A JOURNEY TO DAWSON
Written expressly for the Klondike Nugget.
Never again in the world's history will the scenes of 1897-98 be duplicated
in a "trip to Dawson." Men, women and children now travel in and out with
the same fearless impunity which would be used in a trip to some city park.
Lines of excellent steamers together with a railroad over the coast mountains
and a tram-road round Whitehorse have taken so much of the adventurous element
out of the trip and brought Dawson, by a wave, as if of a magic wand, so close
to Seattle and Victoria that complains are heard both loud and deep if much more
than a week is consumed on the journey, or if a single meal should be a few
Leaving the mild and equable climate of Puget sound on a bright summer day,
one can now sit on a steamer campstool or upholstered parlor car lounge and
watch the scenery rapidly change from evergreen verdure to bold and barren
mountain tops and then to the frozen morasses of the Far North.
The adventurous spirits of '97, '98, and the former years, when the remnants
of Alaska's Russian conquerors greeted the pioneer5s in the unmapped solitudes
of the strange and wonderful land, are regretting the unturnable tide of
emigration which has brought the close competition and luxurious iniquities as
well as the comforts of civilization to the very edge of the arctic circle.
While the advantages of rapid transit cannot be gainsaid with any show of
philosophy, the men who braved the perils of sled trails and rushing rivers with
dogs and boats, and got through alive, can be heard every day congratulating
themselves on having made the trip before the era of road houses, steamboats,
railroads and tram-roads robbed it of its romance and succession off hair-breath
escapes and miraculous adventures.
THE EARLY DAYS.
Before considering a modern trip to Dawson let us take a last look at the
scenes of that last winter when brawn and courage were a man's more important
and indispensable stock-in-trade without which he would have surely fallen by
the wayside. During that famous winter of '97-'98 some hundred thousand
men started for the newly discovered Klondike. Some turned back upon
reaching the salt waters of the Pacific and many more lost heart upon catching
the first glimpse of that barrier of mountains beyond Dyea and Skagway, which
must be scaled as a preliminary to the long and perilous water journey to
Dawson. Nevertheless some 40,000 stout-hearted and strong-backed
adventurers scaled the summits of the passes with their year's supplies of
clothes and provisions, passed the Canadian customs houses and descended on the
other side into Canadian territory. Nearly 20,000 boats were then built to
carry this army down the river in the spring. But few of the builders had
ever seen a boat put together before, and many of the boats were miracles of
construction. They were triangular, square, oblong, flat, oblate,
spheroidal and rectangular. They were built of boards mostly sawed by
hand-labor and varying in thickness from a half an inch to four inches.
Some were pointed at both ends, and many had no point at all and traveled as
well sideways as in any other fashion. In one particular they were all
alike - all had masts and a great expanse of sail, and were manned by men who
knew not fear, or else securely concealed it from mortal ken. Some of
these amateur boatmen had maps and books of instruction of the route, but the
majority sailed serenly into and through rapidly succeeding dangers without any
forewarning, and each night, around a thousand campfires, with boisterous
hilarity would relate the escapes of the day. The books said Windy Arm
must be crossed in the night or at least not later than 10 in the morning.
The majority of the boatmen crossed in the afternoon, and if they were blown
ashore, calmly repaired damages and soon again joined the seemingly endless
procession of their fellow travelers. If their boats were swamped and
their outfits were lost, then the first scow was hailed as it came along and in
return for their services the unfortunate ones were taken down to Dawson anyhow.
Sixmile river, with its sunken treacherous rocks, was navigated in the same
spirit. If a rock was struck before it was seen, so much the worse for the
boatmen. If it was seen before it was struck, so much the better.
Fortunately for the newly graduated sailors the wind was aft for nearly the
whole northward journey, and in orderly procession that remarkable line of
boats, hundreds of miles in length, moved steadily on. Fiftymile river
brought the migrating thousands to Miles canyon and Whitehorse rapids, a five
miles of water which Ogilvie in his book says is impassable to open boats.
According to this famous book only a dozen men or so have ever tried to make the
run, and the dead bodies of the reckless miners have never been recovered to
this day. But when our indomitable swarm of gold-hunters arrived there,
there was only a momentary hesitation and, the one behind the other, the boats
filed into that tremendous first section of the canyon, dodged the whirlpool in
the middle, rushed down the second section of the canyon, tossed around for a
while in the seething waters of the Squaw rapids, made that stupendous turn into
Whitehorse, and extra grip was taken on the oars, as with rapidly accelerating
speed they plunged into that final chaos of angry water, which landed them
either safely below or gave the life-saving station a quick 10 minutes of work.
All night and day the procession continues. There being no darkness, they
were nearly as many passing there at midnight as at midday. Weeks and
months the procession continued and only the ice of the fall put a stop to this,
the most stupendous feat ever performed by a non-aquatic stampede of
At the foot of Whitehorse, boats were bailed out and clothes and provision
laid out in the sun to dry after the drenching of spray just received.
Over Lebarge went the white fleet of unpainted boats, and then came the final
tug-of-war in Thirtymile river, which wrecked more brave fellows in a day than
Whitehorse did in a week. Sunken treacherous rocks; a shallow, rapid
current reaching a speed in places of nearly 10 miles an hour; gravel bars over
which the rapid waters were lashed into foam which concealed protruding boulders
and impassable shallows; mammoth rocks standing in the river in groups, as if
they would bar the path of the intrepid miners and against which the current
would dash itself in impotent fury, carrying everything which floated upon its
surface with a devilish malignity and well-nigh irresistible force upon those
flinty points which could and often did break a heavily built scow into two or
three pieces with as great ease as a clay pipe stem can be broken on an anvil
with a blacksmith's sledgehammer. Few indeed were the minters who passed
there in the early summer without repeated hair-breadth escapes both for
themselves and their property. Below Thirtymile was found the placid Lewes
and mighty rolling Yukon, and boats floated serenely on to the metropolis of the
great Northwest, and tied up to the shore where boats were 10 and 12 deep.
So expert in boatmanship were the travelers becoming before this that the famous
Five Fingers and Rink rapids were passed for the most part without hesitation or
Many unknown bodies were picked up at various points in the river until the
freeze-up in the fall, while the known deaths exceeded two hundred. No
correct tally was attempted of the numerous wrecks at the various points of
danger, yet some 350 were known of and remembered, one or two of them being
steamers which were built on the lakes and had attempted the passage of the
How different now is a trip to Dawson. A magnificently appointed
steamer receives one at Seattle and the sight of horses, dogs and men massed in
profusion upon the teeming decks is seen no more. Three or four days
brings one to the flats of Skagway and Dyea where the horses used to be thrown
overboard to sink or swim ashore and where men and dogs were received in
lighters and carried to a point on the flats where they could make their own way
to the tent-strewn heights above. Now the steamers tie up to a securely
built dock a mile long; hotel bus drivers jostle one another in a noisy attempt
to attract the passengers, who are finally rattled off to commodious hostelries
to await the leaving of the first passenger train. Where was formerly
piled in picturesque confusion shiploads of grub, clothing and stores is now
seen to be the well laid out city of Skagway, streets all graveled and square
with the world, rows upon rows of handsome stores in all the glory of new and
pristine paint in all its purity, hotels and offices on every hand - in fact a
western civilization ahead of half the towns and cities of the coast.
After refreshment the bus carries one down to the depot and tickets are secured
for Bennett at a point not far from the spot where less than two years ago laden
pack trains turned off into the mudddy and endless trail.
A consolidation locomotive with six coaches pulls up and receives the waiting
crowd of passengers and away they go up the gentle grade of the Skagway river.
Everybody crowds to the windows for the scenery begins now to attain an
attribute of terrible sublimity.
The canyon narrows and one's neck becomes painful from gazing at the
With a grade at times of nearly 4 per cent the mammoth engines now begin to
wind around and life us into the air. In a very few miles we reach and
pass over places where the sensation to the spectator is as of one hanging
midway between heaven and earth. To the right of us tower bald granite
mountains reaching up into the clouds and carrying snow on their majestic
summits. Beneath us - directly underneath us it appears to the excited
imagination off the passenger - one gets a direct overhead view of the Skagway
river and its tributaries. Sheer precipice to the left down to bottomless
depths, and just as sheer heights to the right into the impenetrable azure; and
one instinctively casts a critical eye over the track which is bearing us
heavenward, and experiences a sense of great relief and lessening of the tension
on the strained nerves to observe that it is all in first-class shape, ballasted
superbly with gravel, and the rails of the 56-pound steel. For miles the
telegraph wires are suspended on brackets over the train, as to place them the
regulation 50 feet away from the track would, on the one side, put them a
thousand feet below, while on the other side they would be an equal distance
above. Many a time the spectator finds himself wondering vaguely how the
drilling was ever done for those brackets or iron arms supporting the wires.
In many places it was manifestly impossible to have suspended staging from
above, so the only alternative must have been high staging from the grade below.
Here and there beautiful cascades of water dash down through chasms in the
mountain, the water being conducted safely under the track in rock-bound
channels. The torrents are fed by the everlasting glaciers miles above and
summer cannot diminish their flow. The source, in most cases, cannot be
seen, as the mountains are piled nearly straight up, height upon height, and no
sooner does one reach a point where they top of the nearest mountain can be seen
than still vaster heights above are brought into view.
Up and up we go, and as we take a long bend to the right we see the track a
thousand feet above us on the opposite side of the bottomless chasm.
There, on the opposite hill, we see the dark line extending clear from the river
below to over the rounded top above, indicating the old summer trail over White
Pass, where men and horses made their first great ascent, and precipitated
themselves into the bogs which fill in the intervals between the mountain peaks.
What a feat that was, to be sure, and now, riding on the platform of a
smooth-riding coach, and ascending every minute higher and higher into the blue
ether, called heaven by those little black specks of humanity which our glass
shows to us on the river bank below, we cannot but admire the grit and
perseverance of our species even though engaged in an inglorious chase for gold.
And when, after an hour's climbing, we have taken the great bend to the left and
see a midget track far down the precipitous mountain side and realize that a
while ago our own train was puffing contentedly along that very track, then our
minds are filled with a sincere respect for the gallant and intrepid surveyors
who scaled the heights without the assistance of trails or train, planted their
stakes where in many places it seemed impossible for a cat to cling, and
demonstrated to the world that the era of engineering feats did not pass out
with either Eads or De Lesseps. On and on we go; one point of vantage is
gained after another; hair-raising bridges are crossed; we dash through a
tunnel, get a last view of that trememdous hole in the earth, the Skagway river,
make a switchback turn and are at the summit of White Pass, having ascended into
the air a height of 2,885 feet in a distance of but 19 miles.
Here the scenery changes and for many miles we find ourselves traveling on
the cars, which, for the first time, have awakened the eternal solitudes of
these mountain tops since the molten earth was first hurled into space by the
hand of God an infinite time ago. Long declivities are filled with great
stretches of water as clear as the clearest crystal - clear because there is
absolutely no soil in sight to sully its purity. Summit lake is of a
rigorous, chilly beauty, no fish, no birds, no flowers, nothing green in sight
but that cold splendid water, carrying ice on its surface until well into July
of each year. But stop! In the sheltered recesses of some mossy nook
we catch a glimpse of vegetable life in the form of trees, hoary and rugged with
age and of the majestic height of from two to six feet. What a struggle
for existence was that which even discouraged the hardy spruces and pines.
Now, we have time to remark the strange roundness of all the tops of these
monarchs of the coast range. As we begin to descend at a good sharp pace
from Summit lake, we are forced to the conclusion that one day a mighty ice cap,
weighing billions of tons, must have slowly ground away the jagged corners of
these upturned mountains, until now they are smooth and round as the dome of the
Boston state house. Gradually we run into more and more scraggy timber,
and notice that we are constantly descending from one level piece of track to
another. Here the valleys narrow and here they widen out. We begin
to find the bogs, which in the fall of '97 destroyed 1700 horses engaged in
packing to the lakes. Though years have passed since then, the winding
trail is passed every now and again, and it has the appearance of having been
used yesterday. Sticking out of the bottomless mud we see fore legs and
hind legs, with occasionally the still-bloated body of some poor beast who died
in the service of man over a route which it was contended would never be crossed
in any other way - a time when any talk of a proposed railroad was scoffed at
and regarded as a good trail joke. But there is the railroad just the
same, and as we cross one morass and descend to another we notice the
completeness of the grade and thoroughness and plentifulness of the gravel
ballast. Here we descend more abruptly along a mountain torrent and
observe that, in one place at least, the grade of the railroad descends faster
than the level of the river and is several feet below it, and but three feet
away. We gain satisfaction in finding an intervening wall of rock which
shoots the water off to the other side of the narrow valley, and when the
torrent approaches the track again it is well below it once more. Then
come long strings of rock-bound _____, and, after crossing the well-defined
tracks of several glaciers we emerge at last into a country of gravel - probably
the terminal moraine of the aforesaid glaciers. Over a few more high
bridges and then we are on the heights above lake Linderman and remark how small
and insignificant it looks to us from our airy situation to what it did when we
were "mushing" sleds over its frozen surface. Before descending into
Bennett to take the steamer, let us consider what these railroad men have
accomplished. At a cost of $2,000,000 the White Pass and Yukon railroad
company has penetrated and crossed a region which was even shunned by the
mountain Indians five years ago. Where brave men believed it hopeless to
construct even a decent trail, the coaches and cars are now rushing passengers
and freight, the former with safety and comfort, the latter with speed, and both
passengers and freight leaving the shores of the Pacific, and in half a
day landing on the shores of Lake Bennett. Where, in 1897, it took an army
off 50,000 men all winter, with dogs and horses, to put 25,000 tons of
provisions over the passes to the head of fresh water navigation, the same can
now be put over in a few days without the loss of a single pound in shrinkage
and waste and at but a moiety of the former cost. While the company
relaizes that its enterprise and wonderful success in constructing the most
remarkable railroad in the world in less than 13 months has given them a
practical monopoly of all the freight carrying, yet it is the intention of the
company not to avail themselves of their "cinch," and rates are to be adjusted
accordingly. A rate of three cents per pound maintains at present.
THE RAILROAD COMPANY.
The company is a British one, S. H. Graves, of Chicago, being president.
Mr. E. E. Hawkins, of Seattle, the present general manager, is the same
gentleman who surveyed the line. John Hislop, assistant engineer, and who
had charge of the construction, has much reason to be proud of his rapid work.
E. B. Hussey, general purchasing agent and local manager; S. P. Brown, general
agent, A. L. Berdoe, auditor; F. C. elliott, treasurer. It must be stated
in fairness that of the officials and even employees, from the egneral manager
down to the conductors on the trains, there is shown a high degree off regard
for the public, and all are proud - and rightfully so - of the railroad over
which they preside or upon which they operate.
The well-fitted machine shops and foundry at Skagway are rapidly adding to
the rolling stock of the road in order that all comers shall be met and moved
with dispatch. In the shops will be found a 20-inch swing lathe, 26-inch
planer, 38-inch borer, 18-inch borer, large wheel press, wood borers, mortisers,
bandsaws, forges, boiler plate rollers, shears, pinches, and all the thousand
and one modern conveniences of railway shops.
Eight locomotives are at present in use, some being the latest idea in the
way of the compound consolidation kind, one geared locomotive, geared to the end
of the tender, and the balance moguls.
This remarkable road is to be continued as far as Fort Selkirk at an early
date. From there down to Dawson large steamers can sail in safety, and
there is no thought at present of continuing the road further.
Bennett at last and a whole line of steamers waiting for the train.
Those of us who have through tickets are escorted aboard the proper boat; those
who only have tickets to Bennett pick out their own line of steamers and all
start off together. From eight to twelve hours run through unsurpassably
wild scenery, but wholly without incident, except the meeting of an occasional
steamer loaded with returning Klondikers, brings us to a secure dock at the head
of Miles canyon. A quick transfer to tramcars of both passengers and
baggage and away go the horses to the foot of Whitehorse, the passengers failing
even to catch a glimpse of the dangerous places in the river which wrecked so
many miners a year or so ago.
By making this part of the trip afoot, a walk of four or five miles will
convince one of the need of the tramway, and the importance of its construction
to the traveling public. Tied to the bank at the foot of Whitehorse will
be found some waiting steamers and with a great blowing of whistles the last end
of the trip commences. Twenty-five miles of river, then Lake Lebarge
brings one to the once terrible Thirtymile - terrible only to miners with
heavily laden boats and nothing but strong arms to furnish the motive power for
avoiding the many agents of destruction in this swiftly flowing stream.
As the skillful pilot drops and drifts his boat down this bad piece of water,
backing up full speed, now drifting across the river, now full speed ahead,
passengers are quite apt to underestimate the dangers of navigation at this
point until a wrecked stamer heaves in sight or some poor flat boatmen are seen
The running of Five fingers is even more exciting by steamer than in a
smaller open boat for the larger craft appears to the passengers to come
dangerously near filling the jaws of the chose channel; but it is all over in a
moment and very shortly one is being greeted by a crowd of Dawson sightseers.
The whole time of the trip, Seattle to Dawson, may be variously estimated at
from eight to ten days:
Seattle to Skagway, three to four days; Skagway to Bennett, seven hours;
Bennett to Canyon, eight to twelve hours; tramway to foot Whitehorse, two hours;
Whitehorse to Dawson, three days.
But it is quite possible that the would-be traveler to Dawson has no desire
for a quick trip, with its numerous transfers and rapid rivers. In that
case a trip by way of St. Michaels can be undertaken. An ocean voyage of
2700 miles and a river voyage of 1735 miles lands one at the same dock in
Dawson, but the time consumed will be from 25 days upwards, according to the
weather on the ocean, or the delays on the lower river navigation. The
lines of steamers operating on this route are simply unsurpassable. To
points anything less than 1530 miles up the river this route has the advantage
of being an all-American route with no customs officers to bother, and
well-understood American laws to govern one. Most of the supplies for
Dawson are brought in this way, and all the supplies for lower river points.
Source: The Klondike Nugget,
November 1, 1899.