The Hougen Group of Companies - A Yukon Tradition
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Erastus Brainerd

Seattle was not destined to be the major jumping-off place for miners heading to the Klondike gold fields. San Francisco, or even Vancouver, should have been, or could have been. Prior to 1897, San Francisco dominated maritime trade with Alaska and was home to many businesses with experience outfitting prospectors dating back to the California Gold Rush. In Canada, Vancouver was closer than Seattle, and the all-Canadian choice presented fewer disputes with customs officials.

Seattle, meanwhile, was a backwater with a reputation for forest products and not much else.

Yet, Seattle won the Klondike supply sweepstakes because of Erastus Brainerd. When he arrived in Seattle in 1890, Brainerd worked as a newspaper editor for the Seattle Press.

In 1897, with the arrival of SS Portland, bringing the legendary "Ton of Gold", the Seattle Chamber of Commerce formed a committee to draw the anticipated gold rush trade. Tens of thousands of prospectors needing supplies presented a golden opportunity for the city which would become the jumping off point.

Brainerd was appointed chairman and quickly kicked off the public relations war by placing ads in newspapers across the United States, proclaiming Seattle to be the "Gateway to the Yukon", even though it wasn't. He then convinced the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper to print a special edition focusing on this bogus claim.

The newspaper printed more than 200,000 copies and mailed them to postmasters across the US for distribution at local post offices. Twenty thousand were sent to newspaper editors and business organizations in the United States and Europe. Ten thousand were mailed to mayors, town councils and librarians.

Next came a promotional pamphlet. Authorities in Europe were so impressed with the circular they reprinted and distributed it for free. And Brainerd kept the publicity machine running by writing letters to every governor and mayor in the U.S., requesting information on "how many men to expect in Seattle" for the gold rush. Included in the letters were maps and guides to the gold fields - through Seattle, of course.

San Francisco also staged a PR campaign, but in December 1897, a writer for a national magazine called their effort a "sluggish" affair that paled beside the spirit displayed by Seattle.

Vancouver and Victoria also promoted their advantages, but warned prospective miners about the dangers of the adventure, and the chance of finding no gold. Seattle also acknowledged the risks, but wisely urged travellers to guard against them by purchasing plenty of supplies - in Seattle!

Brainerd 1
Group of railway employees standing in front of the WP&YR office with a gold shipment piled upon a cart. The gold, shipped from Dawson via WP&YR, is destined for the assay office in Seattle. Date: 1900.
Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #5038.
Click for larger view.

By 1898, Brainerd had spent ten thousand dollars and had successfully branded Seattle throughout the world as the Gateway to the Yukon. Of the estimated 100,000 prospectors who headed to the Klondike, about 70,000 travelled through Seattle. Cash registers rang throughout the booming city.

Prospectors also needed to carry their supplies and many used dog sleds. Seattle became the canine capital of North America. The Seattle-Yukon Dog Company made a small fortune.

Shipping also flourished. In the decade between 1880 and 1890, shipyards in Seattle had built eight ships a year. In 1898 alone, Seattle turned out 57 steamships, 17 steam barges and 13 tug boats, and became the maritime centre for Alaska.

Mathematics alone shows the impact of Brainerd's PR work. Each man, by Canadian law, had to pack a ton of gear. At an estimated $1,000 a ton, Klondike goods and services brought seventy million dollars into Seattle business coffers.

Today, Seattle residents look on Alaska as their own and this perception is in part a legacy of the Klondike Gold Rush, which linked Seattle and the Far North in the public mind, thanks to Erastus Brainerd who, when he died in 1922, became known as "The Man who made Seattle".


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



William Desmond Taylor

According to a friend who knew him in the Yukon, William Taylor was the dude of Dawson City. Not much was really known about the background of this flamboyant character who worked for the Yukon Gold Corporation, on and off, from 1908 to 1912. Ten years after leaving the Yukon, however, his death in Hollywood stunned America.

In Dawson City, William Taylor wore tweeds, a soft crush hat, tasteful harberdashery, and was immensely popular with the women. He played an excellent game of tennis, and was an expert at cards. He attended most of the big functions in a dress suit, one of the few dress suits in town. At the time, he was a timekeeper for the Yukon Gold Company at $175 a month. He also dabbled in prospecting, and later said he had some good claims, but never enough money to work them.

When he came to North America from England around the turn of the century, he ended up on the west coast. There his British background as a stage actor saw him perform in theatre productions in Bellingham and Seattle. In the Klondike, he performed at Arizona Charlie Meadows' famous Palace Grand Theatre. For all his public appearances, he gave his friends "the impression of a man on a mysterious mission". At times he would disappear. Nobody would know where he was.

Then he'd reappear and be as sociable as ever. It's said that women were interested in him. In Dawson, he was frequently the escort of married women. He left the Klondike for good in late 1912. On the west coast, he played in various stage productions. He finally ended up in Hollywood and became close friends with Jesse Lasky, who owned Paramount Pictures. This introduced him to the still young motion-picture business. He was given a role in the movie "A Tales of Two Cities", but he always wanted to direct films. Finally, he was asked to create, for the screen, versions of both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The success of these features made a name for Taylor in Hollywood, who was now in his early forties. In 1919, he directed the silent movie version of "Anne of Green Gables". Taylor had become an important Hollywood figure, keeping company with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and other greats of the silent-film era.

Thus it came as a shock to the motion-picture industry to read the headline on February 1st, 1922: "One of the most colourful, romantic careers in the motion picture colony - a life as redolent with "atmosphere", brilliance and adventure as that of any novelistic hero - was cut short when an assassin's bullet ended the life of William Desmond Taylor, the director".

William Desmond Taylor
William Desmond Taylor.
Click for larger view.

The Hollywood movie community was abuzz with rumor. Some said Taylor was involved with Chinese drug dealers. Others said one of any number of jealous women had pulled the trigger. As many as a dozen people "confessed" the murder, none of whom could have had anything whatever to do with it. Later, a friend confided to a reporter,"If Mr. Taylor was murdered because of any of his actions up there in the Klondike, the grudge must have been harbored for a long time." The police investigation continued on and off for more than ten years. Today, the death of William Desmond Taylor, who worked for the Klondike Gold Company and performed in Arizona Charlie Meadows' Palace Grand Theatre, remains one of the strange unsolved mysteries of Hollywood.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Robert Lowe Bridge

Back in the 1920s, tourism was not a big ticket item in the Yukon. The territory was accessible only by the White Pass Railway, which carried some tourists during the summer, but it was mainly used for freight operations -- delivering goods in and or out. So it was with considerable foresight that the bridge over Miles Canyon was built in 1922 as a tourist attraction. The imposing, 85-foot-long structure was designed by Bert Paterson, who was described as the "chief wharfinger" at Whitehorse. It was paid for by the federal Department of Public Works and the town of Whitehorse. The bridge was opened by Governor General Lord Byng at a dedication ceremony on Sunday, August 13th. The governor general was on an official visit to the Yukon and had already been to Dawson for the Discovery Day celebrations. He had also visited the Mayo mining district in the days when road travel was by horse drawn wagon. Yukon Member of Parliament George Black joined about twenty citizens of Whitehorse who made their way to the canyon for the 9am ceremony. The bridge across the canyon was officially named the Robert Lowe bridge to honour a long time Yukon politician and businessman. Lowe had become the first speaker of the first fully elected Yukon Territorial Council back in 1909.

In business, he was a freighter who hauled goods to the Kopper King Mining district, and was once owner of the Commercial Hotel that later became known as the White Pass Hotel and sat on the site now occupied by the Edgewater. When the bridge opened in 1922, Miles Canyon was a much more awesome spectacle before the hydro dam at the Whitehorse Rapids slowed the river through the basalt rocks. And speaking of names, Miles Canyon was named for Nelson Miles, an American military general who led much of the US military action during the opening of the American west. So the next time you visit the scenic spot at Miles Canyon, think of that day back in 1922 when the first real attraction dedicated to tourism in the Whitehorse area was officially opened.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




The First Dam on the Yukon River

There was a time when the Yukon River was the Yukon’s highway and the river boats were the life blood of the economy. The boats delivered everything from soup to nuts and bolts from the railhead at Whitehorse to the mining districts of Mayo and Dawson. And they brought silver ore and gold bullion out on the return trip from the interior. River boats were vital and were the only means of passenger travel in the summer until the Mayo-Dawson road was opened.

Between 1901 and 1953, the British Yukon Navigation Company, a subsidiary of White Pass and Yukon Route, operated a large fleet of stern wheelers on the Yukon River and its tributaries. At first, the fleet delivered passengers and freight to Dawson City and the Klondike Gold Fields. Then in the 1920s, bags of silver ore concentrate were delivered from Mayo on the river boats. The company needed to take full advantage of the short summer transportation season.

Ice would normally be gone from the river in mid-May. But there was a problem. The ice on Lake Laberge might not move until the early part of June. Something had to be done. But what?

Strange as it seems, the BYN tried to hasten the spring thaw by spreading a trail of soot along a narrow thirty mile track in the middle of the lake. Imagine! Soot would absorb the heat of the May sun and melt the ice, thus creating a track of open water for boats to navigate the lake. Where did all the soot come from and how was it hauled to Lake Laberge? Good questions for which I have no good answers. The system worked but needless to say this was a ponderous process and not very successful.

Then in 1922, the company decided that a dam on the river just below Marsh Lake would help. The dam would release a rush of water in the spring to break up the lake ice and thus speed up the start of navigation. This system wasn’t all that effective in lengthening the shipping season either. By 1953, it didn’t matter. Trucks could now use the road to Mayo and Dawson and the era of the river boats came to an end.

The dam, though upgraded since 1922, can still be seen where the bridge crosses the Alaska Highway at Marsh Lake.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin