Yukon Frontiers
Historic Resource Study of the Proposed Yukon-Charley National River
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Explorers, traders, miners, and settlers might have called upon an advanced technology and fifty years of experience in frontier transportation to speed travel in the rugged, mountainous, forested land of Alaska. Yet the Alaskan environment did not lend itself to the patterns of transportation that had been developed on the Great Plains. Although traders and miners blazed overland trails, these were never so heavily used as the California-Oregon Trail, Santa Fe trail, and other western trails. Separated from the rest of the nation by Canada, Alaska's isolation decreed a slower development than on the continental frontiers. The forests, rivers, and mountains posed transportation problems that coupled with supply problems, prevented the immediate growth of the wagon roads that had been so crucial to the settlement of the American West. [1] Consequently exploration and migration followed the navigable rivers, a pattern that resembled the earliest frontiers along the East coast and thus a step backward in frontier evolution. As dependence on river transportation increased, moreover, technology and innovation provided a wide range of river crafts, from multiple-passenger steamboats to one-man canoes.

The early English and Russian traders used rough whipsawed scows, sometimes even rafts, as their method of transporting trade goods and furs. Later poling boats and Indian birch-bark canoes took their place as trade on the river increased. Lack of supplies was the greatest problem Robert Campbell and Alexander Murray faced. Not until large American capitalists invested in Yukon commercial companies was the supply problem alleviated. With the introduction of the Yukon in 1869, the Parrott & Company, who later merged with the Alaska Commercial Company, proved that the Yukon River was navigable for 1,600 miles. Ocean steamers, leaving their commercial supply base, usually San Francisco, carried trading goods to St. Michael near the mouth of the Yukon River. From there shallow-draft river steamers continued the journey to the Yukon trading stations.

The early sternwheel steamboats, the Yukon, New Racket, and St. Michael were basic in design and function. They averaged only seventy feet long but towed three or four barges to carry the cargo and traders. Since accomodations were non-existent, at meal time the steamers stopped and allowed the crew and traders to take turns eating. The crew were Indians, and the captain occasionally served as the engineer. As a novice pilot, McQuesten wrote: "It is a wonder to me that we didn't blow her up or sink her as I didn't know anything about steamboating." [2]

The discovery of gold on the Fortymile required a larger vessel, the Arctic. One hundred forty feet long and thirty feet wide, the Arctic was not only the largest boat on the river but the fastest. Routinely each season the boat made four round trips between St. Michael and Fortymile, and it once made five. In 1889 on its maiden voyage it hit a snag or a rock and lost most of the provisions for Fortymile. As a result most of the miners faced starvation rations or found their way to St. Michael. The Arctic was the first steamer into the new city of Dawson. but during spring break-up in 1897 it was caught in an ice jam and, during efforts to blast it free with gunpowder, accidentally blown-up. The salvaged machinery was later installed in a square-nosed barge that became the steamboat Margaret. [3]

Meanwhile, in 1892, competition from the North American Transportation and Trading Company appeared with the 175-foot Portus B. Weare, which was even larger than the Arctic. P. B. Weare, president of the company, had travelled the Missouri and Mississippi as a fur trader and knew the capabilities of the captains and pilots there. He thought they would be equally good on the Yukon. One of them, Captain E. D. Dixon, Weare sent to take charge of the river business, freeing John Healy for the commercial establishments. Captain Dixon introduced the Mississippi system of lashing barges ahead or along side of the steamer and pushing them forward instead of pulling them by long hawser. [4] The two strong personalities of Healy and Dixon immediately clashed, resulting in the Alaska Commercial Company snatching up the competent captain. Soon Mississippi and Missouri captains and pilots handled all the steamers of the Alaska Commercial Company. [5]

As a result of the miners "hold-up" at Circle City during the starvation crisis of 1897, both major commercial companies lobbied hard for military protection. [6] Not only did they gain protection but large profits for transporting military supplies. At the same time the starvation panic also focused the attention of America on the inadequacy of the two commercial companies to supply the Klondike's needs. Almost instantly, in response, new companies sprang up.

Many of these new companies did not survive the throes of organization, or were merely "paper companies" selling stock to a gullible public without following through on the utilization of the capital. Other companies innocently tried to move the river vessels under their own power from San Francisco to St. Michael. If they arrived at all, they were either unfit for the river or in partially wrecked condition. Still others found themselves totally out-classed by the older and more experienced companies. A few corporations, however, formed under careful and shrewd managers, succeeded in obtaining a foothold in the profitable business of transporting and selling supplies to the Argonauts. The most successful of the new companies were the Alaska Exploration Company, the Seattle-Yukon Transportation Company, and the Empire Transportation Company. [7]

Two companies formed during the early Klondike illustrate the range in organization and management—the North British American Trading and Transportation Company and the Seattle-Yukon Transportation Company. Pat Galvin left his job as City Marshal of Helena, Montana, during the Panic of 1893 and wandered into the Fortymile country. Capitalizing on George Carmack's discovery on Bonanza Creek, Galvin made a fortune. He planned a trading and transportation company with riverboats, ocean steamers, trading posts, banks, and hotels to break the monopoly of the old-time fur-trading companies, which had not "treated the boys right". [8] Hastening to London with enthusiasm and a silver tongue, he sparked interest among a number of English businessmen, who agreed to provide the capital for the North British American Trading and Transportation Company. In exchange, Galvin put up his Klondike mines and his experience.

With unlimited credit at the Bank of England, Galvin purchased goods in Seattle and contracted for the building of the Mary Ellen Galvin. Designed by Galvin, the boat proved a total failure and caused the loss of the best part of the summer. Consequently, his outfit did not leave San Francisco until the end of August with only the hope of buying a boat in St. Michael. There he purchased the Yukoner, which had made the fastest round trip on record and a barge, the Maud.

Galvin enjoyed sharing his wealth and royally scolded an employee who tried to "economize": "Don't show your ignorance by using that cheap outside word. We don't use it here. . . . You must learn the ways of Alaska. That word is not understood in the North. If you have money, spend it; that's what it's for, and that's the way we do business." [9] As a result he spent or gave away all his cash and started up the Yukon without a cent for cordwood or deck hands.

Galvin's outfit started late in September. Groundings and boiler explosions slowed progress. When reaching Dawson that season looked increasingly hopeless, Galvin left the expedition to report to London. Just above Russian Mission, as the ice filled the river, the Yukoner went into winter quarters. The crew built a warehouse, winterized the vessel, and prepared for a long winter. The choice of food was characteristic of Galvin's personality—fruit, chicken, turkey, roast beef, shrimp, crab, oysters, pâl;té de fois gras, anchovies, ham, bacon, fancy crackers, and champagne. [10]

Finally, on June 1, 1899, the Yukoner once again emerged on the Yukon and eventually limped into Dawson. Here the crew found Pat Galvin, but also discovered the Dawson market already well stocked, their own goods spoiled or rancid, and the Galvin mines failed. Pat Galvin's whole enterprise had crumbled, and the English businessmen declared bankruptcy. After spending every cent he had, Galvin slipped out of Dawson and died of cholera in Manila. [11]

In striking contrast to the Galvin fiasco, the Seattle-Yukon Transportation Company expanded to a business with a gross profit of more than a million dollars a year. Founded in 1897 by W. D. Wood, a Seattle lawyer, probate judge, state senator, and even Seattle mayor, the Seattle-Yukon Company did not wait in winter quarters but pushed on by dog team. [12] Developing a fleet of four steamers and as many barges, Wood competed successfully with the Alaska Commercial Company. Instead of Mississippi River captains, he recruited competent Columbia River captains, such as James T. Gray. Others, however, proved less reliable and some had chronic alcohol problems. [13] During the winter Wood planned ahead and sent an advance man to contract for 2,200 cords of wood for $15,000 for the summer season. [14] Although Wood had a considerable stock of supplies, he found that business was done primarily by credit, and collections were hard to make. For four years Wood fought his competition. Finally, in the spring of 1901, to compete more effectively with the Yukon and White Pass Railroad and the Canadian steamboats on the upper river, the Seattle Yukon Transportation Company merged with the Alaska Commercial Company, the Alaska Exploration Company, and the Empire Transportation Company to form two companies: the Northern Navigation Company for the river transportation business and the Northern Commercial Company for the mercantile business. [15] Only the North American Transportation and Trading Company remained independent.

During the peak years of the Klondike gold rush, 1897 to 1900, no fewer than 137 steamers plied the Yukon transporting supplies and passengers. [16] Three steamers suggestive of palatial packets of the Mississippi, marked the peak development of the Yukon sternwheelers. The Susie, Sarah, and Hannah, built in 1898, measured 223 feet long, 42 feet wide, with a depth of 6 feet, and a gross tonnage of 1,211. They pushed three barges each at a speed of 15 miles per hour. They also catered to the comforts of their passengers with electric lights, steam heat, cold storage plants, and well-ventilated staterooms. [17] Passengers included prospectors, traders, and a few soldiers. Initially gambling, chiefly faro and poker amused the men until company officials banned them. Occasionally a talented dance-hall woman told stories, danced, sang, and joked to while away the time. [18]

Frequently the captains raced their steamers up and down the river. On July 12, 1900, when the Rock Island blew a cylinder head within a few miles of Dawson, it lost 110 passengers to the Sarah. [19] But one of the more exciting races tested the two fastest boats of the North American Transportation and Trading Company—the T. C. Powers and the John Cudahy. They raced from Dawson to St. Michael loaded with 500 stampeders for Nome. Strangely no newspaper recorded this wild and exciting race, but steamboat men talked of it for years. [20]

Since the Yukon River's channel changed frequently, with innumerable submerged sandbars, each steamboat came equipped with heavy spars and tackle on the forward deck. With this sparring outfit a vessel could almost lift itself over a sand bar or "crutch" itself into deeper water. [21] Navigation, particularly through the Yukon Flats, where the river widens into several narrow, tortuous, and swift-flowing channels, demanded special skill by captain, crew, and pilot. Often the captain hired a Native pilot at Fort Yukon to guide the boat through the flats to Circle.

The steamer crew consisted of nearly sixty men, including a master or captain, two mates, one chief engineer, one assistant engineer, one purser, one freight clerk, one steward, two pilots, eight firemen, twenty-five deck hands, three cooks, and seventeen waiters. The smaller vessels required the same number of officers but fewer subordinates for a total of thirty men. The salaries were liberal enough to entice the best men in the field. [22]

One of the best captains on the river was Captain James T. Gray. Born in 1852 in Oregon, Gray, at age twenty-one, became a master on a Columbia River sternwheeler. He married the daughter of Oliver O. Howard, a general during the Civil War and the subsequent Indian wars. Her extravagence and desire for society life pushed Gray into a number of shaky business schemes. The Panic of 1893 left him bankrupt. By 1898 he found his way over the Chilkoot Pass and into Dawson, where he secured a captain's position with the Seattle-Yukon Transportation Company. [23] Here he won the praise of its treasurer as "an excellent man, a perfect gentleman and thoroughly reliable." [24]

At forty-seven years of age, Gray stood five feet, ten inches tall, and weighed 175 pounds. Yet he prided himself on his strength and endurance, proving he could lift 850 pounds. He expected high performance from his crew and maintained an immaculately clean boat. Although he never used profanity or alcohol around his family, he was known as the "Master of Impressive Profanity" on the Yukon. [25] When the Northern Navigation Company acquired Seattle-Yukon Transportation Company, Gray became Assistant Superintendent of Transportation. He designed three light-draft steamers, the Koyukuk, Tanana, and Delta. Each drew less than six inches of water and thus could transport supplies on the shallow Tanana and Koyukuk Rivers. His family stayed in Oregon while he operated the riverboats from April to October. He returned to Oregon for the winter. In 1918 he retired to a small fruit farm, and at the age of seventy-five died of stomach cancer.

Another captain, J.E. Chilberg, found his steamboats with lienable claims of $35,000 that he had to absolve. He collected enough fares at $75 per person to pay his creditors. More than 300 passengers boarded the medium-sized Monarch. His crew of twenty-five proved unable to control the miners, and Chilberg philosophically allowed them to do as they pleased. More men crowded on board at Circle and Rampart, and most refused to pay. Since it was daylight all the time, Chilberg gave up trying to schedule regular meals. Rancid butter provoked a miners meeting, which he handled with a sense of humor that disarmed the angry miners. All in all he completed three trips to St. Michael in 1899. The midsummer trips took between fifteen and and twenty days, but the late summer trips took longer because of the shorter days. [26]

Both costs and profits for transporting supplies and passengers ran high. Although the steamboat season averaged 120 days, by the time the boilers were cleaned, cargo loaded and unloaded, wood purchased and loaded, and allowances made for storms, darkness, wind, fog, groundings, and manuvering the mouth of the Yukon, only 50 days remained for actual river travel. [27] Government inspection occurring during the summer also consumed shipping days. Nevertheless, the following table shows that steamboating paid, even if the season were short; [28]

Outgoing Expenses
     Cost of steamboat$60,000
     Cost of barge10,000
     Cost of crew - round trip3,000
     Cost of meals for passengers15,000
     Cost of cordwood13,000

Incoming Payments
     300 fares at $220$66,000
     600 tons freight at 5¢ per lb.60,000
     70 fares on down trip15,000

Profit for first trip - $41,000; profit for second trip - $131,000

Since the average steamer burned forty to fifty cords of wood daily, fuel was one of the biggest expenses and problems transportation companies faced. They used wood predominately, but occasionally in the Yukon delta they resorted to coal. Thus the steamers' furnaces were designed to burn either wood or coal to make steam. In the beginning the steamer stopped every six hours, and the whole crew got off and chopped wood. By the gold-rush era the commercial companies maintained their own wood yards, where a constant supply of wood could be relied upon. Woodchoppers signed a contract for a predetermined price. The price of wood averaged eight dollars per cord but could jump to fifteen or even as high as forty-five. [29] The contract also required wood five inches in diameter and four feet in length. It was stacked on a sill no higher than six feet tall at a safe distance from the river but not more than fifty feet. A company agent measured the cordwood on the first trip downriver and paid the woodchopper. [30] In 1902 the Northern Navigation Company had thirty-seven wood camps of various sizes along the river. [31]

Some timber was cut on steep hillsides and corded where it fell. By removing the supportive props the whole pile thundered down to the riverbank like an avalanche. It was then carried on board stick by stick. [32] Other woodchoppers not fortunate enough to live near hillsides, waited for winter and then sledded their wood to the riverbank. [33] One company wood camp owned a logging engine to transport the wood. This camp hired six woodchoppers. If twenty cords a day were sold, the camp made a profit of eighty dollars. [34]

The woodchoppers themselves were hardy outdoor individualists who had come to Alaska to search for gold. When they failed to strike a bonanza, they had to earn a livelihood. Typifying this breed was George Pilcher, who arrived on the Yukon in July 1898. [35] He may have intended to head for the Klondike but decided instead to stop and sell cordwood to steamers. He gathered and stacked driftwood, sawed and split spruce wood, and sold his wood for ten dollars a cord. As he chopped and hauled, he recorded the thousands of disappointed Klondikers as they passed his cabin. He built a fish trap and picked raspberries, currants, and cranberries to supplement his diet. With his wood money he purchased provisions from passing steamers. During the winter he trapped for marten as well as continued to chop, sled, and stack wood. He made his own bread, cranberry jelly, and canvas mukluks and mittens. Since these were the heydays of the Klondike, a number of steamers and Klondikers wintered near him, providing company and a regular social life of dances, visits, and practical jokes. [36] During the summer he cursed thieving steamboaters who robbed him of his wood while he slept. Each year he moved to another wooded area, built a cabin, and started the process all over again.

Pilcher recorded his enjoyment and satisfaction with his lifestyle on Thanksgiving Day 1899: "I am at peace with all the world and am undisturbed by the sound from living mortal in my quiet home. I am simply supplied with every necessary comfort and have six grouse besides, yes, a basket full of ells—my health is perfect not a pain, ache, or woe. I eat like a wolf, sleep like a babe, and work like a tiger from dawn until dusk. My evenings are spent "if at leisure in either reading David Copperfield or else writing. . . . The world is beautiful and Providence has my heartfelt thanks." [37] After four years, however, the hard labor of woodchopping pushed him into trading with the Indians. Eventually he tried being a steamboat engineer, a trapper, artist, bridge builder, and inventor.

A later woodchopper, Frank Charles "Heine" Miller, established a wood camp at the mouth of the Tatonduk River that he patented in 1925. He hired six to seven Natives to cut, haul, stack, and load wood for the steamers. [38] Stories abound about the small, beer-barreled man whose well-built cabins served as a stopping place for winter travellers. He had trained his horse, Maud, to haul wood unattended from the hills to the beach. [39] Eventually in 1930 Miller sold his horses and shipped in a caterpiller tractor. [40] This modern innovation allowed greater quantities of wood to be dragged from areas even farther away. Thus he was not compelled to move every year. In the great Yukon flood during the break-up of 1937, Miller was in the house when the river picked up his house and carried it twenty feet downriver. The river washed away more than 600 cords of cut and stacked wood. [41] This defeat broke the little man, and he left the area.

Miller's Camp (#29), except for being overgrown with willows and brush, stands much the way "Heine" left it. His large house, twenty by fifteen feet, lies twenty feet beyond its foundation. But the roof and walls remain largely intact as testimony to the workmanship. He had wallpapered his walls, built adjacent cabins and caches, and crafted a number of canoes and boats. Unfortunately there are no piles of cordwood or even his tractor to remind the visitor of the site's historic use.

Four miles downriver lies one of the few woodchoppers' cabins (#30) in the Yukon-Charley proposal. This cabin was used by an Eagle Native, Willie Juneby, who hauled wood from Wood Islands to Miller's Camp. Although the roof is gone, the cabin has been remarkably unmolested. Bottles, cans, and contemporary junk illustrate the lifestyle of the woodchopper. An adjacent road (#31) marks the tractor trail and can be followed across the island.

Because of the high cost and logistical problems involved with cordwood, steamboat companies searched for appropriate coal deposits. In 1897 the Alaska Commercial Company mined and sledded 2,000 tons from a bituminous coal deposit on the Nation River. [42] Coal, in order to be profitable, had to sell at no more than fifteen dollars a ton. The deposit was found only in pockets and was abandoned. [43]

Although the Nation coal mine (#40) has been buried by slides, remnants of the coal mining enterprise exist in a stockpile of coal (#47) near the Bluff cabin (#46). In fact Christopher Nelson took the tent frame left from the coal mine operation and built the cabin now associated with him. A nearby cabin depression (#45) however, may have been part of the coal company's operation. Even signs of a road (#39) connecting the Nation and the Yukon are probably part of the abortive attempt to find another means to fuel steamers.

One other ambitious attempt to mine coal in the Yukon-Charley area occurred on Washington Creek. In 1897 N. B. La Brie found coal on the creek twelve miles from its mouth. He turned his claims over to the Alaska Coal and Coke Company and became its manager. The company built a good winter trail to the coal beds along which dog teams and horses sledded the coal. Meanwhile a group of four independent miners staked a mine across the creek from which they sledded five tons of coal to the Yukon. This coal was tested in the Northern Navigation Company's Sarah and proved better than most Yukon River coal. [44] At some point the two companies became embroiled in a court case that ended on the steps of a San Francisco courthouse in an inconclusive gun battle. [45]

During the winter of 1905-06 one of the companies, probably the Alaska Coal and Coke Company, brought a 100-horsepower steam tractor in by steamboat. It pulled five sleds, each of ten tons capacity, from the mines to the Yukon. But the Yukon's lignite coal crumpled when exposed to air. Also it contained excessive sulphur that caused harmful clinkers when burned by the steamboats. In the end, therefore, the coal mines proved uneconomical and were abandoned.

Although the Washington Creek coal mines (#66) had more than 170 feet of tunnels in 1902, they have collapsed, and the mines have not been exactly located. The road (#65), however, is discernable. But more exciting is the steam tractor (#69), which stands thirteen feet high and twenty-six feet long. Although its boiler and cab have been salvaged at an earlier date, it is still an impressive piece of steam engineering.

Finally in 1903 the Northern Navigation Company experimented with one other fuel possibility—imported California crude oil. At heavy expense, the firm erected large storage tanks and modified the furnaces on its steamers. The absence of dirt and cinders, the elimination of tedious delays to "wood-up", and the increased steaming capacity appeared to resolve the problem. By 1907 more than 50,000 barrels were imported annually. [46] Nevertheless, wood predominated as the fuel of choice.

Although Northern Navigation Company dominated the steamboat business, it never had a monopoly. North American Transportation and Trading Company held about one-third of the business. In 1906 the Merchants' Yukon Line acquired the North American Transportation and Trading Company but maintained the latter's name. [47] By 1907 the Northern Navigation Company owned thirty-two steamers and thirty-five barges for a total tonnage of 27,000 tons. [48] Moreover, as the Klondike ebbed and new strikes developed on the Tanana, Koyukuk, and Chandalar Rivers, the company hired James T. Gray to design light-draft steamers that could travel those shallow rivers. [49] In 1913 additional competition arose from a Canadian company, the White Pass and Yukon Line. A ruinous rate war developed between the two companies as they fought for Dawson's dying trade. Finally in 1914 the White Pass and Yukon Line, through its American subsidiary, the American Yukon Navigation Company, paid the Northern Navigation Company $1,500,000 for its 53 steamboats and barges. [50] The years of waning gold production and the inevitability of a railroad to Fairbanks had prompted the interest of the Northern Navigation Company to unload at a profit.

In 1923, when the Alaska Railroad finally joined the coast with the interior, freight was shipped quickly and cheaply. It arrived from Seattle at either Seward or the new port of Anchorage, transferred to railroad cars, shipped to Nenana where it was transferred to steamboats owned by the railroad, and then shipped anywhere along the Tanana or Yukon Rivers. New sternwheelers such as the General Jacobs and the Alice operated for the railroad and wintered at Nenana. [51] In February 1930 the Alaska Railroad requested bids for the grandest sternwheeler of them all—the Nenana. Although 235 feet long and 44 feet wide, it cruised at 12 knots and far surpassed all steamboats on the Yukon. The boat accommodated eighty passengers in deluxe staterooms with hot and cold running water and electricity. A large social hall with plate glass windows and a promenade protected from mosquitoes by copper mesh screens provided amenities not seen since the Mississippi era. [52]

But even as the Nenana was launched the time of the steamboat was fading. World War II curtailed Yukon mining operations but also increased traffic by cargo planes. The sternwheelers became outmoded and uneconomical. [53] In 1948 the riverboats lost $76,338. The Alaska Railroad pushed hard for their removal. Finally, in January 1953, two new steel towboats replaced the palatial wooden sternwheelers. These were non-passenger, shallow-draft, 120-foot-long boats with 600-horsepower Diesel engines. The Nenana continued for a time, but her size defeated her—she was unable to maneuver the winding bends as easily as the smaller steel boats. [54] Another era, even a frontier, had passed.

Although the steamboat captured most of the glory and all of the romance of river travel, smaller craft also plied the river. The Yukon poling boat, adapted from boats on earlier western rivers, allowed small groups to travel inexpensively but with hard labor up rivers and streams that were inaccessible to larger steamers. The poling boat was a long, narrow, tapering boat that allowed two men to carry a ton of supplies upstream at a rate of ten to twenty miles a day. [55] Sometimes the men had to "track" or drag it from the shore. Explorers and geologists of the United States Geological Survey introduced the Peterborough canoe. This canoe could carry a half a ton but was light enough to be portaged by one man if necessary. The poling boat and Peterborough canoe provided the greatest bulk of travel along smaller rivers.

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Last Updated: 29-Feb-2012