942. All this activity was too much for Frank Watson. He moved his family a few miles north to Winded Lake.

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin