Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/May 1899/Alaska and the Klondike: In by the White Pass and Out by the Chilkoot I

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search





MAY, 1899.






HARDLY two years ago the names Dawson and Klondike were entirely unknown to the outside world, and geographers were as ignorant of their existence as was at that time the less learned laity. To-day it may be questioned if any two localities of foreign and uncivilized lands are as well known, by name at least, as these that mark the approach to the arctic realm in the northwest of the American continent. One of those periodic movements in the history of peoples which mark epochs in the progress of the world, and have their source in a sudden or unlooked-for discovery, directed attention to this new quarter of the globe, and to it stream and will continue to stream thousands of the world's inhabitants. Probably not less than from thirty-five thousand to forty thousand people, possibly even considerably more, have in the short period following the discovery of gold in the Klondike region already passed to or beyond the portals of what has not inaptly been designated the New Eldorado. To some of these a fortune has been born; to many more a hope has been shattered in disappointment; and to still more the arbiter of fate, whether for good or for bad, has for a while withheld the issue.

In its simplest geographical setting Dawson, this Mecca of the

north, is a settlement of the Northwest Territory of Canada, situated at a point thirteen hundred miles as the crow flies northwest of Seattle. It is close to, if not quite on, the Arctic Circle, and it lies the better part of three hundred miles nearer to the pole than does St. Petersburg in Russia. By its side one of the mighty rivers of the globe hurries its course to the ocean, but not too swiftly to permit of sixteen hundred miles of its lower waters being navigated by craft of the size of nearly the largest of the Mississippi steamers, and five hundred miles above by craft of about half this size. In its own particular world, the longest day of the year drawls itself out to twenty-two hours of sunlight, while the shortest contracts to the same length of sun absence.

During the warmer days of summer the heat feels almost tropical; the winter cold is, on the other hand, of almost the extreme Siberian rigor. Yet a beautiful vegetation smiles not only over the valleys, but on the hilltops, the birds gambol in the thickets, and the tiny mosquito, either here or near by, pipes out its daily sustenance to the wrath of man. The hungry forest stretches out its gnarled and ragged arms for still another hundred or even three hundred miles farther to the north.

Up to within a few years the white man was a stranger in the land, and the Indian roamed the woods and pastures as still do the moose and caribou. To-day this has largely changed. The banks of the once silent river now give out the hum of the sawmill, the click of the hammer, and the blast of the time-whistle, commanding either to rest or to work. A busy front of humanity has settled where formerly the grizzly bear lapped the stranded salmon from the shore, and where at a still earlier period—although perhaps not easily associated with the history of man—the mammoth, the musk ox, and the bison were masters of the land. The red man is still there in lingering numbers, but his spirit is no longer that which dominates, and his courage not that of the untutored savage.

The modern history of Dawson begins with about the middle of 1896, shortly after the "public" discovery of gold in the Klondike tract. Three or four months previous there was hardly a habitation, whether tent or of logs, to deface the landscape, and the voice of animate Nature was hushed only in the sound of many waters. At the close of the past year, as nearly as estimate can make it, there were probably not less than from fourteen thousand to fifteen thousand men, women, and children, settled on the strip of land that borders the Yukon, both as lowland and highland, for about two miles of its course near the confluence of the Klondike. Many of these have located for a permanence, others only to give way to successors more fortunate than themselves. Some of the richest claims of the Bonanza, now a famed gold creek of the world, are located hardly twelve miles distant, and the wealth of the Eldorado is discharged within a radius of less than twenty miles. Over the mountains that closely limit the head springs of Bonanza and Eldorado, Hunker, Dominion,

PSM V55 D013 Lynn canal and the skagway river.png
Looking down the Lynn Canal—Skaguay River, with Skaguay on the Left.

and Sulphur Creeks thread their own valleys of gold in deep hollows of beautiful woodland—fascinating even to-day, but already badly scarred by the work that man has so assiduously pressed in the region. This is the Klondike, a land full of promise and of equal disappointment, brought to public notice in the early part of 1897, when intelligence was received by the outside world regarding the first important gold location on Bonanza Creek in August of the year previous.

On the 24th of July of the past year I found myself on the principal thoroughfare of Skaguay, the ubiquitous Broadway, contemplating a journey to the new north. The route of travel had been determined for me in part by the non-arrival at Seattle of the expected steamers from the mouth of the Yukon River, and by that woeful lack of knowledge regarding "conditions" which so frequently distinguishes steamship companies. It was to be, therefore, the overland route, and from Skaguay it was merely the alternative between the White Pass and the Chilkoot Pass or Dyea trails. The two start from points barely four miles apart, cross their summits at very nearly the same distance from one another, and virtually terminate at the same body of inland water, Lake Lindeman, the navigable head of the great Yukon River. A more than generous supply of summer heat gave little warning of that bleak and severe interior with which the world had been made so well familiar during the last twelvemonth, and from which we were barely six hundred miles distant; nor did the character of the surroundings betray much of an approach to the Arctic Circle. Mountains of aspiring elevations, six thousand to seven thousand feet, most symmetrically separated off into pinnacles and knobs, and supporting here and there enough of snow to form goodly glaciers, look down upon the narrow trough which today is the valley of the Skaguay River. At the foot of this ancient fiord lies the boom town of Skaguay. Charming forests, except where the hand of man has leveled the work of Nature to suit the requirements of a constructing railway, yet clothe the mountain slopes and fill in the gap that lies between them, shadowing the dense herbage and moss which almost everywhere form an exquisite carpeting to the underlying rock. The ear may catch the strains of a few mosquitoes, or the mellow notes of the robin or thrush, but rising far above these in the majesty of tone and accent is the swish of the tumbling cataracts which bring the landscape of Norway to America. Man, it is claimed, is much the same the world over; but there is a limitation. The second habitation of white man in Skaguay was established less than a year before my visit; yet at that time, presumably to meet the demands of a resident population of nearly five thousand, and of the wandering hordes pressing to the interior, the destructive hand of the advertiser had already inscribed on the walls of rock, in characters twenty feet or more in height, and sufficiently elevated to make them nearly the most conspicuous elements of the landscape, the glories of cigars, the value of mental and physical specifics, and of other abominations which were contrived to fatten the Yankee pocket.

Had it not been for the kindly advice of one who had just returned from the Klondike, and who claimed to have crossed both passes fifty times, I should almost unhesitatingly have taken the

PSM V55 D015 Summer day on the skagway river.png
A Summer Day on the Skaguay.

White Pass trail; but the representation that beyond the summit the mud would be neck-deep and virtually impenetrable for a distance of twenty miles or more, cast the decision in favor of the Chilkoot. The fortunate or unfortunate circumstance that a billowy sea made a landing of passengers at Dyea impossible on that day threw me back upon my first resource, and about two hours before midday of the 30th I was mounted on a horse following out the Skaguay trail. By seven o'clock in the evening of the following day I had reached Lake Lindeman, and about a half hour later Lake Bennett, the starting point of the lines of Upper Yukon steamers which had just recently been established. We had made the forty miles of the dreaded White Pass trail without serious hindrance or delay, up over the summit of 2,860 feet elevation, and down over a course which was depicted in colors of hardship that would have done more truthful service in describing a pass in the Himalayas. There was no mud, not a trace of snow or ice except on the mountain declivities, and had it not been for a horse that was both stiff and lame, and required my attention as pedestrian to an extent that had not been bargained for, the journey would have been an exceptionally delightful one.

It is true that an unfortunate fall at one time almost deprived me of my animal, but the service of tackle soon put him to rights and to his feet, and but few blood marks were left on the rocks to tell of the struggle. The most disagreeable incident of the journey was a dense and shifting fog, which so blocked out the landscape of early evening as to necessitate "feeling" the brokenness of a glaciated country in order to ascertain wherein lay the trail. But beyond this there was a perpetual delight in the landscape—in the narrow rocky defile, the bursting torrent, the open meadows, with their carpet of green and variegated with fireweed, gentian, rose, and forget-me-not, which more than compensated for the little vexations that allied themselves with the journey.

It is not often that the selection of a route of travel is determined by the odorous or malodorous qualities which appertain thereto. Such a case was, however, presented here. It was not the depth of mud alone which was to deter one from essaying the White Pass route; sturdy pioneers who had toiled long and hard in opening up one or more new regions, laid emphasis upon the stench of decaying horse-flesh as a factor of first consideration in the choice of route. So far as stench and decaying horse-flesh were concerned, they were in strong evidence. The Desert of Sahara, with its lines of skeletons, can boast of no such exhibition of carcasses. Long before Bennett was reached I had taken count of more than a thousand unfortunates whose bodies now made part of the trail; frequently we were obliged to pass directly over these ghastly figures of hide, and sometimes, indeed, broke into them. Men whose veracity need not be questioned assured me that what I saw was in no way the full picture of the "life" of the trail; the carcasses of that time were less than one third of the full number which in April and May gave grim character to the route to the new Eldorado. Equally spread out, this number would mean one dead animal for every sixty feet of distance! The poor beasts succumbed not so much to the hardships of the trail as to the inhuman treatment, or lack of care and assistance, which they

PSM V55 D017 Coming down the white pass winter 1898.png
Coming Down the White Pass—Winter.

received on the part of their owners. Once out of the line of the mad rush, perhaps unable to extricate themselves from the holding meshes of soft snow and of quagmires, they were allowed to remain where they were, a food offering to the army of carrion eaters which were hovering about, only too certain of the meal which was being prepared for them. Oftentimes pack saddles, and sometimes even the packs, were allowed to remain with the struggling or sunken animal—such was the mad race which the greed of gold inspired.

On October 9th I was again at Bennett, this time returning from my journey into the interior, and full of experience of what steam navigation on the upper six hundred miles of Yukon waters might mean. There was now a change in the sentiment regarding the quality of the two passes. The Pacific and Arctic Railway, the pioneer of Alaska steam railways, was operating twelve miles of track, and had thus materially reduced the "hardships" of the Skaguay trail; the Chilkoot, on the other hand, was represented to be in the worst of mood, and prepared to put the passing traveler into the same condition. It was more than late in the season, but the winter's blasts had been stayed off by a full month, and there were still no signs of their coming. A little ice had begun to form along the river's margin and over sheltered pools, and an occasional cool night made demands for moderately warm clothing proper; but, on the whole, the temperature was mild and balmy, and to its influence responded a vegetation which in its full glory might easily have called to mind the region of the Juniata.

Although strongly warned against taking the Chilkoot Pass so late in the season, many of the outgoers, whose recollections of events in the early part of the year were still vividly fresh, and who could not be persuaded that the period of a few months had so effaced the conditions of the past as to permit a steam railway to enter for twelve miles into the region, chose it in preference to the White Pass. My own mind had been cast in the same direction; not, however, from a point of judicious preference, but merely because I was anxious to see for myself that which had become historic in the movement of 1898, and of instituting a direct comparison of the physical features and general characteristics of the two routes. With no serious hindrance, the journey from Bennett out was that of a full day only, and there was no particular reason to suspect that there would be delay. Snow had fallen on the summit and whitened all the higher points, but seemingly it hung in only a measurably thin crust, and with not enough to necessitate breaking a trail.

A crude steam ferry across Lake Lindeman cuts off about six miles from the first part of the trail, after which a rapidly rising path, sufficiently distinct to permit it to be easily followed, winds over the rocks and among rock debris to Long Lake, situated at an elevation of some twenty-six hundred feet, where night shelter is found in a fairly comfortable tent. Up to this point we had encountered but little snow, and the condition of the trail was such as to allow of rapid travel. A wise caution detained us here for the night, and the incoming of a solitary traveler warned us that a blizzard had struck the summit of the pass, and buried it beneath a heavy mantle of snow. Had we been a day earlier we might have crossed dry shod, a very exceptional condition

PSM V55 D019 Pacific and arctic railway grade cutting at white pass.png
Cutting Grade for the Pacific and Arctic Railway—Tunnel Mountain, White Pass Route.

at this time of the year, but now the possibilities of a struggle gravely presented themselves. A light frost of the night had fairly congealed the soil, but the lake did not carry enough surface ice to interfere with the progress of a scow, and we reached the farther end without difficulty. The two-mile portage to Crater Lake was largely a snow traverse, but an easy one; at this time, however, it began to snow heavily, and the immediate prospect was anything but cheerful. A low fog hung over the waters, but not so low or so dense as to prevent us from occasionally catching glimpses of the rocks which projected with disagreeable frequency from an assumed bottomless pit or "crater." The ascent from Crater Lake to the summit, somewhat less than three hundred and fifty feet, was made in about half an hour, and then began the steep and sudden plunge which marks the southern declivity of this famous mountain pass. Some little caution was here required to keep a foothold, and a too sudden break might have led to an exhilarating, even if not anxiously sought after, glissade; but in truth, to any one only moderately practiced in mountaineering, even this steep face, which descends for a thousand feet or more from a summit elevation of thirty-four hundred feet, presents little difficulty and hardly more danger. What there is of a trail zigzags in wild and rapid courses over an almost illimitable mass of rock débris, at times within sheltered or confined hollows, but more generally on the open face of the declivity. This it is more particularly that carries to many a certain amount of fear in the making of the passage, but, with proper caution and the right kind of boots, nothing of danger need be apprehended.

Unfortunately for the enjoyment of the scenery of the pass, I could see but a modest part of it. Although snow was no longer falling, and the atmosphere had settled down to a condition of almost passive inactivity—much to the surprise, if not disappointment, of a few who had prophesied a stiff and biting wind the moment we passed the divide—heavy cloud banks hovered about the summits, and only at intervals did they afford glimpses of the majestic mountain peaks by which we were surrounded. Enough, however, could be seen to justify for the pass the claims of most imposing scenery, and its superiority in this respect over the White Pass. The temperature at the time of our crossing was a few degrees below freezing, perhaps 25° or 27° F., but our rapid walk brought on profuse perspiration, and it would have been a pleasure, if a sense of proper caution had permitted, to divest ourselves of mackinaws and travel in summer fashion. We made Sheep Camp, with its surroundings of beautiful woodland, shortly after noon, and Canon City, which, as the terminus of a good coach road to Dyea, virtually marks the end or beginning of the Chilkoot trail, at two o'clock.

To a mountaineer or traveler of ordinary resource neither the White Pass nor the Chilkoot Pass will appear other than it actually is—i.e., a mountain pass, sufficiently rough and precipitous in places, and presenting no serious obstacle to the passage of man, woman, or child. True, I did not see them at their worst, but they were both represented to be frightfully bad even at the time of my crossing. The seasonal effects, doubtless, do much to modify the character of the trails, and even local conditions must mold them to a very considerable extent. It is not difficult to conceive of miry spots along the White Pass trail, or of snow-swept areas on the Chilkoot, and there

PSM V55 D021 Final ascent to chilkoot summit.png
The Final Ascent To Chilkoot Summit—Winter.

certainly must be times when both trails are in a measure or way impassable. All trails are, however, subject to modifications in character, and even the best is at times sufficiently bad. Trains of pack animals cross the White Pass both winter and summer, and, even with the great loss to their "forefathers," their testimony of steady work is a recommendation of the class of service in which they are engaged. A limited number of cattle and horses have also found their way over the summit of the Chilkoot Pass—some crossing immediately after us—but the trail is too steep on the ocean side to fit it for animal service, although I strongly suspect that were the location in Mexico instead of in Alaska, there would be a goodly number of caballeros and arrieros to smile at the proposition of presented difficulties. Indian women seem to consider it no hardship to pack a fifty-pound sack of flour and more over the summit, and there are many men who do not hesitate to take double this load, and make several journeys during the same day. It is the load that kills, and it was, doubtless, this influence, united to a cruel method, which so strongly impressed the pioneers with the notion of extreme hardship. The most level and perfect road, to one carrying for miles a pack of from sixty to eighty pounds, soon begins to loom up a steep incline.

Both the northern and southern slopes of the Chilkoot Pass are largely surfaced with shattered rocks, over which, with occasional deflections across more pleasant snow banks, a fairly well-defined trail mounts on either side to the summit. In its grim landscape effects, more particularly on the inner face, where a number of rock-bound tarns—Crater Lake, Long Lake, Deep Lake—afford a certain relief to the degree of desolation which the scene carries, it reminded me much of the famous Grimsel Pass, and here as well as there the modeling of the surface through glacial action was strongly in evidence. The vastly towering Alpine peaks were, however, wanting, and the glaciers that still appeared showed that they had long since passed their better days. The actual summit is trenched by a narrow rocky gap, roughly worn through walls of granite, and by it have passed the thousands who have pressed to the interior. There is no timber growth at or near this summit, nor is there soil sufficient to give support to an arboreal vegetation. Nearest to the top line a prostrate form of scrubby hemlock (Tsuga Pattoniana) alone makes pretense to being a tree, but below it of itself grows to majestic proportions, and about "Sheep Camp," with Menzie's spruce, a birch, and Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera), forms part of the beautiful woodland, which with ever-increasing freshness descends to the lower levels.

Lest I be accused of too freely seeing the beauties of the northern landscape, I venture in my defense the following graphic description of the Dyea Valley from the pen of another traveler and geologist, Prof. Israel Russell: "In the valley of the Taiya the timber line is sharply drawn along the bordering cliffs at an elevation of about twenty-five hundred feet. Above that height the mountain sides are stern and rugged; below is a dense forest of gigantic hemlocks, festooned with long streamers of moss, which grows even more luxuriantly than on the oaks of Florida. The ground beneath the trees and the fallen monarchs of the forest are densely covered with a soft, feathery carpet of mosses, lichens, and ferns of all possible tints of brown and green. The day I traversed this enchanted valley was

PSM V55 D023 Chilkoot trail and the aerial tramway.png
The Chilkoot Trail—Power House of the Aërial Tramway.

bright and sunny in the upper regions, but the valley was filled with drifting vapors. At one minute nothing would be visible but the somber forest through which the white mist was hurrying; and the next the veil would be swept aside, revealing with startling distinctness the towering mountain spires, snowy pinnacles, and turquoise cliffs of ice towering heavenward. These views through the cloud rifts seemed glimpses of another world. Below was a sea of surging branches that filled all the valley bottom and dashed high on the bordering cliffs. Much space could be occupied with descriptions of the magnificent scenery about Lynn Canal, and of the wonderful atmospheric effects to be seen there, but the poetry of travel is foreign to these pages, and must be left for more facile pens."

In its present condition the Chilkoot trail has the advantage over the Skaguay in its shorter length, the distance from Dyea to the head of Lake Lindeman, the virtual head of river navigation, being about twenty-four miles; from Skaguay to Bennett, along the usual White Pass trail, the distance is fully ten or twelve miles longer, although a cut-off by way of the summit lakes reduces the traverse considerably. At intervals along both routes fairly good accommodation can now be had. One condition of the Chilkoot Pass, and that a not altogether light one, places it during certain months at a disadvantage as compared with the White Pass. I refer to the dangers from avalanches. These are of the true Alpine type, having their source in the heavy beds of snow which cling with bare support to the steeply pitching mountain walls, in places along some of the narrowest parts of the pass. The appalling catastrophe of April, 1898, which caused the loss of sixty-three lives, and followed closely upon an earlier event of like nature, had its seat in the steep, rocky ledges of the east wall between Sheep Camp and the Scales. It is claimed that the Indians along the trail clearly foresaw the impending event, and announced it in unmistakable language, but their warnings were allowed to go unheeded. They themselves did not make the traverse on that day. The minor disaster of the following December (9th), when but six lives were sacrificed, took place on the steep declivity which faces Crater Lake, not far from the service house of the Chilkoot Pass Aërial Tramway Company. Here the mountain face is very precipitous and gives but insecure lodgment to the snow. The Indians carefully watch all natural signals and urge a rapid journey. However useful these trails may have been in the past, how well or how indifferently they may have met the wants of the pioneers of 1897 and 1898, they are destined before long to be thrown into that same obscurity which they held when the Indians and a few adventurous trappers and traders alone made use of them as avenues of communication between the inner and outer worlds. The advance of the iron horse is now an assured fact, and the Pacific and Arctic Railway, whose construction is engineered by some of the most experienced mechanical talent of Great Britain and America, will minister before many months not alone to the professional interlopers in the new land, but to hosts of tourists as well. The road, which in reaching White Pass summit will have a maximum gradient of a little more than five per cent, is of narrow-gauge construction, solidly supported on dressed ties brought from the forests of Oregon. No terminal appears

PSM V55 D025 Prospectors climbing chilkoot pass 1898.png
Summit of the Chilkoot Pass, with Impedimenta of Prospectors, April 1898.

to have been as yet definitely determined upon, although the charter act recites Fort Selkirk on the Yukon, about one hundred and sixty miles above Dawson, as such. Operating as it now does sixteen miles or more of road, it is already an extensive freight carrier; but until its completion to Bennett or to some point close to a navigable part of the Yukon River, the Chilkoot Pass tramway, a remarkable construction which crosses over the summit and deposits at Crater Lake, must continue to handle a large part of the business intended for the interior.

It is safe to say that the stirring scenes which were enacted on the passes during the winter of 1897-'98, when the impedimenta of travel and occupation were packed together in the manner of an army camp, will not be repeated again. The past history was a short one, and it gives way to one of greater promise.


    Note.—For most of the photographic illustrations the author is indebted to the work of Curtis, Barley, and E. A. Hegg; especially to the last-named gentleman, of Skaguay and Dawson, is he under obligations for permission to use several of the copyrighted views.