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Klondike Gold Rush (Part 1) : following the footsteps of gold diggers


Version française de ce texte.

One of the goals I had set for my trip to the Yukon last May was to follow the route taken by the tens of thousands of gold prospectors who rushed to the Klondike over 100 years ago in the hope of stricking it rich. This interest in the gold rush era was triggered by three main events:

Statue commemorating the Klondike Gold Rush - Whitehorse

  • In November 2010, during a visit to Winnipeg, I attended a lecture by author Charlotte Gray who had just published her latest novel Gold Diggers. Sure, I had heard of the Klondike gold rush but in a very general way. This was the first time that I heard the names and actual stories of individuals associated with the Klondike. I was fascinated and, of course, left with a copy of the book in hand!
  • Last winter, a friend, Alain, told me that his great grandfather, Adélard Brouard, was part of the herd of prospectors who attempted to make a fortune in the Klondike. Adélard had left St-Henri de Lévis in 1898, leaving behind his pregnant wife and six children. His story is rather tragic as Adélard died in one of the Klondike’s gold mine. In the summer of 2010, Alain and his wife went to Dawson City and found Adélard’s grave. I promised them that when my turn to visit the Yukon came, I would try to make it to Dawson City and greet Adélard! The Klondike gold rush now had a name, a face and a story from back home! We will come back to Adélard’s in a future post!
  • A few weeks before leaving for the Yukon, I stumbled upon an interview with Mylène Gilbert-Dumas, author of the trilogy Lili Klondike (In French – Klondike-interview-/) telling the story of two young Quebec women who left for the Klondike in 1898. After reading the first volume, I was once again shocked by the courage, determination and perseverance of these men, women and children who have undertaken such a journey. At times, this adventure seemed to be so senseless, the pitfalls and challenges being so numerous and larger than life (Ah! Here’s the slogan used by the Yukon in its advertising campaigns!). My curiosity pushes me to go to Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa to read some diaries written by the very people who lived through the gold rush as well as volumes talking about the French-Canadian presence in the Klondike.

During my three week stay, I was able to travel (by car and not walk or raft!) most of the route taken by stampeders. Well! The road of those who began their journey in Skagway or Dyea, Alaska.

The purpose of this text, and of a few others that will follow, is to describe their journey in words and pictures. Unfortunately, I have not had the chance to visit Skagway / Dyea nor see the portion that connects these sites to Bennett Lake. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a future trip will allow me to complete the journey. And why not walk a portion of the Chilkoot and/or White Pass trails to get a better feel for what the miners had to face in order to carry their ton of equipment and supplies through the White or Chilkoot passes. Nowadays this route takes only a few hours by road. Back in 1898, miners took up to three months to make dozens and dozens of returns to successfully transport all of their material along the fifty miles that separated them from Bennett Lake. Each climb required about 10 hours and allowed them to carry thirty pounds of equipment.

So, let’s begin our journey in Carcross, at the north end of Bennett Lake. In 1898, once miners had brough their ton of material on the banks of the south end of Bennett Lake, they had to build a raft or boat in order to undertake the second part of their journey: navigating the Yukon River to Dawson City, about 800km further north.

Looking at the photo of Bennett Lake shown below (taken from the beach at Carcross), imagine yourself back in late May 1898 as a parade of over 7,000 boats / rafts carrying more than 28,000 people goes around the corner and comes towards you! What an incredible scene it must have been!

Bennett Lake seen from the sandy beach in Carcross

Once in Carcross, they headed for the Nàtàse Hîn channel (“waters flowing through the channel” in the Tlingit language) connecting Bennett Lake to Narès Lake. The railway bridge that can be seen on the photo did not exist in 1898 and the then Carcross simply housed the NorthWest Mountain Police post.

Carcross and the Nàtàse Hîn channel seen from the Klondike Highway

The village of Carcross was established two years later, in 1900, by the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad for the maintenance of the railway from Skagway to Whitehorse. The construction of the railway began in 1899 and the last spike was driven in Carcross on July 29, 1900 at 5PM. This railway route was operational from 1900 to 1982. Nowadays, during the summer months, excursions between Skagway and Carcross are offered to tourists.

Railroad bridge in Carcross used by the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad linking the community to Skagway, Alaska.

On the north side of the channel, along the Waterfront Drive, you can still see log cabins dating back to the gold rush era.

Log cabins dating back to the gold rush era

Close-up look on one of the gold rush era log cabins

So after leaving Carcross, rafts entered Nares Lake. The lake was named in memory of Sir George Strong Nares, an officer of the British Royal Navy who was involved in the search of the Sir John Franklin expedition in 1852-54. In 1875, as part of an expedition in search of the North Pole, he became the first explorer to cross the strait between Greenland and Ellesmere Island.

Nares Lake

After crossing Nares Lake, prospectors made ??their entrance on Tagish Lake, one of the largest lake in southern Yukon, with its length of 100 km. The lake has two arms: Windy Arm and Taku Arm which is mostly located in British Columbia. At the intersection of Nares Lake and Windy Arm, they passed by Bove Island (named in memory of a lieutenant of the Italian Navy).

Bove Island. Nares Lake is to the left, Windy Arm to the right and Tagish Lake emerges at the top of the image

At the northern end of Tagish Lake, prospectors then made their way on the Tagish River, also known as the Six Mile River, which flows into Marsh Lake.

Tagish River

Before entering Marsh Lake, prospectors first had to stop on the banks of the Tagish River in order to register and undergo a safety inspection by officers of the Northwest Mounted Police. In his daily journal (published in 1996 under the title 17 Eldorado : Le journal d’un chercheur d’or au Klondike 1898-1902), Quebec prospector Lorenzo Létourneau, recounted the misadventures of two Englishmen who tried to bypass the control on June 26, 1899.

The police officers want to prevent them from crossing and force them to return to Bennett. These poor devils have nevertheless tried to pass by hiding from them. The police caught them and put them in jail for the night. Of 100 people who want to pass, 75 are forced to return. You need to have (based on a notice posted here) at least two months of supplies and $ 500 or six months of provisions and $ 250 to go down the Yukon river.

Lorenzo himself had some problems to get by. Finally, another French-Canadian, Arthur Durand, negotiated with the police officers convincing them that Lorenzo was one of his employees.

Today, a plaque commemorates the presence of the Northwest Mounted Police near the Tagish River. Its inscription reads as follows:

28,000 people in 7000 hand-made boats passed by here on their way to the Klondike Gold fields in 1898. They were checked through at the Tagish North West Mounted Police post two miles up stream. The post was established in October 1897 by Inspector D.A.E. Strickland and five members of the force. It served as police headquarters customs and post office for southwestern Yukon and the Stikine River area in British Columbia during the peak of the gold rush years.

Commemorative plaque for the Tagish Post of the Northwest Mounted Police

When I stopped by the Tagish River, I was not greeted by mounted police officers, but rather by a pair of trumpeter swans. In the spring, this section of the Tagish River (also called Tagish Narrows) welcomes flocks of migrating swans and other waterfowl. It is possible to see up to 1000 at once. Unfortunately, I arrived just a few days too late. The majority of the swans were already en route to their nesting grounds further north.

Swans on the Tagish River

Tagish River Bridge also named Six Mile River bridge

Once their safety inspection was successfully passed, the miners were allowed to continue their journey to Marsh Lake.

Marsh Lake seen from Judas Creek

Finally, once the 30 km of Lake Marsh were behind them, prospectors could see the cliffs of the Yukon River. Since leaving Bennett Lake, their journey had been relatively calm but soon things would become a lot more turbulent!

Yukon River Bridge at the northern end of Marsh Lake

The Lewes Dam was the first in a series of dams to be installed on the Yukon River. In the early XXth century, a large number of sternwheelers were navigating between Carcross and Dawson City. The dam was built in 1922 in an effort to accelarate the start of the navigation season as it allowed the release of a large volume of water in the spring to help break the ice of lakes located downstream.

Yukon River with the Lewes Dam in the background

Lewes Dam, the first dam on the Yukon River

See you soon for the next chapter of the adventure which will take us to Whitehorse!

Klondike Gold Rush (part 2) : Miles Canyon and the White Horse Rapids

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