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The Whitehorse to Dawson Overland Trail: Part 2

by Ken Spotswood

To Part 1

Yukon innovations in stage and sleigh design

Whitehorse-Dawson City Overland Trail logo       The White Pass began its winter service with the popular Concord stage coaches imported from Concord, New Hampshire, but they were soon abandoned. The Concords were designed for more moderate use on well-graded roads in milder southern climates. They weren't strong enough for hauling heavy loads on long journeys down rugged wilderness trails in temperatures that dropped to 40 degrees below zero.

      The company began to design and build stages and sleighs that were more suited to the primitive road conditions and sub-zero climate. One improvement was a unique spring designed for the undercarriage.

      The metal leaf springs of the Concord became brittle in cold weather. They snapped with frustrating regularity on the rugged trail. The new springs were made of layers of leather straps, which proved exceptionally durable.

      They were similar to those used by stages on the old Cariboo Trail in British Columbia. They were also easier to repair and replace, although they made for a bumpier ride. The new springs were called "thorough-braces" and they enabled coaches to carry 14-passengers - and up to a ton of baggage, mail and freight in the back. The company also built specially designed freight sleds that could haul up to 3,000 pounds. In the fall, wheeled stages were used before the snow was deep enough for sleighs. They were also used in the spring to get through the slush and mud as the snow and river ice melted. Drivers had to keep their wits about them at all times, especially when a spring had glaciered across the road on a steep mountain slope. Wind often drifted snow and blocked the trail, which had to be shoveled out. In spring and fall travellers had to cope with floods, washouts, mud and rock slides as well as river crossings when ice conditions were dangerous.

On the Trail

    "Across from me sat an English couple who knew Frank well and who were later to become our close friends--Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Coldrick. She was a plump, pleasant-faced woman who did not care too much for the Yukon and who quite often spent her winters Outside. He was the epitome of the transplanted Englishman. For all of his time in Dawson he wore clothes cut in the English style, a black bowler hat or cloth tweed cap, and carried a tightly rolled umbrella...

    "Next to the Coldricks sat a prospector--the typical, grizzled miner of fiction, unshaven, pale-faced, with long, untidy hair, a dirty white collar and a flask in his pocket. Up front beside the driver sat another mining man named Tom Kirkpatrick, who was very jovial and drunk for the entire journey. He had a bottle at all times and continually pulled on it. When we stopped at the various road-houses for meals and he could get no liquor he quite cheerfully drank horse medicine instead. Of all of us, he seemed to have the best time."

    "One afternoon, after the bottle had been passed frequently down, man after man dropped mysteriously off the sleigh, which slowed down for them. I became curious and was starting to turn about, when Mr. Coldrick stopped me. 'Don't look, Miss Thompson!' The command was urgent and self-explanatory and I closed my eyes on the instant.

    "By this time the male passengers could not by any stretch of the imagination be called attractive. Many slept in their clothes, few bothered to shave, and all wore, after the fashion of the day, long moustaches and in some cases beards, from which hung clusters of tiny icicles. When periodically one or another produced a flask and, after taking a healthy swig himself, passed it around, I feigned sleep."


      There were plenty of mishaps as wheeled stages occasionally upset and sometimes rolled down the hillsides. The wheeled stages had heavy brakes that could lock the rear wheels, which were operated from the driver's seat. Sleighs were equipped with chain rough-locks which, when activated by the driver, swung under the runners and tightened. The weight of the sleigh on the chains brought it to a stop. Sleighs also had metal bars that, when released, dug into the roadbed for sudden stops. But there were very few serious accidents as horses instinctively kept their footing and held to the trail. Passengers had little to worry about other than being unceremoniously dumped into a snowbank.

Booming the river to speed up transfers

      At freeze-up and break-up - when the river ice is at its weakest - people, luggage, mail and freight were laboriously paddled across open water in canoes. Another coach and horses waited on the other side. In order to speed up these time-consuming canoe transfers, the White Pass developed an ingenious technique of 'booming' the river above each crossing to jam the ice. It was a technique that sprang from the experience of its first stage passenger.

      On November 2, 1902, the first overland stage left Whitehorse for Dawson, then the capital of the Yukon. It carried two passengers - Herbert Wheeler, the newly-appointed superintendent of the company, and George Jeckell, a school teacher who later became Comptroller of the Yukon. Their driver was Billy Cameron.

      "When we got to Takhini we found a nice mess," Wheeler wrote later. "The river had closed with a very light jam of thin ice, most of which was not more than a quarter of an inch thick. The ferry was frozen in at the edge of the river in shore ice, too much ice to break through with the ferry, yet the ice would hardly hold a dog. To make matters worse, it was quite mild, just a few degrees of frost, and it looked as if we might sit there for a week before the ice would be strong enough to cross on."

      Wheeler then got the idea of building a brush bridge on the ice across the river. He and the others hauled load after load of tree limbs and green brush from fresh-cut spruce trees. They gradually laid the brush across the river, then packed it with snow and ice. They cut holes in the ice to draw water and sprinkled it all through the brush, in the hope that by morning it would freeze into a mat solid enough for all to cross. They worked until 10 p.m. and then went to bed.

      "We got up very early and took a look at our bridge, patched it up in a few places, and sprinkled a little more water on it, so that it would freeze up a little more while we were having breakfast," Wheeler wrote.

      "After breakfast we hauled the stage down to the south end of our bridge. We tried the bridge first with small loads on a hand sleigh and we got all the mail, baggage and express across safely. So far so good. Then we looked at one another and I said to Billy, 'Let's try a horse. Pick the poorest one and take the harness off him.' "So we led our horse across, then the second, third and fourth, all safely - Eureka! When we got the four horses across, we harnessed them and blanketed them, tied them up to trees and gave them a little hay to play with, as there was lots to do yet."

To Overland Trail, Part 3