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The Whitehorse to Dawson Overland Trail: Part 5

by Ken Spotswood

To Part 1

Automobiles take to the trail...

Whitehorse-Dawson City Overland Trail logo       According to H.J. Woodside, editor of the Yukon Sun, there were three automobiles in the Dawson area by September of 1901. Cars in the Yukon remained a novelty for the next 10 years, mainly because of the primitive road system in the territory. Because sternwheelers were a more reliable and cheaper means of transportation, road construction to accommodate cars and trucks was delayed on a large scale until the 1940s.

The first autombile in Dawson City The first automobile in Dawson City, on the Yukon River ice with the more usual mode of winter transport.
      The first car to drive the Overland Trail completed the journey in 1912. For the first few years cars could only travel during the dry summer months, and in the fall before the snowfall became too heavy. But two years later, enough motor vehicles were using it that speed limits were imposed on the trail and in Dawson City.

On the Trail

    Oct. 24, 1904, A. Klimesch, owner of the Dominion Hotel at Fort Selkirk, is investigated for selling liquor in wholesale quantities, apparently supplying other roadhouses, including the Pelly Crossing; reported to police by Russ A. Rumball. Klimesch was fined $50 plus costs.

    June 14, 1905, Klimesch writes to the Licence Board stating that in the spring "there is a great deal of drunkenness among the Indians in and about Selkirk," and he wants it known that he is not supplying them, so Mrs. Nelson must be.

    Dec. 23, 1909, Klimesch requests cancellation of his liquor licence for the balance of the year. Permission is refused; only when hotels burn down are licences cancelled.

      Klondike mining promoter Joe Boyle and his wife left Dawson in mid-December of 1912 in an attempt to drive to Whitehorse in their 20 hp Flanders car. Bad road conditions - and a 1,500-pound load in the car - forced them to abandon the car and catch a White Pass stage for the last part of their trip.

      A few days later, their attempt was upstaged by the arrival in Whitehorse of Commissioner George Black and C.A. Thomas of the Yukon Gold Co. in Thomas' 60 hp. Locomobile, which was driven by chauffeur George Potter. Driving time from Dawson was 35 1/2 hours. "Tires were worn down to the canvas and nearly everything loose that was not riveted," Black reported. After making necessary repairs in Whitehorse they started on the return trip, but the Locomobile broke down just north of the Pelly River. The weary trio arrived in Dawson by stage on New Year's Eve.

      In 1904 and 1905 the first winter stage route was built between Dawson City and Duncan Creek. At that time a Liberal government was in power and the route was dubbed 'The Liberal Trail'. From Dawson it travelled the Dominion Creek road for some distance, then down the Tintina Trench to Barlow (with a branch to Clear Creek), then to McQuesten, Moose Creek and Mayo. Later, when a Conservative government was elected, the route was changed and the new road became known as 'The Conservative Trail'. It remained the same from Dawson to Barlow, then moved to Clear Creek, along Vancouver Creek, crossed the McQuesten River and up Bear Creek to Minto Bridge. The merits of the two trails often depended on one's political affiliation. Some said the Conservative Trail was drier and faster while others insisted that the Liberal Trail was shorter.

"Skinners" become "cat skinners" - stables become garages - the Overland Trail becomes memories

      During 1914-15, improvements were made to the trail itself to better accommodate motor vehicles - and to the river crossings on the Yukon, Pelly and Stewart rivers where cable ferries were installed that could handle six-horse teams and wagons. An overhead carrier was also built at Yukon Crossing to transfer freight, passengers and mail when ice was running on the river.

      The golden age of the Overland Trail ended in the spring of 1921 when the White Pass gave up its mail contract and the winter transportation service.

      After the 1920s mining activity decreased and roadhouses along the trail began to deteriorate. Passenger transport was not a high priority with the contractors who took over the winter mail and freight service. After that, winter travel between Whitehorse and Dawson was carried out by various contractors who used trucks and Caterpillar tractors, or 'cat trains' which could haul anywhere from four to seven sleighs and cabooses. The 'skinners' who used to drive the stages now became 'cat skinners'. With the use of these new vehicles, stage relays were no longer needed. The majority of roadhouses along the trail were phased out and many of the stables were converted to garages.

On the Trail

    "On January 9, Joseph Legler, proprietor of the Middle LaBarge roadhouse, was found dead on Lake LaBarge about a mile and a half south of his roadhouse, having died from exposure. He had been to White Horse for supplies and returning to his roadhouse while a fierce storm was raging evidently lost his way, got played out and succumbed to the cold..."

Annual Report, North-West Mounted Police, 1902

      After airplane service arrived in the territory in the late 1920s, a string of emergency air fields was built adjacent to the Overland Trail. Travellers ultimately preferred the quick flights between Whitehorse and Dawson.

      Only a few of the original roadhouses survive in the Yukon, in varying degrees of soundness. Fires have destroyed many and nature has taken its toll of the rest. The Yukon government has stabilized the Montague roadhouse. The Carmacks Roadhouse had its exterior restored in 1996-97 by the Village of Carmacks as part of centennial celebrations. Remains of the roadhouse at Yukon Crossing still stand on the Yukon River, about halfway between Whitehorse and Dawson. Ruins of others are visible at Bishop Creek, Calder Summit and Minto. They sit, like forgotten monuments to a bygone era, on abandoned parts of the old roads where they are seldom visited or disturbed. Others are almost overgrown and obscured.

      The overland journey from Whitehorse to Dawson City used to take seven and a half days when the rivers were open, and about five days when they were frozen. Today the drive takes about six hours along the paved North Klondike Highway. Or you can make the trip by plane in a little over an hour. While these modern means offer speed and comfort, nothing compares to the romance or the rich history of the Yukon's first highway - The Overland Trail.

Whitehorse-Dawson City Overland Trail, 1997, by Greg Skuce
The Overland Trail as its looks today.
Photo by Greg Skuce, for the Yukon Government, Heritage Branch