ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

Journey to the Klondike, 1900

Klondike Gold Rush

Journey to Atlin, 1900 by Cy Warman, June 23, 1900

Dateline: November 25, 2020.

The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), April 21, 1900

Journey to the Klondike, 1900

(Copyright, 1900, by Cy Warman.)

Written for The Evening Star.

    Bennett-on-the-Lake is the one absolutely cheerless station, the one inhospitable port, the one dreary, desolate, unsheltered, unshaded shore on the long trail from Chicago to the Klondike. It is here that the pilgrim, for the present, leaves the White Pass railway and boards a river steamer for Canyon City, at the head of Miles Canyon, where there is another change to "rail" around White Horse rapids, a hundred miles from Bennett.

    The winds blow at Bennett without ceasing. In winter they wail up through the narrow neck of the lake, cry across the snow and sob and moan in the icy eaves of the iron freight houses. In summer they complain constantly, sighing over the sands along the lake front and powdering the faces of passing pedestrians with pulverized stone - the natural paving in the one street of the town.

    The only cheerful spot here is the picturesque club house, standing high up on the shore, overlooking the beautiful lake. Oh! the scenery is all right. From the wide veranda of the quaint little club house you can look out over the clear water, sleeping peacefully between the grand old hills that rise abruptly on either hand. Far away the lake narrows to a river and is lost to view among the distant dim mountains. Now the wind seems to have sobbed itself to sleep. The sun is sinking behind the hill as we go down the steep bluff, board the steamer Australian and sail away. Our new-found friends, jolly good fellows, at the club house, are waving us adieu.

White Pass - Journey to the Klondike, 1900

    As we sit down to our first meal on the waters of the mighty Yukon we observe that beer has bounded from 75 cents to a dollar and a half a bottle. The lake has pinched out and we are now riding the swift waters of the majestic river. How they hit these river boats! This one has powerful engines and they are banging them for all they are worth. I think she is trying to shake us to sleep.

    Jim has just come up from the engine room, and down from the pilot house, and he assures me that this boat is "dead safe." Built in Pittsburg, she is all steel, 115 feet long, 26 feet beam, with water-tight compartments, electric lights and two big searchlights that are constantly sweeping the shore on either side of the river. These are necessary, however, only for an hour or two at midnight, and then only in the shadow of the hills, for it is never very dark here in the summer.

    The manager of the company proclaims to his patrons that "In addition to carrying a Canadian master, the company has two thoroughly experienced swift-water American pilots on each of its boats."

A Threefold Captaincy.

    And it does. A Canadian captain sits at the head of the table, but a Yankee runs the boat. The former to satisfy the law, the latter presumably to satisfy the passengers. It is not that the Canadians lack intelligence or training, but they are sailors of the lakes, while the Yankees come from the ever-changing Missouri, the treacherous Mississippi or the swift Columbia. Naturally there is a good deal of friction. Both the Yankee pilots must have a captain's license and each must be called captain. The result is that there are three captains on each, and each feels that he is the captain, but he is not.

    By and by, when the Canadians get used to the twist of the trail and the speed of the current, they may take charge in the pilot house, but, as Jim puts it, "You want a swift-water Willie at the wheel on these curves and rapids."

    Now the winds begin to cry and moan. The ship lists and leans far to the leeward. We are passing the famous Windy Arm. It is well named.

    Far away somewhere in a remote corner of the ship - perhaps up in the pilot house or down in the engine room, or in the stewardess' boudoir - I hear a woman's voice singing without accompaniment, sweetly, plaintively, "Far away - Far away."

    That was the last I knew until the sun came in at my little window and warmed my nose. The sleeping is glorious on the upper Yukon.

    We have hurried through our breakfast so as to be out at the canon. We have slept through beautiful Lake Marsh, and are now in the kinks and curves of the Yukon, swift and deep. The current here runs three to four miles an hour, the boat makes fifteen; so we are gliding along between the softly shaded hills just fast enough to make it interesting. There is no snow to be seen, no mountains near; neither is there valley or bottom lands. Just the rolling hills, that seem to part to let the cool, green river slip through. Sometimes the hills are barren, save for the short grass, sometimes covered with a thick growth of low spruce. Here and there fires have destroyed the forests, and there is a field of flowers.

    Wherever the forest fire sweeps the hills the beautiful fireweed grows and blooms. And thus nature hastens to hide her scars.

No Flotsam on the Stream.

    The river is unlike any other river I have ever seen. There is nothing floating on the face of it, no drift along the shore. It impresses one as being brand new. It is easy to fancy that the channel was empty yesterday; that the water has just been turned on. This is because the river is "high" now, but there are none of the indications of a flood. The water is clear, and almost as green as the waters of the South Pacific. The trees and grass and moss grow right down to the water's edge. It is just like a big brook. Any other river in this condition would be "bank full," but, as I said before, there are no banks - there is no bottom land - only gentle, rolling hills ranged along the shore.

    A deep, narrow trail lies over the hill. One end of it hangs in the water. The pilot says it is made by the cariboo coming down to drink. Early last night we passed a port called Cariboo Crossing.

    Now we round a bend and enter a broad, comparatively quiet stretch of water, at the end of which we see a couple of river boats, like our own. Beyond the boats are long rows of low log houses, the homes of the northwest mounted police, of the people who operate the tram and offices of some of the steamboat companies. On the right bank are some Indians near a wood pile, making frantic signals to our boat. They want to sell their wood.

Like a Great Millrace.

    At the far end of this open water the river turns sharply to the left. The current is becoming swifter. Suddenly the boat turns her tail down the river, the bells jingle, the wheel revolves furiously as we swing about just above the narrows, where the water sweeps through like a great millrace.

    Now, if the engines should become disabled we would be sucked into the millrace, slammed through Miles canyon, and, if anything were left of the boat, pound to pieces on the hidden rocks in the rapids of White Horse. But the engines hold her until a line is made fast to a spruce tree, and we swing gently to the floating wharf, the wheel still working to relieve the tension of the head line.

    Here we break bulk. The quaintest little railroad runs from here past Miles canyon and White Horse rapids to White Horse Station - five miles.

    Passengers from the Victorian, outward bound, are tramping in over the trail, going aboard the Bailey and the Sifton. Some have come up "by rail" and are already aboard ship. A dark woman with a hard, happy, Irish face, wearing a red dressing sack, a black hat and a red plume, is weighing in at the purser's office. She has sundry sacks of gold dust and some beautiful nuggets. I asked about this bonanza queen and was told that this was "Jim Hall's walkin' boss."

    I asked about Jim Hall and they told me that he was one of the new-made millionaires of the Klondike and owner of "seventeen" - something.

    A miner sat smoking behind the dump one day. Maud, the walking boss, crept up, peeped over the dump and caught him, red-handed. She shied a pebble down and the man looked up. "Well," said the foreman, "you blank of a blank, you hittin' the pipe at $15 a day? Come to the cabin an' get yer dust."

    That was the way she handled the men, and it is related that she saved many a nugget for Hall.

A Look at Miles Canyon.

    While waiting for the wagons to return from White Horse I walked down to have a look at the famous Miles Canyon. At first glance I was disappointed. After standing on the walls and looking down into the Royal Gorge, after seeing the canyon of the Colorado, this is tame. But wait until a scow comes round the bend. There is only one man, the expert, who takes boats through here and over White Horse, a mile or so below, for twenty, fifty or a hundred dollars, according to the value of the cargo and the owner's ability to pay. He steadies her at the head, and then the current catches her and slams her through the narrow gorge at the speed of a train. It is thrilling, even to stand on the wall and see a boat go by.

Miles Canyon - Journey to the Klondike, 1900

    Here comes an Ottawa man whom I met in June last, bound for Dawson, full of hope and enthusiasm. I try to read his story in his face, but he is a quiet, undemonstrative man, so I ask him boldly how they are breaking. "Fine," he answers scarcely above a whisper. "We have a fraction of a claim near 17 Eldorado - one of my brothers has been there for some time. The other day we found dirt that washed out $9 to the pan. We covered it up, quietly - it will keep, you know - and now I'm going out to return next year."

    As we talk we must keep turning this way and that to fight off the filthy Indians, who thrust their dirty heads into our faces and their thieving fists into our pockets.

A Risky Performance.

    Now the boat bound for Bennett casts off. When she is a good seven feet from the wharf a fine athletic young policeman rushes down, takes a run and jump for the moving boat. Every one holds his breath, for the water is swift and deep. Moreover, if the man fails to reach the boat he will fall just above the whirling wheel. He lands with the breast of his brown duck coat on the edge of the afterdeck. There is no one aft to help him. His legs are swinging under the boat - the paddles of the stern wheel barely miss him. For a moment he hangs helpless, with only his elbows and hands on the wet deck. Now he begins to hunch himself along, like a cat on the edge of an eave trough, and finally grasps a brace and pulls himself aboard.

    All this time the headline is still tugging at the bow of the boat, to keep her nose up stream. A moment later the policeman, having run up the stairway and down again, runs forward, and, just as the line is cast off, leaps from the lower deck to a rowboat, and from there to the shore. As he walks past, panting like a ferry engine, I ask him why he has romped so near to death. "Oh," he answers, with a wave of his hand, "man thought his grip had gone back on that boat, but it hadn't,"

    That was all. This fearless young man had risked his life to do a stranger a good turn. It was not a part of his business, but he did it, and thought nothing of it.

Freight for White Horse.

    Now the empties begin to rattle in from White Horse - the empty cars on the Spruce Line. While the horses eat the men load the freight, using a scrubby cayuse as switch engine. The motive power of the Spruce Line consists of twenty-six horses, the rolling stock includes thirteen four-wheeled, unpainted freight cars, about the size and shape of an ordinary transfer wagon. The wheels of the cars are wide and concaved, to fit over the round spruce rail. The ties are of the same material - spruce - and were cut when the right of way was cleared. This, the first "railway" in the Yukon country, is better for the moment than anybody's mine. Each of these cars, drawn by two ordinary horses, walking tandem, driven by a man who handles freight at each end of the line, earns $40 a trip, making from two to three trips a day. The foreman said operating expenses were $500 a day. At least half that was dust in my eye. Call it $300 and this five miles of spruce road is clearing a thousand dollars a day carrying freight and people into a country that is supposed to be dead.

    "You come on the last car and look after the luggage," said Capt. B. "I'll go on to White Horse, round my fellows up, secure a boat, and if the Victorian does not sail until midnight we'll take a scoot over into the new copper fields."

    About 1 p.m. my car left the station, and about 1:08 left the track. The sharp rim of the wheel cut into the rail, climbed it and dropped to the ties. A delicate-looking lady from 'Frisco, with an eight-year-old boy, who had been ill all night, and I made up the passenger list.

    We unloaded. I helped the long, lank, good-natured fireman, engineer and conductor make wooden frogs for the wheels. Then we hitched to the rear end of the car and tried to drag it back on the rail. It would not go on, and we were obliged to send back to the Canyon for help.

    Finally we were on again - gone again. When the little boy was walking in the dust of the trail he cried and complained. When his mother put him on the car he regretted it, for there was great danger of dislocating his spinal column. I paid a dollar to ride, and when I was not helping to get the car on the track I was walking, and when I was not walking I was regretting my dollar.

A Little Klondike Romance.

    "There, dear" said Mrs. M. to her little boy, "are the dreadful White Horse rapids, where papa's ship was wrecked, and here over this rocky trail he walked with bare, bleeding feet."

    Scenting "copy" I introduced myself and learned that Mr. M. had been wrecked in the rapids some two years ago. His boat, with his leather coat and note book in the bottom of it, drifted all the way to Dawson. A San Francisco newspaper correspondent found the coat, guessed the rest, and Mr. M. was mourned as dead at 'Frisco for many moons. Finally he reached Dawson and contradicted the story of his death, and now, after two long years, his wife and boy were going to join him at Dawson, where he has a profitable law business.

    Across on the opposite shore, high up on the bluff, we can see another tramway - an opposition line. It is a better road than this, has "sawed rails," the drivers tell us, but it is not being operated. This company has bought it to cut off competition, there being no law in Canada against the "consolidation of competing parallel lines." It has cost the Spruce Line sixty cool thousand. When the White Horse and Yukon Road is completed to White Horse both these trams will be worth in the neighborhood of sixty thousand cents.

    When I reached White Horse it was 4 p.m. My friends had given me up for lost and gone to the copper fields without me. I was not sorry, for an old Colorado miner told me, confidentially, that the "skeeters were thicker out there than fiddlers in the hereafter."             CY WARMAN.