I’m cheating, more than a little, as I board the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway in the tiny community of Carcross, Yukon, a one-hour drive from the capital of Whitehorse. Getting to Skagway and then over to Dawson City will be much easier for me than it was for the original Klondike Gold Rush stampeders more than a century ago.
People flooded north to the Klondike between 1897 and 1899, after George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley found gold while fishing on Rabbit Creek on August 17, 1896. This small tributary of the Klondike River was soon renamed Bonanza Creek. After news of the find reached the world in 1897, an estimated 100,000 would-be prospectors left their homes with dreams of striking it rich in the Yukon.
After travelling by steamer along the Pacific Coast from San Francisco, Portland or Seattle, men (and there were some women. disembarked at ports in the Alaskan towns of Dyea or Skagway.
A criminal gang headed by the notorious Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith reigned over Skagway until he was gunned down on July 8, 1898.
The gold rush is long gone, but boats still come here every summer as thousands of cruise ship passengers stop in to visit such Skagway attractions as the Red Onion Saloon, Gold Rush Cemetery, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and, like me, ride the rails along the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway.
Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site
For gold seekers, the toughest part of the 960-km trek to the Klondike began after they loaded up on the year’s-worth of food and supplies they were required to have in order to enter Canada.
Men and women shouldered heavy loads up and down the sometimes-treacherous 53-km Chilkoot Trail that local Chilkoot Tlingit First Nations traders had used for centuries.
Along the journey, they travelled through the Coast Mountains and crossed the border into Canada. Some prospectors made the trek as many as 30 or 40 times to transport more than 1,000 pounds of food and equipment.
The US National Park Service and Parks Canada now jointly manage the Chilkoot Trail, which runs from Dyea, Alaska to Bennett, British Columbia.
Strong hikers heft their backpacks over very rough and rocky terrain, through windswept valleys and deep mud, hike up the steep Chilkoot Pass and walk on a trail that sometimes still has snow on the ground.
This tough multi-day hike is no walk in the park. The most challenging day during this multi-day hike is a 12-hour affair from Sheep Camp and over the Chilkoot Pass to Happy Camp.
Although it’s only 12.7 km, people find themselves balancing on unstable slippery snow and rocks. But the sense of satisfaction of having “done the Chilkoot” after reaching Lake Bennett is immense.
Fewer people used the lesser-known White Pass Trail. Crews used 450 tons of explosives to blast through mountains for two years, building the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway.
Construction between Skagway and Whitehorse was completed in 1900. The train no longer travels the full length of the original 176km to Whitehorse.
Every summer since 1988, thousands of tourists board the train in Skagway or Carcross to retrace part of the route that dreamers once followed in their hope of striking gold. The train climbs nearly 3000 feet within 72km. It features sharp turns, two tunnels and numerous bridges and trestles. The Canada-US border sits astride the 2865-foot White Pass Summit.
Lake Bennett Lake
After trekking the Chilkoot or White Pass trails, stampeders reached the headwaters of the Yukon River at Lake Bennett.
A tent city sprang up on its shores as some 30,000 people crammed in during the winter of 1898-1899 to build makeshift rafts, scows and boats to float through canyons and rapids for 800 km on the Yukon River to Dawson City.
As the White Pass & Yukon Railroad train pulls into Bennett Lake, this one-time boomtown is quiet. Passengers disembark and fan out to see what remains. A 45-minute walking tour starts at the railway depot and winds its way to Bennett Street and up to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.
Further up, a sign at one end of the Chilkoot Trail points to the Chilkoot Pass and Dyea. It’s a quiet spot from which to contemplate the beauty of these mountains that hide the challenges thousands of dreamers once faced.
From Lake Bennett, the next challenge was getting through several rapids in Miles Canyon, including the deadly White Horse Rapids.
The North-West Mounted Police made sure each boat was sturdy and had a licensed pilot to withstand the rapids. Two businessmen built a horse-powered tramway on either side of the river to carry boats and equipment through the canyon.
Canyon City, which even had its own police detachment, disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared. By 1900, the gold rush was over and the White Pass railroad made the trek down the Yukon River obsolete.
On a June afternoon, I join a group just beyond the Miles Canyon parking lot for a hike led by guides from the Yukon Conservation Society. We cross the Robert Lowe footbridge and hike to Canyon City.
It’s desolate today, but rusted metal cans and the remnants of a tram are a reminder of the stories the Klondike Gold Rush left behind.
By the time the stampeders reached Dawson City at the mouth of the Klondike River, the best claims had been staked. But signs of the area’s history remain in the town’s gold-rush era buildings, wooden sidewalks and dusty streets.
Helena Katz is a writer who lives in northern Canada and has published four true crime books.