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The Whitehorse to Dawson Overland Trail: Part 3

by Ken Spotswood

To Part 1

The flow of traffic resumes...

Whitehorse-Dawson City Overland Trail logo       They got the stage across - in pieces. They dismantled it on one side of the river, carried and dragged the pieces across, then reassembled it on the other side.

      "The bridge buckled and sagged, and it was like the undulations of a snake, but it didn't break through, and we got the sleigh across. Thus we inaugurated the 'Overland' between Whitehorse and Dawson...

      "After this experience we developed a new technique and in subsequent years we boomed the river. We had the boom all ready and as soon as the ice started to run heavy enough to interfere with the ferry, we ran the boom across and jammed the ice above the ferry until it was strong enough for crossing." As soon as the ice had frozen, the cable ferries were removed and traffic crossed over the ice formed by the log boom. As a result of these brush bridges, the flow of traffic resumed in days instead of weeks.

On the Trail

    Simon 'Simmie' Feindel was a driver on the White Pass stages who drove the Overland Trail for nearly 20 years. On his retirement he wrote a fond farewell about his experiences which was published in the Dawson Daily News, May 5, 1920:

    "'Yep' said Simmie today as he tackled a mulligan at the life saving station, 'this probably will be my last round trip with the old outfit and possibly with any outfit on the trail. After this trip, I will go back up the route again to clean up and bring in the winter stock, and kiss the 'widdies' and babies good-bye, and shed a gentle tear with each...

    "While we make good time now, it does not compare to the rush trips of early days when Klondike kings paid the price for rushing through. I think I hold the record for the fastest time ever made by stage from Whitehorse to Dawson. I made the trip in the spring of 1901, and brought down that trip the famous 'Count' Carbonneau and the countess--erstwhile Belinda Mulrooney--and Chief Wills of the Bank of Commerce and several others, including some lawyers.

    Only a day ahead of us Authier started down the trail with the Klondike king 'Big Alec', more properly Alexander McDonald. It was the intention to smash the record with that rig. I got the tip, and the 'Count' and the 'Chief' and the rest of them were anxious to beat the 'King' in. So I gave the nags the bud, and away we went. I made it into Dawson and arrived only four hours behind the other rig. I would have overtaken, but they left a bum team with a bad horse for me, and thus prevented me carrying out a plan to drive one post ahead of them at night while they were asleep at the roadhouse. We came down the trail that trip in three days and nine hours from Whitehorse to Dawson, and I am sure there never was faster time made between the two places by winter rig. Although 'Big Alec' got in four hours ahead, his time was slower."

      Horses sometimes broke through the ice on river crossings. As a safeguard, choke-lines were placed around their necks and tightened when necessary, to prevent them from struggling in the water, becoming hopelessly tangled and swept under the ice. This way they could usually be cut loose and floated to where they could be pulled out on solid ice or ground.

      As soon as the snow was deep enough the wheeled stages were replaced by sleighs, which were drawn by teams of four to six horses. And with bells on their harnesses, they jingled all the way. The sleighs made better time than the stages because their runners glided easily over the snow-covered trail. As a result, fares were considerably cheaper in the winter.

      A one-way ticket cost $125. The fare dropped to $75 from December 1 to the end of the sleighing season and rose to $100 from March 15 to the opening of river navigation. Roadhouse meals and beds cost extra. Passengers were allowed 25 pounds of luggage free. Excess baggage was 30-cents a pound. In some cases, if there was too much freight, passengers were made to get out and walk or run behind the horse-drawn stage. Travel was during the daytime only and at night passengers would board at one of the roadhouses along the trail.

A first-class relay stage line to Dawson

      In 1902 the White Pass published a pamphlet to tell the world that there was a year-round transportation service between Skagway, Alaska, and Dawson City. It advertised its narrow-gauge rail service between Skagway and Whitehorse, and promoted the Overland Trail as a first-class relay stage line to Dawson.

Dressed for winter travel in the Yukon Dressed for a winter in the Yukon.
      People who braved the winter journey had to be well dressed because the sleighs - like the stages - were uncovered. They wore fur coats, fur hats with nose and ear protectors and well-insulated footwear such as felt shoes or moccasins. On the floor the company provided a metal box which burned coal or was stuffed with heated bricks to keep feet warm. It also provided buffalo robes for added warmth.

      The stage drivers, or 'skinners' as they were called, wore coon-skin fur coats with long red sashes tied around their waists, and soft fur-backed leather gloves with silk or woolen liners. On very cold days they often held the reins in one hand and used the other to beat their shoulder to keep up blood circulation. The 'seat of honour', reserved for favoured passengers in favourable weather, was beside the driver.

On the Trail

    From the diary of White Pass stage driver A.W. Haddock, April 30 - May 1, 1904:

    "Was awakened at 4:30 a.m. by Mrs. Whalen, and the Pelly River was running into the roadhouse; in five minutes we were walking around the rooms waist deep. There was a large canoe, upside down, tied to a tree across the road. Ice was floating by in big blocks. Ernie and I found two paddles floating and we at once swam across, righted the canoe and brought it to the front door. We then took the women folks and Mr. Tyrrel (a 'coloured helper' at the roadhouse), clad only in their nightshirts, to dry ground a mile away. Ernie and I then paddled to the barn and found the horses almost covered with water. After two hours struggle we got five of them to shallower water, but one was drowned."

May 1, 1904:
    "Got up at day-break, had some canned peas for breakfast and found water down a little. In the roadhouse there was about two feet of water running through. The door of the cellar had floated away and Tyrrel fell in the cellar over his head; he came up but was badly scared. We found some more grub on a shelf in the kitchen. We are in hard luck, most everything is in the cellar and none of us can dive. Then came back to Pleasant Camp as we had named it. We had found a small keg of rum floating around which was soon put to good use."

      Many travellers would wait in Whitehorse or Dawson for days in order to ride with their preferred driver. Among the more popular drivers were 'Simmy' Feindel, 'Dummy' Coghlan, 'Hobo Bill' Donnenworth, Billy Cameron, George Keeler, George Webster, Charlie Chinery, 'Skookum' McAdam, Jim Gannon, 'Jeff' Jefferson, 'Hard Face' Reeves, Ernie Burwash, George Howes, Bill Powell, Ed Spahr and Joe 'High Priest' McDonald.

An average, a journey on the Overland trail took five days

      The trip between Whitehorse and Dawson took anywhere from three to 10 days depending on the season, the trail and weather conditions. The average journey took five days. Each day, three or four scheduled stops were made at outposts, which were about 20 to 25 miles apart. At each stop passengers ate and rested while the teams of horses were changed. Tired steeds were rubbed down, blanketed, fed and put into log stables heated by wood stoves. Fresh horses were hitched to the sleigh for the next leg of the journey. Meals cost $1.50 and beds were $1.00 a night. Private rooms, if available, were $2.00 a night or more.

      These stops were a welcome respite for drivers, passengers and horses. Each post generally consisted of a roadhouse, stables, storehouses, cabins, separate outhouses for men and women, and huge stacks of firewood. Roadhouses were fairly uniform, which was largely due to government regulations. They were one or two-storey log buildings chinked with moss. Their roofs were covered with moss and dirt for insulation. Their furniture was homemade and rustic. Kerosene lamps and candles provided light. Some even had bathtubs, although water had to be hauled and heated.

Laura Berton in Dawson City, Yukon Laura Berton in Dawson City
      A typical 1920s roadhouse on the Overland Trail was described by Laura Berton in her book I Married the Klondike:

In one general room stood the familiar giant heater around which was built an iron rack on which we hung our wet gauntlets, scarves and coats. Beside this was a long table absolutely jammed with hot food - roast moose, caribou, mountain sheep, native blueberry pie and huge dishes of baked beans. As I was travelling alone I was allotted a tiny cubicle with a bed to myself. The single men slept in bunks, which in the smaller posts were all in the main room.

      Roadhouses that had liquor licenses - and most of them did - were required to have at least six comfortable bedrooms, a sitting room and dining room all separate from the bar, where a shot of Seagram's rye whisky cost 50 cents and a 26-ounce bottle cost $1.50. These and other regulations were strictly enforced by the North-West Mounted Police.

To Overland Trail, Part 4