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The Whitehorse to Dawson Overland Trail

by Ken Spotswood

A Guide to Dawson City, Yukon Whitehorse-Dawson City Overland Trail logo

The following article was prepared as an illustrated 30-page booklet for the Yukon Government Heritage Branch. The article was reprinted here on December 18, 1998, with permission from all parties involved. The photos here have been added by Murray Lundberg.

It all started with a little problem on the river...

      During the Klondike Gold Rush and for years after, the quickest way to get from Whitehorse to Dawson City was by boat along the Yukon River. In those days life in the territory was governed by whether the river was open or frozen. Once winter set in and the river froze, only experienced mushers and dog teams braved the journey. Late fall and early winter travel was limited to snowshoes, horse and dog teams. Transportation was slow and costly. The cold reduced travel to a minimum.

      During the winter of 1899-1900 the Canadian Development Company used dog teams to carry mail and light freight along the river between Whitehorse and Dawson. It gradually replaced the dogs with horses the following year. In 1901 the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway bought out the company in order to get the lucrative government mail contract for its sternwheelers.

Horse teams at Yukon Crossing, on the Overland Trail, ca.1898 Horse-drawn sleds ready to head out along the Overland Trail, probably from the Yukon Crossing roadhouse, ca. 1899.

      In 1902 the Yukon government contracted the White Pass & Yukon Route to build the first winter road between the two communities. Construction began that summer and the road was completed in November. It was 330 miles long - shorter than the river route by about 70 miles - and was built at a cost of $129,000.

      Using only axes and cross-cut saws, the company's small crew of men cleared a 12-foot right-of-way along the entire distance. Aided by horses, they graded the surface with plows and wheel scrapers, built culverts where necessary, and reinforced embankments with rough timber. The road builders used traditional First Nations trails whenever possible, most likely in the Takhini River valley and the Nordenskiold valley between Braeburn and Carmacks.

On the Trail

Laura Berton, mother of Canadian author and broadcaster Pierre Berton, was a still a young, unmarried school teacher in Dawson City during the 1920s. In her memoir "I Married the Klondike" she describes a winter journey on the Overland Trail in a White Pass sleigh one February:

    "'Four o'clock, Miss Thompson. Stage leaves in an hour.'

    Four o'clock in Whitehorse...the mercury at forty below...a week-long trip in an open sleigh ahead of me...the little town dead and sleeping under its mantle of winter fog...a group of sleepy passengers huddled in furs at the White Pass station...the great sleigh with its four champing horses waiting.

    "Off we went into the silent night and into a silent world of white. For five days we would sit in this open sleigh, our noses icicled, our feet warmed by hot bricks and charcoal, while we crossed the Yukon Territory in a wavering diagonal line north. I have never embarked on a stranger journey...

    "It was not a comfortable trip. The seats had hardly any backs and we had not been out long before I became unpleasantly conscious of my neck. It just wouldn't hold up my wobbling head. With no support from the seat I tried tying a scarf over my turban, binding it tightly around my head. It was no use. I would just have to get used to the sensation...

    "There were 14 of us travelling north. We sat in threes in two double rows of seats facing each other, the spare man up on the box beside the driver...

    "First of all there were Grant Henderson and the new bride he was bringing north with him from Nova Scotia. Grant was the son of Robert Henderson, the man from Gold Bottom who had started George Carmack looking for gold and in this way started the gold rush...Opposite the Hendersons on the stage sat a Mr. and Mrs. Ghat, who owned the hotel in Klondike City--the Rosalea I think it was--whose waiters we had watched carrying beer and sandwiches to the prostitutes in their chemises...I sat in the rear seat, squeezed between a Swede on one side and a French-Canadian miner on the other. The Swede was a huge, gaunt wedge of a man with a great walrus moustache and a long nose and chin. The French-Canadian was round-faced, jolly and plump. At first I was only too glad of the fur-coated warmth of their proximity, for I was so cold I would cheerfully have cuddled a grizzly. But as the journey continued, I couldn't help realizing that the warm and persistent pressure coming simultaneously from both sides was not altogether the result of confined space. For five days I parried their advances...

      This winter road between Whitehorse and Dawson became known as The Overland Trail. The White Pass then inaugurated the Yukon Stage Line which, because of the mail it carried, was also called The Royal Mail Service. It marked the beginning of a new era of transportation in the territory. For Dawson residents, it created a much-needed winter link to civilization. For the first time they were not cut off from the rest of the world for almost eight months of the year.

One trail... five different sections

      The Overland Trail was not a single, uninterrupted stretch of road. It was actually five sections of road divided by four major rivers - the Takhini, Yukon, Pelly and Stewart.

      From Whitehorse the original trail headed west, crossed the Takhini River, followed the Klusha and Little rivers to Braeburn, then along the Nordenskiold River and into Carmacks. At Mackay's, which was later renamed Yukon Crossing, the trail crossed the Yukon River and then followed the east bank to Pelly, where it crossed the Pelly River. On the north side of the Pelly it ran northwest to Stewart Crossing (not to be confused with the current site of Stewart Crossing) and over the Stewart River to Wounded Moose. From there the trail branched off at the Indian River and finally to Dawson via Eldorado and Bonanza Creeks.

      Over the years the route was changed numerous times to provide access to new mining camps that sprang up in the territory. When Mayo became a busy mining camp in 1912, the road branched off at Minto. A new branch was built to Mayo, while the main route to Dawson angled northeast to the Stewart River, then went up the Slough Creek Valley and down Flat Creek into the Klondike Valley.

      The government also hoped that the road would open up new areas of the territory to farming. A few modest attempts were made to help supply hay and oats for the horse-drawn stages, but this goal was never fully realized. There was much more money to be made from mining.

      Between 1902 and 1914, after the close of river navigation, the White Pass Stage Line ran its sleighs and stages three times a week between Whitehorse and Dawson. In March, when business people were eager to get to Dawson before steamboat traffic began, daily service was often provided.

To Overland Trail, Part 2

Below, sunset at Yukon Crossing