.. on the marge of Lake Lebarge….
by Mike Creasy
Gold. By the bucketful. Just scoop it up. But first, you had to get there!
The Klondike Gold rush began in the summer of 1897, after word of George Carmack’s discovery in August 1896. Starry-eyed prospectors with names like Skookum Jim and Sam McGee flocked to the west coast ports of San Francisco and Victoria to head north and make their fortune. There were two main routes to the gold fields; across the North Pacific to the mouth of the Yukon, then nearly 1000 miles upriver through the heart of Alaska, or the inside passage to Skagway or Dyea and then across the Chilkoot Pass to Lake Bennett and on to Whitehorse.
A third route from the railhead at Edmonton was available, even longer and more difficult, often two years of hard slogging to reach the bonanza of gold.
There was a serious problem with the two coastal routes, as far as the Canadian and British Columbian governments were concerned – both went through US territory. And that was a problem not only because of sovereignty, but because some of the vast profits might be lost! This was, after all, pre-NAFTA.
Some might remember back to the 1970’s, when BC Rail decided that a new rail line was needed to open up the northwest corner of the province. Rough grade was completed from Fort St. James to Cassiar, about a hundred miles from the Yukon border. It was a costly venture, many years in the construction phase, and was finally killed by falling mineral prices and opposition to mining.
But the “Dease Lake extension” wasn’t the first big rail project in northwest BC – not even the second, when you count the White Pass line from Skagway to Whitehorse.
The first big line was going to run from Glenora on the Stikine River all the way to Teslin Lake, just south of the Yukon border.
CP’s Engineering Superintendent, E.J. Duchesnay, undertook a survey of the route in the fall of 1897, and developed a grand transportation plan. In his view, the new railway would be fed by streams of miners and cargo from Victoria using coastal liners as far as Fort Wrangell, then paddlewheelers up the Stikine to Glenora, then the new Teslin Lake Railway, and then more paddlewheelers to Dawson City. All that was needed now was 12 new paddlewheelers and a 145 mile railway.
At the time, Glenora was nothing more than a few tents on a flat spot beside the river, marking the practical limit of steam navigation. A very rough trail had been carved out, running up to the southern end of Teslin Lake, which runs north across the Yukon border into the Teslin River and on to Fort Selkirk and then Dawson City on the Yukon River.
CP quickly began to acquire the needed ships, buying the Tartar (3877 tons) and the Athenian (4339 tons) for the Victoria – Fort Wrangell leg of the journey. The sternwheelers Constantine, Dalton, Schwatka and Walsh were built in 1898 at Port Blakely, Washington.
The Minto, Moyie and Tyrrell were built in Ontario and shipped to Vancouver in pieces, to be re-assembled and finished. The Hamlin, Ogilvie, McConnell and Duchesnay were all built in 1898 in Vancouver.
By May of 1898, CP was ready to go with boats, new wharves, personnel and advertising for the new “all-Canadian” route to the Klondike. All that was missing was the rail link! Estimated cost was as high as $4 million, and CP seems to have been reluctant to take all the risk. Negotiations with the federal and provincial governments were ongoing, and a bill to award a construction contract was put before the politicians, but in the meantime – no train.
The summer of 1898 saw many miners travelling through Glenora, to be met with a brutal pack trail across muskeg bogs which quickly became giant mud pits. Pack rates soared to $750 per ton for the 145 miles to Teslin Lake, compared to just $40 per ton for the 125 miles from Fort Wrangell to Glenora.
By the end of the ’98 season, it was all over for the “all-Canadian” route. There was a new government in Ottawa; interest waned, and the Senate killed the construction contract.
In the meantime work on the new White Pass Railway had already begun, solidifying Skagway’s position as the main entry point for the Klondike.
CP began to dispose of the un-needed fleet of sternwheelers, and reorganize its coastal fleet to serve the Skagway connection.
The Minto and Moyie, which had not yet been reassembled in Vancouver, were sent to Nelson and Nakusp, and served the Kootenays many years to come.
All this, in less than a year…..
As Robert Service said: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun…”
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Sternwheelers and Steam Tugs, Robert D. Turner, Sono Nis Press, 1984
Paddlewheels on the Frontier Vol. 1, BC Outdoors Magazine, Art Downs, 1967
Paddlewheels on the Frontier Vol. 2, BC Outdoors Magazine, Art Downs, 1967
Quotations from “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service. 1907