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Yukon River Sternwheelers:
the F. H. Kilbourne

by Murray Lundberg

Dateline: October 25, 1998

      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 second in a series of biographies of the boats whose remains are still visible.

      The F. H. Kilbourne is one of the sternwheelers which seems to have never been mentioned in print before, even in turn-of-the-century diaries. She was just a little towboat, and as such, attracted little interest when she was operating. Unfortunately, her remains, with the incredible stories they can tell, are attracting no attention either. I first encountered her while conducting research on the history of Carcross, when a small unidentified steam vessel appeared in the corner of a photo of King's Mill. A glimpse at her history has now been pieced together - although there are lots of blank pages yet, it opens the door to what may one day be a fascinating story.

      Even before the Portland and Excelsior brought out the gold that sparked the Klondike gold rush, it was apparent to many people that there would eventually be a need for a much better transportation system in the interior of Alaska and the Yukon. The first commercial steamboat on the lower Yukon River, the Youkon, was put into service by the Alaska Commercial Company in 1869, but it was another 26 years before steam navigation reached the upper river.

      In 1895, a 27-foot steamboat, christened the Witch Hazel, was hauled across the Chilkoot Pass with block and tackle by Frank Atkins and E. L. Bushnell. She was re-assembled at Lake Bennett, and then run to Fortymile, where the hull was abandoned, while the machinery was taken into the gold fields. An article in the Klondike Nugget (Dawson) of June 23, 1898, credits the Witch Hazel as being the first steamboat to run Miles Canyon and the White Horse Rapids.

      In late 1897, the Upper Yukon Company was formed to provide a wide array of services in the suddenly-famous territory. Among these services was steamboat service, and they immediately ordered two (possibly three) 50-foot steel hulls from the Mullins Boat Company in Sacramento. With every boat-builder on the West Coast swamped with orders for all manner of craft destined for the Klondike, only one of the hulls was shipped right away. Given the weight of the steel, the likely route would have been to land at Skagway, then haul the materials over the White Pass, using horses and mules on George Brackett's toll road (construction of the White Pass & Yukon Route railway started in June 1898, and didn't reach Bennett until July 6, 1899). The boats seem to have been shipped up at several different periods - with snow already starting to fall in the mountains, the hulls were taken over first, and a blacksmith shop was built at Bennett to rivet the hull sections together.

      Try to imagine the difficulty of rivetting steel plates and ribs together on the shore of Lake Bennett over the winter of 1897-1898 - your shop is surrounded by thousands of men building all manner of boats, the saws in a mill on the opposite shore are screaming, the snow is falling heavily, a strong wind off the lake is dropping the temperature to minus thirty degrees...

      Pacific Iron Works in Seattle was contracted to construct a pair of horizontal high-pressure steam engines for each of the boats. With 5.5-inch cylinders and a 20-inch stroke, they were rated at 2 NHP.

      Given the roughness of the lumber used in the housework of the boats as shown in photos, the lumber was probably milled on site. The timber close to Bennett was very quickly depleted, and wood was cut further and further away, eventually entailing a haul of several miles. Finally, as the ice left Lake Bennett in late May 1898, the first steel-hulled steamboat was launched - christened the A. J. Goddard to honour her first captain, she left Bennett on June 16 with 8 crew members, 10 passengers, and a tow of scows. She proved the sturdiness of her construction by being the third steamer to run Miles Canyon, and the first steamer to ever reach Dawson from Lake Bennett (Dawson didn't exist when the Witch Hazel went down the river).

      Soon after the Goddard reached Dawson, another hull was shipped north for the Upper Yukon Company, and the whole process was repeated. In June 1899 the F. H. Kilbourne, identical to the Goddard, slipped into the icy waters of Lake Bennett for the first time. She was also named for her first captain, and as the main rush to Dawson was over, was intended to serve the new Atlin gold fields, running from Bennett to Taku, as well as any contract work that was offered on the upper lakes.

The sternwheeler 'F.H.Kilbourne' at King's Mill, on the Nares River at Caribou Crossing (Carcross), Yukon, ca.1899. 
Lake Bennett is a half-mile to the left (south)
The "F. H. Kilbourne" at King's Mill, on the Nares River
at Caribou Crossing (Carcross), Yukon, ca.1899.
Lake Bennett is a half-mile to the left (south).

      On her first trip, however, the Kilbourne was stopped by the police at Caribou Crossing and held for not having proper documentation. As Captain Kilbourne was from Seattle, it is possible that they were contravening the requirement that the captain of a commercial boat running in the Yukon had to have a British license.

      The company appears to have had a successful season in 1899, with the Kilbourne on the lakes, and the Goddard and the 70-foot Joseph Clossett running from Whitehorse to Dawson. This success attracted the attention of the rapidly-expanding Canadian Development Company, and in the fall of 1899, the Upper Yukon Company was bought out.

      The King's Mill at Caribou Crossing was booming, and rafts of timber and scows full of lumber were regularly towed by the Kilbourne, often to Miles Canyon, where the materials were destined for the new town of Whitehorse.

'Ten Days From Seattle to Dawson City! White Star Line, operated by the Upper Yukon Company'
Advertisement in the "Daily Alaskan" (Skagway), August 3, 1898

      As business slowed down in the years following the gold rush, larger companies absorbed independent companies in many fields, particularly in the capital-intensive fields of mining and transportation. In 1901, the F. H. Kilbourne and the other 16 steamers of the Canadian Development Company were bought by the British Yukon Navigation Company (BYN), a division of the White Pass & Yukon Route.

      Being the smallest boat in the new BYN fleet, the Kilbourne was no longer efficient, and may not have worked at all during 1901. She seems to have been abandoned on the shore in front of Kings Mill.

      Over the past 50 years in particular, the Kilbourne was completely destroyed by people salvaging wood and other material from her wreck. My cabin, located a half-mile from the resting spot of the Kilbourne, is largely built from lumber removed from the boats, or stolen from the U.S. Army when they had a base in Carcross during World War II (the doors and radio mast are easily-identifiable sternwheeler artifacts). The pilothouse wheel of one of the three Upper Yukon Company boats, with a 5-pointed star in the brass centre of the wheel, is in a private collection in the Carcross area, but no other artifacts have surfaced yet.

      For most of the year, the remains of the Kilbourne are buried by water or snow - once the water level in the Nares River drops in August, her bones can be examined until late October or early November, when the white blanket once again hides her. When she is visible, it may look like so much junk, and nobody looks twice. But stop a minute - the 108-inch wide sternwheel is still there! While mostly buried in the mud, the part that's visible is still in reasonably good condition, so why hasn't it been recovered and preserved? Priorities are elsewhere - as in her lifetime, the F. H. Kilbourne just isn't exciting. But, the only remaining sign of a boat that came across the mountains during the gold rush sits beside the Nares River in downtown Carcross, to trigger visions of what life may have been like on the shore of Lake Bennett in 1899.

      Carcross is usually thought of now as a railway town. That is truly unfortunate, as the steamboats were at least as important to Carcross as the White Pass & Yukon was. But, while the railway tracks remain, the boats are almost gone. The 115-foot Australian was scuttled about 300 feet below the railway bridge in about 1970; the 113-foot Gleaner suffered a similar fate in Nares Lake in the '50s, as did the steam tug Mabel F.; the intriguing chain-driven Hootalinqua fell off a truck while being moved a few years ago, and has now been demolished; the "Australian Ways" have rotted away almost beyond recognition; and the Queen of the Lakes through the 1950s, the 167-foot Tutshi, has been reduced to a charred, desecrated pile of junk.

      Now, only the BYN workboat Sibilla, on blocks beside the Carcross Barracks gift shop, remains to give people a hint at a part of Carcross history that has gone forever.

Update June 27, 1999 - a government funded crew has cut up the remains of the F.H. Kilbourne and taken it to the Carcross garbage dump. See my article Gov't-Funded Vandalism.

Update October 1999 - discussions have begun to fund a restoration of the Sibilla back to operating condition.

The ruins of the sternwheeler 'F.H. Kilbourne' at Carcross, Yukon, August 1997
The ruins of the sternwheeler F.H. Kilbourne at Carcross, Yukon, in August 1997.

The ruins of the sternwheeler 'F.H. Kilbourne' at Carcross, Yukon, August 1997
The ruins of the sternwheeler F.H. Kilbourne at Carcross, Yukon, in August 1997.