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The Whitehorse to Dawson Overland Trail: Part 4

by Ken Spotswood

To Part 1

There were some shocking exceptions...

Whitehorse-Dawson City Overland Trail logo       By the 1920s, roadhouse meals were generally highly regarded. There were, however, some shocking exceptions. One stopping-place on the road to the Keno silver mines was described as being run by two men who were "...indescribably filthy with long, greasy uncombed hair, unshaven faces, grease-ringed mouths and short, dirty mackinaws. Snow containing sawdust, rabbit turds and occasional urination was melted for water and black moosemeat, coated with dirt and gravel from the floor, was cut into a greasy pan without cleaning and served with a cup of muddy coffee." This indignity cost hungry travellers $1.50 and it's doubtful that anyone who survived it left a tip.

      The White Pass, however, ran some of the best roadhouses in the North. Some were owned outright by the company with hired staff, others were leased to the operators, while a few were privately owned with service contracts to the White Pass.

On the Trail

    "The trail wound from one valley into another, crossing great divides, now skirting the frozen river, now swinging along the edge of a huge bluff, or running through frost-silvered forests. Life on the stage during the five day journey was chiefly one roadhouse after another. Sometimes on mild days the wayfarers stretched a fur robe across their knees and whiled away the time with a game of poker or black jack.

    "The stages carried the Canadian mail, so they were known as Royal Mail stages, and the company as the Royal Mail Service. Among the fur-wrapped passengers were to be seen the faces of Klondike kings, card sharps, ministers, barkeepers, judges, business men, Indians who had struck it rich, men fleeing from debts and men rushing northward from a civilization that had broken them to begin life all over again.

    "There were no rules of the road on the Dawson trail. The stages had the right of way, for the Royal Mail knew no obstacles. It is said that in the long list of stage drivers not one was to be found who had ever abused the right of way. The drivers carried no horns or bugles, but often gave notice of their approach to a sharp curve with a weird malemute yell, echoing through the frozen hills."

    "Some interesting reports were received from stablemen at the various posts:
        'Horse 182 he's dead. He jus lay down and die. He was awful thin.'
        'Last month I write you send down a harness for old Billy. You send harness but you don't send collar. Now how in hell can a horse pull without a collar?'

William D. MacBride, Yukon historian, excerpt from his article 'Yukon Stage Line' in The Beaver magazine, June 1953.

      Roadhouses were a vital factor in winter transportation, not only on the Overland Trail but in other areas where extreme cold and bad weather required frequent stops. Drivers generally did not leave a post if the temperature was lower than 40 degrees below zero. It was not uncommon to start out at 20 below in the morning and encounter 60 below by evening.

      If a roadhouse thermometer wasn't available, a bottle of Perry Davis Painkiller was placed outside for a few minutes. If it froze, it was generally accepted that it was too cold for man or beast to travel.

      But while they were havens to all for the food, rest and warmth that they offered, they were also firetraps. The Montague Roadhouse near Carmacks was first built about 1900 and was destroyed by fire. The second Montague, built at a different site, also went up in flames. It was rebuilt a third time in 1915 and remained in service until the 1950s. In 1993 the Yukon government's Heritage Branch decided to stabilize the remaining four walls rather than restore the entire building. The Montague is the only remaining Overland Trail roadhouse directly on the modern Klondike Highway, and it's still a popular roadside photo-stop for travellers. The restored Carmacks roadhouse is a two-minute drive off the Highway in that community.

      In 1907 the Yukon government passed an ordinance that required every roadhouse over one storey to install a fire escape from every upstairs bedroom. Owners and operators responded in typical frontier fashion - they coiled a rope at each upstairs window or emergency exit. In the event of a fire, guests were expected to dress quickly, let down the rope and slide their way to safety.

Some took the stage, some skied...

 Traditional dog sled travel on the Overland Trail An impressive 12-dog sled team navigates the Yukon wilderness.
      While most of the traffic along the winter trail belonged exclusively to the White Pass, a small number of independent stages used the Overland Trail. It also wasn't unusual to see skiers making their way along the trail, pulling small packs or sleds of provisions behind them. Many old-timers still remember the days when men, who couldn't afford to take the stage, skied from Whitehorse to Dawson in the spring in order to get summer jobs on the sternwheelers. If they waited until the boats started running, all the jobs would be taken. Such work on the river was seasonal and, in some cases, men who worked on the riverboats in the summer spent the winter working as cooks in roadhouses.

On the Trail

    "'Independence houses' were cheap, with only curtains separating the rooms, and some of these were dirty, miserable two-room cabins that charged $2.00 per meal and $2.00 per night, whether you slept in a bunk or on the floor in a canvas. Guests might be grudgingly greeted or ignored and fed fried snowshoe rabbit, half-raw grizzly bear steaks, stringy old caribou or beaver legs with frost-blackened potatoes and whatever else was cheap. Hotcakes might be cold and tough, coffee lukewarm and poisonous, eggs strong and deep-coloured, meat suspicious-tasting and cans rusted, with contents comminuted and bulged from repeated freezings.

    "One place on the Mayo road had a stove equipped to feed in 16-foot wood as it burned to save labour cutting it. Its owner used to pick tobacco out of his teeth with the same fork that he used to fry the frozen grayling that were caught nearby and fed to travellers. Another place, on the main road, was described by Major Neville Armstrong as a small log cabin with a gravel floor, six dirty spruce bole bunks and a filthy stove and cooking table...Such conditions were said to 'appease hunger without eating and led to prayers that the night would pass quickly so one could get away."

Aaro Aho, unpublished manuscript at Yukon Archives (MSS 11, #82/161)

      Between 200 and 275 horses were used by the White Pass along the Overland Trail during the winter season. An average of 15 teams of 4 horses each were used for a single trip. Each horse had a number stamped on a front hoof and every one had a name. The company employed a veterinarian at Whitehorse where it had large stables and a horse hospital.

      Other veterinarians travelled the route and tended to the needs of horses at the various outposts. It also operated its own carriage and sleigh, harness and blacksmith shops.

      In the summer months, when company sternwheelers resumed service on the Yukon River, the horses were pastured in Yukon meadows to roam and fatten up for the next winter's service. Summer care included painting vulnerable parts of their anatomy with a mixture of tar and insect-repelling oils to protect them from swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitoes, black gnats and other biting insects. In the winter their diet consisted of bran mash, oats and timothy hay - most of which was imported from the West Coast because it had more nutrition than locally-grown hay. Like most animals, the horses grew long hair in winter as added protection against the cold. Before resuming work each fall, the upper parts of their bodies were clipped to prevent them from steaming and frosting up while working.

      To prevent their lungs from being 'burned' - a fatal condition to people and animals caused by breathing in very cold air - protectors were placed over their chests and a bag-like contraption was placed over their nostrils. Horses whose lungs had been burned usually died in the spring or early summer, but such losses were few.

To Overland Trail, Part 5 of 5