The very interesting and very colorful mining history of the Yukon and Alaska deserve separate and more descriptive posts. The sternwheelers and dredges used in the Yukon Gold rush make for very interesting history.
Mining equipment and other freight taken by train to Whitehorse were still a long way from the goldfields radiating out from Dawson City. To move people and freight from Whitehorse to Dawson City, the railway company built a fleet of steam-powered, sternwheeler boats. These tall, white riverboats were similar to those made famous on the Mississippi River in the United States.
Yukon’s capital city of Whitehorse is home to the S.S. Klondike National Historical Site, to help understand and appreciate the unique history of the area and the importance of the sternwheeler this is a must-see attraction when passing through town. Restored to its 1937-40 appearance, the S.S. Klondike pays homage to the history of riverboat transportation along the Yukon River, that was once the main mode of travel in the region. For the first half of the 20th century, the British Yukon Navigation Company sternwheeler fleet navigated the Upper Yukon River between Whitehorse and Dawson City. The original S.S Klondike was launched in 1929 to transport ore to Whitehorse. She was a vessel designed with a cargo capacity fully 50% greater than the next largest boat on the river at the time. 210 feet long and 42 feet wide weighing 300 tons and only drawing 4 feet of water when fully loaded made her perfect for this river with its shallow waters and shifting gravel bars. The 500 mile journey from Whitehorse to Dawson City took only 40 hours (downriver) while it took as much as 4 days going the other way.
These steamboats burned tremendous amounts of wood, about a cord an hour to produce the steam that powered their wide, shallow paddlewheels. Wood camps were set up every 50 kilometers along the river, employing many woodcutters who were native people of the area.
“Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping.” – John Steinbeck
It was interesting to walk the decks of the restored sternwheeler and compare its locomotion to that of the steam engines that I am much more familiar with. The ships boiler is located on the stern while the engine room is on the bow of the ship with large pipes traveling between the two to carry the steam forward. Everything on the ship is designed for balance, both port and starboard as well as bow and stern need to be fairly equally matched in weight to allow the ship to float easily in the water. Cargo needed to be stored in equal amounts on both sides of the ship and there were tension lines that could be tightened or loosened to compensate for shifts in the river.
There were many parallels to that of the steam locomotives and it was interesting to hear from the Park Ranger that the railroads had used boilers taken off locomotives to build some of these ships.
Nearly 300 steamers plied the Yukon and its tributaries from the 1890s to the 1950s. At one time there were up to 70 of these majestic riverboats on the Yukon River alone. Before roads, the rivers were the only practical way to move people and goods in a territory that extends 2,000 miles from Canada through Alaska to the Bering Sea. But while the steamers operated, the Yukon was an efficient river highway that opened the Canadian Northwest to economic development.
In Dawson City you can visit the historic S.S. Keno restored by Parks Canada or take a river cruise on a sidewheeler the Klondike Spirit. The Spirit’s paddles are located along the sides of the vessel making it easier to navigate on it’s quick tourist jaunts up and down the river. I had a great trip on the Spirit spending much of the ride up on the top deck talking with the Captain. Owner of both the Spirit and the local Triple J Hotel he had spent the last 30 years living in Dawson City and was a wealth of knowledge. We talked everything from history to politics and it just reaffirmed my belief that it is the people and the stories in many of these places that make the trip worthwhile.
“We found on our journey, as well as in the place where we stopped, that they treated us with as much confidence and good-will as if they had known us all their lives.” – Junipero Serra
The White Pass and Yukon network of narrow-gauge steam trains and sternwheeler riverboats continued to be the only practical way to move goods into the Yukon until World War II. Fearing an invasion of Alaska by their enemy, the Japanese, the United States then decided to build an inland road that would be safe from attack by warships (remember the Alaska Highway?) and the era of the sternwheelers was coming to an end.
Most of these vessels were eventually wrecked, destroyed by explosion or fire, or dismantled for their lumber, machinery, and valuable hardware, a few lucky ones were saved and restored for their historic significance and others were simply abandoned and left to fall into disrepair where they had last been dry docked. If you take the ferry across the river from Dawson City and walk to the end of the Government Campground on you can follow a trail along the river to one such paddlewheel graveyard. A photo hanging on the Klondike Spirit showed this area in the 1950’s when they were abandoned to the elements. It is an eerie sight to see the hulks and remains of these magnificent reminders of history simply abandoned along the river. You can climb around the wreckage and imagine life back in the days of these steam-powered queens of the river.
Traveling this route from Skagway to Whitehorse and on to Dawson Creek is like traveling back in time following the paths of gold seeking prospectors from around the world. These early Klondike miners were removing the available gold by hand using panning and rockers to remove the gold from the rich ground. This hand-mining phase in the Klondike lasted only about three years until the easily retrieved riches were exhausted. Then came the era of the Dredges – and that is a colorful and interesting story for another post!