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Yukon River Sternwheelers: the Canadian

by Murray Lundberg

Northern Ships and Shipping

      The Tarahne, Klondike, Keno and Nenana - it's hard to believe that these are the only intact survivors of the huge fleet of boats that worked the inland waters of the Yukon and Alaska. There were between 240 and 280 sternwheelers operating on the rivers of the northern frontier - the number isn't certain, due ultimately to the virtual lack of detailed record-keeping on shipping. The boats ranged from whipsawed scows powered by a sawmill boiler, to Mississippi-style floating palaces like the Susie. Lying on riverbanks throughout the North are pieces of wreckage of various sizes from dozens of these boats - stripped of everything valuable decades ago, Mother Nature is now rapidly reclaiming the remaining woodwork. This is the first in a series of biographies of the boats whose remains are still visible.

The sternwheeler Canadian being buried by road construction fill - Whitehorse 1997       The Canadian was renowned for her longevity, working on the upper Yukon River from 1898 until being scuttled to serve as as a breakwater to protect the White Pass railway at Whitehorse in 1931. Until May 1997, her hull and equipment could be clearly seen in the clear shallow waters near what used to be called the "Big Bend" of the river, to the south of town. During a major road reconstruction project, however, she was buried under hundreds of tons of rock, although the boiler, pistons and sternwheel frame were recovered first, to be used in a future interpretation project.

      Built in 1898 at John Todd's shipyard in Victoria, British Columbia, the Canadian was designed to work on the "All-Canadian Route" to the Klondike, which went up the swift waters of the Stikine River. By the time she was completed, though, her owners, the Canadian Development Company (CDC), no longer saw the Stikine route as commercially viable, so deepsea master Captain Patrick Martin was hired to run the Canadian directly to Dawson City, where she arrived on August 23, 1898. A quick look at a map will make the danger inherent in this voyage obvious - sternwheelers were not designed to cross the open ocean. The Canadian was 146.5 feet long, with a 33.4 foot beam, registered as 455.15 net tons - a fairly large river boat, but puny by any standards on open water. Having the paddlewheel at the rear of the boat caused major problems - even a normal swell on the ocean would rock the boat so that the paddlewheel would rise completely out of the water, then slam back down into it. Not only was this hard on the wheel, the stresses on the engine and drive bearings must have been incredible.

      By the time the Canadian reached Dawson, there were scores of boats working the lower river, so Captain Martin continued on to the future site of Whitehorse, which became their base for the rest of both of their lives (Captain Martin opened a general store and remained until he died in 1940). The Canadian was the largest boat to yet arrive at the foot of Whitehorse Rapids, and she was kept very busy hauling freight and towing scows and barges downriver.

      Most people who came to the Yukon in 1898 were looking to make as much money as possible, in as little time as possible, and sternwheeler crews were no exception. As heavy ice was starting to form in the upper river that fall, it was decided to send the Canadian to winter at Hootalinqua, so that by sending freight overland, she could be the first upriver boat in Dawson in the spring, as the Whitehorse boats would have to wait 2 or 3 weeks longer for the ice on Lake Laberge to break up. The crew of about 15 men, under command of the First Mate, were ordered not to do any towing of other boats, but they were offered $20 to tow a scow owned by Courtney & Gaisford down Laberge (the normal charge was $75), and decided to take it. It's not clear what happened, but the scow was swamped - the owners escaped with only the clothes on their backs, and 6,000 pounds of groceries and 47 fat hogs (worth $40,000 in Dawson) were lost. Courtney & Gaisford successfully sued the CDC for their losses.

      Within a year the CDC had obtained the Canadian mail contract to Dawson, was operating "7 swift and palatial river steamers" on the Yukon, had several roadhouses along the winter mail route, and had built a shipyard at West Dawson with 4 sets of ways. They were a highly unpopular company, however, and were regularly in court for huge overcharges. A very early freeze-up in 1900, at the busiest time of the year, is credited for the bankruptcy of the CDC. In May 1901, the company's assets, including the Canadian, were bought by the British Yukon Navigation Company (BYN), a division of the White Pass & Yukon Route. This was a major step in the development of a complete transportation system throughout the Territory by the White Pass.

      Most of the boats were in a virtually constant state of rebuild as technology and transportation requirements evolved. In 1899, the addition of steam-powered steering gear had made the Canadian much easier to handle in tight places like the Thirty Mile stretch of the Yukon; in 1902 freight capacity was greatly increased by removing the refrigerator plants and moving the galleys up a deck; and in 1905, she was converted to burn coal from the Tantalus Mine at Carmacks. As well, the Canadian had her share of repairs due to the groundings and other misfortunes that were just considered part of doing business on the river. In 1902 she hit the wall while going through Five Fingers Rapids and tore out 30 feet of cabin walls, the following year she was trapped by the winter ice in the middle of nowhere at Kirkman Creek, and in 1910 and 1920 she hit rocks and sank.

      The Canadian became known as "The Bull of the Woods" because she was given many of the tough jobs - salvage work in particular. A scraper was even attached to the hull for digging channels through sandbars that had become navigation hazards.

      As the years wore on, the Canadian, even with extensive renovations, became less and less efficient compared to the newer boats. As the decline in freight traffic became more severe each year as the population of the Yukon plummetted, her periods of idleness became longer and longer, as she was used only when the other boats couldn't handle all the work. In 1912 and 1913 she only made 2 trips, then in 1918 and 1919 she wasn't even taken off the ways at Hootalinqua.

      She worked a few trips in 1927, but the Annual Report for that year states:

On July 14th, 7:30 p.m., fire discovered on the Canadian in one of the rooms on saloon deck. Alarm was turned in and fire quickly put out. The boat had just come through the Fingers and had to work hard to get through and it is presumed that a live spark had been blown into the room.

      The trip upriver to Whitehorse following the fire was her last. At the end of December 1930 she was reported as being "in winter quarters ... in River above Town." The final end of the Canadian wasn't even mentioned in the annual reports of the BYN - she just vanished from the record. When she was scuttled the following spring, her machinery was so obsolete that most of it wasn't even removed for spare parts for other boats. A sad end for one of the earliest and best-known boats on the river.

      Today, there is a memorial to the Canadian beside the very popular Millennium Trail along the Yukon River - see the memorial here.

The sternwheeler Canadian

References & Further Reading:

  • Edward L. Affleck, Affleck's List of Sternwheelers Plying the Yukon Waterways (Vancouver, BC: Affleck, September 1995)
  • Stan Cohen, Yukon River Steamboats: A Pictorial History (Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories, June 1982)
  • Art Downs, Paddlewheels on the Frontier: The Story of B.C.-Yukon Sternwheel Steamers - Volume Two (Surrey, BC: Foremost, 1971)
  • Arthur E. Knutson, Sternwheels on the Yukon (Snohomish, WA: Snohomish, 1979)
  • Robin E. Sheret, Smoke Ash and Steam: Steam Engines on the West Coast of North America (Victoria, BC: Western Isles Cruise & Dive, 1997)

    © 2020 Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author.