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Klondike Gold Rush- Part 4: The Stampede

Back to The Klondike Gold Rush.

In the summer of 1896, gold was discovered in the Klondike region of what is now Canada’s Yukon territory. When word of the find spread up and down the Yukon River, prospectors from all over the Canadian and American north abandoned their shacks for the new diggings. As was typical of northern Canadian gold rushes, a boom town sprouted almost overnight a short distance from the goldfields. This ramshackle community, situated at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers, would become the famous Dawson City.

Throughout the following fall and winter, prospectors staked claims along the Klondike creeks and sunk shafts to bedrock. When spring came, they washed the rubble from their mines in sluice boxes and collected the gold that accumulated at the bottom. Many had struck it rich.

In the summer of 1897, two steamboats arrived at Dawson City. The steamboats took on passengers and massive quantities of gold before heading to port towns on the Pacific Coast. From there, ex-prospectors who had made their fortunes on the Klondike boarded steamers bound for civilization. They would be the first heralds to bring news and tangible proof of the Klondike Gold Rush to the Outside world.

Excelsior and Portland

On July 14, 1897, a steamship called the Excelsior pulled into the San Francisco harbour. To the San Franciscans on the docks that day, the Excelsior- a rusty little ship with two blackened smokestacks- appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary. A few heads might have turned, however, when its passengers walked down the gangplank. The people who poured off the Excelsior were a gaunt, ragtag bunch clad in ragged work clothes and broad-brimmed hats. The men bore rough, unkempt beards, the women wore wild, tangled hair, and all had sun-burnt, wind-whipped faces resultant of at least one year in the Canadian north.

What really captured the attention of the San Franciscans that day, however, was the cargo the passengers hauled from the ship. Many- like former YMCA physical instructor Tom Lippy and his wife Salome- wrestled with extraordinarily heavy suitcases. Some lugged canvas sacks on the verge of tearing. Others dragged buckskin bags on the ground behind them, or hauled heavy tin cans using both hands. The strange site piqued the curiosity and imaginations of nearby locals. Soon, a growing throng of city residents began gather around the newcomers.

Some of the Excelsior passengers immediately made their way to the Selby Smelting Works on Montgomery Street. There, on the counters, they revealed their identities and the contents of their cargo to the curious onlookers; they were prospectors from the north, and they had brought with them countless pounds of raw northern gold.

The news spread like wildfire throughout the streets of San Francisco: a big strike had been made in Canada’s Yukon Valley. In no time, the news spread all throughout the West Coast. Soon, word was out that a second Yukon steamer called the Portland would arrive in Seattle any day. This one would be carrying even more gold than the Excelsior. Hoping to have the story before their competition, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sent a handful of reporters to intercept the Portland via tugboat before it reached the Port of Seattle. The journalists boarded the south-bound Portland on the Puget Sound, interviewed the miners on board, then returned to Seattle. What happened next was summarized in a front-page article written by these same reporters; the citizens of Seattle were greeted by these words on the front page of the July 17 paper: “At 3 o’clock this morning the steamer Portland from St. Michael for Seattle, passed up the Sound with more than a ton of solid gold aboard…”

 

Klondike Fever

In the summer of 1897, North America was ripe for a gold rush. The world was at peace and the United States had settled into a serious economic depression following the Panic of 1893. When the Excelsior and Portland slid into the ports of San Francisco and Seattle bearing dozens of prospectors and several metric tons of Klondike gold, the American West Coast, according to a New York Herald journalist, went “stark staring mad on gold.”

The gold fever that rippled through the West Coast in the summer of 1897 was nothing short of an epidemic. Newspaper men referred to this affliction which held the populace of the Pacific Northwest in such thrall as “Klondicitis”. Men and women from all walks of life immediately quit their jobs and bought steamer tickets for Alaska. Entire industries ground to a halt as employees ditched their work sites en masse for the Klondike. Soon, the Seattle Times was operating on a skeleton crew, San Francisco’s new cable cars were largely devoid of conductors, and the Seattle Police Department was severely undermanned. Even the Mayor of Seattle, William D. Wood, left his office for the Yukon. By July 24, 1,500 people had left Seattle for the Canadian north.

Newspapers aptly referred to this mass exodus as a “Stampede”. The name stuck, and prospectors bound for the Klondike were thereafter known as ‘Stampeders’. In the words of J.E. Fraser, one such Stampeder from San Francisco:

“The man who had a family to support who could not go was looked on with a sort of pity … the man who didn’t care to leave his business or for other trivial reasons, was looked on with contempt as a man without ambition who did not know enough to take advantage of a good thing when placed in his reach; but the man who could go, and would go, and was going to the Klondike, the man who could not be stopped from going, by any means short of a wire cable anchored to a mountain, was a hero. He was looked up to; he was envied by everybody; he was pointed out in the streets.”

Just as entire industries virtually evaporated in the summer of 1897 as their employees abandoned their work for the Klondike, so too did a number of businesses thrive. The transportation industry exploded as countless passengers purchased steamboat tickets north. Grocery and supply store owners who cleverly marketed their wares as ‘Klondike grade’ made fortunes selling outfits to prospectors-to-be. In fact, just about any product bearing the magic word ‘Klondike’ was likely to sell in those summer months. And as quickly as it had began in 1893, the economic depression that had prevailed for the last four years was no more.

Entrepreneurs and con-men alike took advantage of the situation. The former sold interesting (if impractical) inventions like ‘automatic’ gold pans, which rotated like the cylinders of phonographs, and sleds equipped with gasoline-powered motors to Stampeders. The latter peddled useless items like trail bikes and ‘tunnel-digging’ gophers to naive adventurers. According to Arthur Dietz, a New Yorker who was visiting Seattle at the time of the Klondike craze, “[Seattle was] more wicked than Sodom… the devil reigned supreme. It was a gigantic chaos of crime and the city government, as an institution, protected evil.”

Klondike fever quickly swept throughout the northern hemisphere, and further still to the rest of the world. By August, prospectors from as far away as New Zealand were making their way towards the Yukon.

 

The Voyage North

Throughout the summer of 1897, thousands of would-be prospectors traveled north up the Pacific Coast via steamboat. Many of the steamboats that carried them were bound for the Lynn Canal, an Alaskan inlet which penetrated the mainland about 540 km southeast of the Klondike. From Lynn Canal, Stampeders would hike either the Chilkoot Trail or the White Pass over the Coast Mountains to Lakes Lindemann and Bennett, respectively, from which they would travel up a series of lakes and rivers to the Klondike.

Other steamboats were bound for St. Michael, an old Russian port town situated on the west coast of Alaska where the Yukon River empties into the Bering Sea. From St. Michael, prospectors would travel 1,700 miles up the Yukon River to Dawson City and the Klondike beyond.

Some of the steamboats that went north that summer were reliable, seaworthy vessels that reached Lynn Canal and St. Michael unscathed. Tickets for these steamers were outrageously expensive, due to the high demand. These steamboats were packed well past their carrying capacity and as a result the voyage north was a veritable hell on earth.

Other steamboats that went north that summer were long-derelict ships that had been hastily patched up and commandeered by opportunists eager to take advantage of the situation. More often than not, these ships ran into trouble of one kind or another on their northern journey.

One of the sketchier ships to make the voyage to St. Michael in the summer of 1897 was the Eliza Anderson. This steamboat the oldest seagoing vessel on the coast. This ancient steamer had no propeller, old boilers, no electricity, no refrigeration, no compass, and shoddy coal-bunkers. After leaving port, the Eliza Anderson traveled without event to the port of Comox, on Vancouver Island. There, the ship took on coal. In an effort to save money, the crew decided to skimp on the fuel.

The crew was so inexperienced that they loaded the new fuel into the bunkers unequally. Because of this, the ship immediately veered to the side upon leaving the docks and rammed into another vessel, Glory of the Seas. Instead of returning to Comox, the captain of the Eliza Anderson decided to keep on going.

Next stop: the port of Unalaska, at the head of the Aleutian islands. The Eliza Anderson nearly reached her destination when she was beset by a violent storm. In the ensuing struggle, the ship ran out of coal. The crew desperately tore apart the ship’s interior, using the wooden boards and furniture for fuel. Soon, the ship was out of control. Passengers were writing farewell letters to their families. The situation was grim.

Suddenly, a grizzled, white-bearded stranger strode into the pilothouse from out of the storm. He took command of the ship and steered her to the safety of a bay of the proximate Kodiak Island. And as quickly as he had appeared, the stranger vanished into the spray.

As it turned out, the Eliza Anderson’s mysterious savior was a local Norwegian-born stowaway who had somehow managed to slip onto the ship without being seen. The Scandinavian, who had prior seafaring experience, was looking for a free ride to Unalaska.

Miraculously, the old Viking stowaway had steered the steamboat to a location a short distance from an abandoned cannery. There, the crew of the Eliza Anderson found a cache of much-needed coal. They loaded the fuel onto the ship and continued on their journey. The passengers were much relieved when the ruined steamboat slid into the old Russian port of St. Michael, Alaska.

 

Skagway

The Lynn Canal, one of the two major destinations of 1897 Stampeders (along with St. Michael, Alaska), branches into two small sections at its furthest point inland. One section is the Taiya (or Dyea) Inlet. The other is the Skagway Bay.

Skagway is an anglicized derivation of a Tlingit word which figuratively refers to the Lynn Canal’s rough seas, which are stirred up by strong northern winds. Literally, the Tlingit word translates as ‘beautiful woman’. According to Tlingit legend, Kanagu, or ‘Skagway’, was a beautiful woman who transformed herself into stone on the shores of the Skagway Bay, and was responsible for the area’s rough weather.

Before the Klondike Gold Rush, the only permanent resident of Skagway Bay was an old white man named Captain William Moore. Moore had lived a colourful life. The German-born adventurer spent his childhood aboard schooners in the North Sea. In his teens, he headed to New Orleans, where he ran a towboat service in the Mississippi. Moore enlisted in the American Army fought in the Mexican-American War of 1846/47. When the war was over, he took part in the famous California Gold Rush. For the next fifty years, he traveled from place to place, following various gold rushes. He prospected in Peru and Haida Gwaii. Then he followed gold to Fraser Canyon, where he set the example for Frank Laumeister, his Cariboo counterpart, by shipping camels up the Fraser River. After the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, he prospected in Cariboo Country and the Cassiar District.

Eventually, Moore’s prospecting ventures brought him to the Yukon. Long before the Klondike Gold Rush, the old prospector predicted that gold would be found somewhere in the Yukon Valley, and that a great gold rush would ensue. He also correctly predicted that many of the prospectors who flocked to the Yukon following such a strike would come by steamer to Skagway Bay on their way to the goldfields.

Skagway Bay lay at the foot of a mountain pass a short distance from the Chilkoot Pass long favoured by the local Tlingit. Moore, along with the Tagish giant Skookum Jim (one of the co-discoverers of Klondike gold), surveyed the pass at the behest of William Ogilvie, a Canadian government official who represented the Crown in the Yukon at the time. The pass was named White Pass after Sir Thomas White, the Canadian Minister of the Interior.

Moore was convinced that many prospectors would cross the Coast Mountains on their way to the Yukon goldfields by way of the White Pass. He envisioned a town rising up along the shores of Skagway Bay. According to his son, Bernard:

“My father would tell me and numerous other people in Juneau and elsewhere how he pictured to himself the future of this place. He never tired of predicting how roads would be built through here; of a little city built here; of steamers on the upper Yukon; and of large steamers, loaded with freight and passengers docking at the waterfront.

Accordingly, White built a cabin at the foot of the White Pass in 1888. He hoped to establish himself as the founder of the boomtown he was certain would come into being, and to reap the rewards.

On July 26, 1897, Moore’s prophecy was realized. A steamer arrived at Skagway Bay and disgorged its passengers and cargo. Instead of showing the old prospector deference, which Moore believed he was entitled to as founder of the new town that would surely develop, the first wave of Stampeders largely ignored the old man and set about carving a campsite from the surrounding forest. Moore was enraged. However, he kept a cool head, cut his losses, and began to build a wharf out into the bay.

Throughout the summer, more and more Stampeders arrived at Skagway Bay. Trees were slashed and burned, crude log shacks were built, and soon a rough town began to take form. In early August, some of the town residents formed a local government. They dubbed the new town Skagway, after the Bay.

The Stampeder government laid out a plan for the new town. Streets were drawn up and surveyed. It just so happened that Moore’s old cabin lay right in the path of one of the streets. The Skagway government officials ordered Moore to vacate his cabin so they could demolish it.

The old prospector would have none of it, and refused to comply with the order. When a number of men came to Moore’s cabin, intent on evacuating him by force, Moore met them at the door with a crowbar in hand. After soundly trashing one of its members, the posse slunk off. Moore knew the Stampeders would have their way in the end, however, and reluctantly left his home.

In the following years, Moore made a fortune off the new arrivals who used his wharf to dock their ships. All the while, he hounded the Skagway government, seeking redress for the slights he had suffered at their hands. Eventually, his persistence paid off; Moore was given 25% of the assessed value of all the original Skagway lots.

During the summer of 1897, Skagway evolved (or devolved, depending on how you look at it) into a wild frontier town where the Law of Natural Selection reigned supreme. John Muir, the famous Scottish-American naturalist, described the town as “a nest of ants taken into a strange country and stirred up by a stick.” Pirates prowled the Bay, extorting huge fees from steamboat captains to haul cargo from the hold to the shore. Thieves and con-men skulked about the streets, relieving luckless Stampeders of everything they owned. Shootings were a nightly occurrence. In spite of the municipal government that had emerged in its early days, Skagway effectually became an anarchy.

In no time, saloons sprang up all over town. As a result, Skagway quickly developed a very colourful nightlife. Faro and blackjack games were constantly being played on rickety, rough-planed saloon tables. Next door to the saloons were the dance halls, where the pianos were played perpetually and girls in silk dresses danced with miners at a dollar per waltz.

According to Alexander Macdonald, a well-traveled Englishman who visited Skagway in the fall of 1897:

“I have stumbled upon a few tough corners of the globe during my wanderings beyond the outposts of civilization, but I think the most outrageously lawless quarter I ever struck was Skagway.… It seemed as if the scum of the earth had hastened here to fleece and rob, or … to murder.… There was no law whatsoever; might was right, the dead shot only was immune to danger.”

In January, 1898, a famous con-man named Jefferson Randolf “Soapy” Smith arrived in Skagway. Smith had acquired notoriety and fortune in Denver, Colorado, where he built a criminal empire. He earned his moniker “Soapy” from a lottery scheme in which he sold paper-wrapped soap bars to a crowd in Denver for $1 each, falsely claiming that in one of the soap bar packages was a $100 bill. He swindled his way to the top, hiring soldiers for his underground army until he was effectually the “Boss of Denver”. In the winter of 1897/98, Smith left Denver for Skagway, hoping to milk the boomtown of everything it was worth.

Soapy Smith quickly, artfully built up a gang in anarchic Skagway, rapidly expanding his range of influence until, in mid-winter, he practically owned the town. A crew of confidence men worked for Soapy Smith, preying upon hapless Cheechakos (newcomers to the north) newly arrived from the Outside. By hook or by crook, they extolled a heavy tax on nearly all newcomers to pass through Skagway on their way to the goldfields.

 

The White Pass

 

Stampeders who landed in Skagway continued on to the Klondike goldfields by way of the White Pass, the mountain pass over the Coast Mountains which connected Skagway with Lake Bennett.

In the summer and fall of 1897, the White Pass was almost perpetually choked with Stampeders on their way to the Klondike. According to Frank Thomas, an Indianan Stampeder who took the White Pass in the fall of 1897:

“I am a few days older than when I left … and a great deal wiser. I have been working like a slave since I came here trying to get over the trail and am not over yet, and furthermore do not think I will be in time to get down the Yukon this winter. Since I came in we have lost our mule and one horse on this accursed trail.… This is the most discouraging work I ever did.… There are thousands of people here … all mad and crazy just like us.… I am undoubtedly a crazy fool for being here in this God-forsaken country but I have the consolation of seeing thousands of other men in all stages of life, rich and poor, wise and foolish, here in the same plight as I.”

The first major obstacle on the White Pass was a sheer-sloped geological formation named Devil’s Hill. The early Stampeders carved narrow switchbacks through the hill’s scree. The path was so precarious, and the hillside so steep, that a poorly-loaded, off-balance horse could easily fall to its death.

The next obstacle Stampeders had to overcome was Porcupine Hill. This was a metaphorical minefield littered with ten-foot boulders which loaded pack horses had to pick their way over. One misstep would result in a broken foot and a dying horse.

The last of the major hurdles on the White Pass was Summit Hill, a thousand-foot hill composed of mud, boulders, and sharp scree. Summit Hill was pocked with muddy sinkholes which claimed the lives of many a horse. After that was the thousand-foot Turtle Mountain and the Tutshi Valley below. At the end of the White Pass lay Lake Bennett.

During the Stampede of 1897, the White Pass earned the nickname ‘Dead Horse Trail.’ Hundreds upon hundreds of animals were claimed by the trail. Some were pushed to their limits by their handlers. Many others succumbed to the trail’s hazards. By the fall of 1897, the White Pass was littered with half-frozen, half-rotten equine carcasses.

One of the men to witness the horrors of the White Pass was former NWMP officer James Morrow Walsh. Walsh was a man with an interesting past. He was one of the few original officers of the North West Mounted Police, and had been a member of the Force since its inception in 1873. In the mid-late 1870’s, he acted as the Commanding Officer at Fort Walsh, an early NWMP fort built near the site of the Cypress Hills Massacre. He earned his reputation in the late 1870’s, when he was tasked with treating with thousands of Sioux under the leadership of chief Sitting Bull, who had fled north into Canada following the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Walsh became fast friends with the outlaw chief and convinced him and his Sioux to abide by Canadian law while north of the border. However, he ultimately failed in his objective to convince Sitting Bull to return to America. Walsh’s superiors suspected his friendship with the Sioux chief was preventing him from fulfilling his duty, and so Walsh was stripped of his command and transferred to Fort Qu’Appelle in present-day Saskatchewan. In August 1897, he was appointed Commissioner of the Yukon, and was en-route to Dawson City, where he would take up his new position, when he first met with the carnage of the White Pass. Walsh described the macabre scene in a to Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior:

“Such a scene of havoc and destruction … can scarcely be imagined. Thousands of pack-horses lie dead along the way, sometimes in bunches under the cliffs, with pack-saddles and packs where they have fallen from the rock above, sometimes in tangled masses filling the mudholes and furnishing the only footing for our poor pack animals on the march – often, I regret to say, exhausted but still alive, a fact we are unaware of until after the miserable wretches turn beneath the hoofs of our cavalcade. The eyeless sockets of the pack animals everywhere account for the myriads of ravens along the road. The inhumanity which this trail has been witness to, the heartbreak and suffering which so many have undergone, cannot be imagined. They certainly cannot be described.”

Another interesting man to traverse the White Pass during the Stampede of 1897 was 21-year-old writer Jack London. London- who would go own to write his famous novels White Fang and The Call of the Wild, for which his Klondike experience would serve as a source- wrote:

“The horses died like mosquitoes in the first frost and from Skagway to Bennett they rotted in heaps. They died at the rocks, they were poisoned at the summit, and they starved at the lakes; they fell off the trail, what there was of it, and they went through it; in the river they drowned under their loads or were smashed to pieces against the boulders; they snapped their legs in the crevices and broke their backs falling backwards with their packs; in the sloughs they sank from fright or smothered in the slime; and they were disembowelled in the bogs where the corduroy logs turned end up in the mud; men shot them, worked them to death and when they were gone, went back to the beach and bought more. Some did not bother to shoot them, stripping the saddles off and the shoes and leaving them where they fell. Their hearts turned to stone – those which did not break – and they became beasts, the men on the Dead Horse Trail.”

A number of Stampeders who lost their mounts on the White Pass returned to Skagway, where they spent the winter. When winter came, the Dead Horse Trail became impassable, and the heavy stream of prospectors came to a trickle and then to a halt. Skagway soon swelled to a town of 5,000.

In the spring, when the Pass opened up, Stampeders found that the North West Mounted Police had established a customs house at its summit, on the Yukon-Alaska border. The Mounties were there to enforce a new regulation: all Stampeders to pass into Canada were required to be in possession of at least one year’s supply of food (about 1,150 pounds). In order to transport this much food, Stampeders would have to travel back and forth along the White Pass, hauling their supplies in manageable loads.

Duty at the customs house was a pitiable job. The mountain conditions were deplorable, and many of the 20-man crew stationed there fell ill. The Mountie in charge of the post- an Inspector named Strickland- suffered from a long bout of bronchitis. Eventually, Strickland’s superior, a Mountie named Sam Steele, in spite of the fact that he, too, was suffering from bronchitis, decided to personally relieve Strickland of the detestable duty.

Sam Steele was another man with an interesting Canadian past. Like James Walsh, he had been a Mountie since the NWMP’s inception in 1873. In fact, he and Walsh together had drilled the first Mountie recruits on horseback in the fall and winter of 1873/74. Along with rest of the original NWMP officers, Steele made the long 1874 trek to the western Canadian plains, where he helped to quell the illicit whisky trade and establish law and order in what would one day become southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Years later, in 1885, Sam Steele commanded a squadron of North West Mounted Policemen and fought to suppress Louis Riel’s North-West Rebellion. On June 3, 1885, he led a 75-man mixed detachment consisting of both Mounties and Canadian militia to victory against 150 Cree warriors under the command of chief Big Bear. That battle, known as the Battle of Loon Lake, was the last major skirmish of the North-West Rebellion. In fact, the Battle of Loon Lake remains to this day the last battle fought on Canadian soil (knock on wood). In 1887, Steele led a detachment to a town called Galbraith’s Ferry in the British Columbian Rockies, situated a short distance from the Wild Horse Creek goldfields. There, he and his men resolved a dispute between the town’s white residents and local Kootenay Indians which might well have turned violent if not for their interference. Out of gratitude, the townspeople renamed their town Fort Steele. Today, Fort Steele remains a popular Canadian tourist attraction.

Sam Steele and Strickland before him made sure that no Stampeders without at least a years’ supply of food would cross into Canada. The Mounties were cognizant of the very real possibility of widespread starvation should there prove be more mouths than food in the Klondike. Earlier, in the fall of 1897, a handful of light-provisioned Stampeders managed to scale the Coast Mountains before freeze-up, build boats on the shore of Lake Bennett, and navigate the series of waterways to Dawson City. As winter approached, the threat of imminent starvation dawned on many of these first-on-the-scene Stampeders. During the late fall and early winter of 1897, hundreds of Stampeders newly arrived in Dawson returned the way they had come, or made a mad dash up the Yukon River for St. Michael, hoping to reach their destinations before the river froze or the trails were buried in snow. As a result of this panicked diaspora, there was no widespread starvation in the Klondike that winter. The Mounties were determined to keep it that way.

 

Dyea

Stampeders who came to the north by way of the Lynn Canal had two options: 1) they could unload their cargo on Skagway Bay and make their way over the White Pass; 2) they could disembark at the Dyea (or Taiya) Inlet, about 5 km to the northwest of Skagway, and scale the Chilkoot Pass.

Before the Stampede of 1897, the only white resident of the Dyea Inlet was a tough trader named John J. Healy. Like Walsh and Steele, Healy had an interesting Canadian past. Unlike the Mounties, however, he was not Canadian citizen. Healy was an Irishman who, as a young boy, emigrated with his family to New York in the midst of the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840’s. When he came of age, he enlisted in the United States Army. His service in the Force brought him to Utah, Idaho, and finally Montana. There, he settled down to the life of a trader at Fort Benton. In 1869, he, along with a small band of pioneering entrepreneurs, traveled north into Canadian territory and established the infamous Fort Hamilton (more commonly known as Fort Whoop Up) on the Belly River near present-day Lethbridge, Alberta. There, he sold trade goods, including whisky and repeating rifles, to the local Blackfoot. The whisky had a particularly devastating effect on the Indians, and in 1873, the Canadian government formed the North West Mounted Police and sent them west to suppress the trade. Instead of resisting the Mounties, Healy returned to Fort Benton, Montana, where he became the Sheriff of Chouteau County. During his term as sheriff, he jailed many interesting outlaws, including his famous Irish counterpart Kootenai Brown. In time, he left Montana for Alaska, correctly predicting that there would be a northern gold rush before the turn of the century. At the time of the Stampede, he was operating a trading post on the Dyea Inlet. Ever the entrepreneur, Healy made an honest fortune off the thousands of Stampeders who arrived on his doorstep beginning in the fall of 1897.

The Stampeders who unloaded at Dyea Inlet struggled to haul their supplies above the waterline before tide. Many unfortunates lost their outfits to the tide. Similar to Skagway, a town began to emerge on the shores. It was named Dyea after the Inlet.

Residents of Dyea took pride in the fact that their town saw considerably less crime than its neighbour Skagway. This was due, in part, to the fact that the Chilkoot Trail was open year round, as opposed to the adjacent White Pass, which was impassable in the winter. Because of this, Skagway swelled and stagnated, while Dyea remained a transient town through which Stampeders flowed perpetually. In the words of Dyea’s only newspaper, the Trail:

“We desire to call the attention of the reading public to the fact that no more orderly or peaceable city of 3,000 in population can be found in the United States.… The population of Dyea is composed of the better class and no one need feel alarmed. Property is exposed on all sides – hardly a case of theft occurring – and what few crimes that are committed are confined to a class few in number. There is less public exhibition of vice here than in the cities of the States.”

 

The Chilkoot Trail

After unloading their supplies at Dyea, Stampeders began the trek up the Chilkoot Trail, an ancient grease trail, or trading trail, long used by the local Tlingit Indians. The Chilkoot Trail was shorter than the White Trail, but more difficult. The route was arduous, and Stampeders had to contend with thieves, con-men from Skagway, the brutal sub-arctic elements, and the occasional avalanche. Many historians agree that it was, all things considered, the best path to the Klondike.

Five miles up the trail was Finnagan’s Point. The Point was a resting place before the grueling Dyea Canyon ahead, a narrow pathway littered with various natural obstacles. At the end of the Dyea Canyon was Camp Pleasant, a stopping point which offered Stampeders much-needed reprieve. The hike from Camp Pleasant to Sheep Camp- a tent town that emerged at the foot of the Coast Mountains- was uphill all the way. (Sheep Camp was so named because it was located at the site of an ancient Tlingit mountain sheep-hunting camp.)

Past Sheep Camp, the trail became even steeper. Ultimately, it led to a flat ledge that came to be known as the Scales. Beyond the Scales were the famous Golden Stairs.

The Scales earned its name from the hundreds of Tlingit packers who camped at its base, offering their services to Stampeders. Here, the Tlingit men would use scales to meticulously measure the mass of the Stampeders’ gear. From thereon out, gear had to be hauled manually; the Golden Stairs were too steep for horses. The Tlingit were shrewd businessmen, and often charged prospector hopefuls $1 for every pound of gear they had to haul. They did not work on contract, and would almost always work for the highest bidder. Often, Tlingit packers would abandon their loads mid-trail if another Stampeder offered them a higher wage.

Just beyond he Scales were the Golden Stairs, the famous 15,000-step staircase hand-hewn from snow and ice which has since become an icon for the Klondike Gold Rush. Here, all throughout the winter of 1897/98, an endless line of Stampeders and Tlingit packers slowly snaked up the slope. The hike from base to summit usually took about six hours. At the top, men dumped their loads, marked their stash with a flag, and headed back down to the Scales. The trip down was much quicker, and infinitely more enjoyable; Stampeders simply slid down the slope on their rear ends, and reached the bottom in a matter of minutes. As a man could only conceivably haul a maximum of several pounds on his back in one trip, multiple trips were necessary. Without the help of a packer, a single Stampeder could expect to make the climb about 40 times in total.

Throughout 1897 and 1898, various entrepreneurs constructed tramways up that steepest section of the Pass, on which Stampeders could shuttle their supplies for a fee.

When a Stampeder had hauled everything he needed to the summit of the Chilkoot Pass, he proceeded to the North West Mounted Police customs house a short distance away. Similar to those stationed at the White Pass customs house, the Mounties on the Chilkoot stipulated that each Stampeder be in possession of at least one years’ supply of food. They also imposed a duty on the prospectors’ outfit.

After the Stampeders were permitted to pass into Canada, they made the journey down the other side of the Chilkoot Pass to Lake Lindemann. Lake Lindemann was connected to the adjacent Lake Bennett, which lay at the foot of the White Pass, by a narrow rapids. One Stampeder named John A. Matthews built a boat on Lake Lindemann and tried to paddle it through the canyon to Lake Bennett. He smashed the boat to kindling, lost his entire outfit, repeated the process, and destroyed his boat again. Stampeders learned from Matthews’ misfortune and, after building their boats on the shores of Lake Lindemann, portaged overland to Lake Bennett.

Most of the Stampeders of 1897 reached the shores of Lake Lindemann and Lake Bennett just in time for freeze-up. They had to spend the winter on the lake’s shores, waiting for the spring thaw, before making the dangerous journey down lakes and rapids to the goldfields of the Klondike.

 

By Hammerson Peters

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On August 16, 1896, George Carmack, Keish “Skookum” Jim Mason, and “Tagish” Charlie Dawson discovered a golden bonanza on Rabbit Creek, a tiny tributary of the Klondike River. Ever since that day, Rabbit Creek has borne the name Bonanza Creek. Without telling fellow prospector Robert Henderson of their find, as they had promised to do, the three men traveled down the creek to the Klondike River, down the Klondike to the Yukon River, and down the Yukon to the ramshackle frontier town of Fortymile to stake a claim, spreading the word of their find as they went. In no time, prospectors from all over the Yukon flocked to Bonanza Creek, scrambling to stake claims of their own. It was the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Early Days on Bonanza Creek

Some of the first prospectors to strike it rich on Bonanza were brothers Clarence and Fred Berry, former fruit farmers from Fresno, California. Clarence was a Sourdough (‘Sourdough’ is a Yukon-Alaska term which refers to someone who has spent at least one winter in the north) who spent the winter of 1894/95 prospecting on Fortymile Creek. When spring came, he traveled to California, married his childhood sweetheart Ethel Bush, and returned to the Yukon with his bride in 1896. Ethel was the first white woman to scale the Chilkoot Pass and travel down the Chilkoot Trail to the Yukon goldfields. After some more unsuccessful prospecting, Clarence took a job at a saloon in Fortymile. He was tending bar one day in August when George Carmack sauntered into the saloon, fresh from Bonanza Creek with a shotgun shell filled with gold nuggets. Clarence received an outfit on credit from his employer, Bill McPhee, and immediately set out with his brother to stake a claim on Bonanza Creek. That fall, the Berry brothers partnered up with a young Austrian immigrant named Antone Stander and sunk a shaft to bedrock. When spring came and they washed their dump pile in a sluice, the three men were rich.

Most prospectors were not as quick to reach bedrock as the Berry brothers. Many laboured throughout the winter, lighting fires by night and digging through melted permafrost by day. When shafts became deep enough, ladders where erected and windlasses were built. One prospector would dig in the shaft bottom with pick and shovel, filling a bucket with dirt. His partner would man the windlass, hauling up the bucket when it was filled and transferring the dirt to the dump pile before lowering the bucket back down again. The further the prospectors dug, the more they realized that Bonanza was no ordinary creek. Prospectors would haul up buckets of gravel glistening with gold nuggets. Pans of particular paydirt could yield up to eight hundred dollars worth of gold.

As word spread of the wealth to be had, prospectors vied fiercely for claims on Bonanza Creek. Men bickered and fought with one another over mining territory. Most major disputes were, in the end, settled by William Ogilvie, a Canadian government surveyor who had surveyed the Alaska-Yukon Boundary back in 1887/88.

 

The Bounty of Eldorado Creek

By late August, all of Bonanza Creek had been staked. In time, the creek’s south fork- a small stream known at the time as ‘Bonanza’s pup’- turned out to be particularly bountiful.

In late August, a party of five prospectors staked a claim on Bonanza’s pup. The party included: Antone Stander, the man who had earlier partnered with Clarence Berry; Jay Whipple, an old prospector from the nearby diggings on Sixtymile River; Frank Keller, a former railway man from California; J.J. Clements, a New Yorker; and Frank Phiscator, a farmer from Michigan. When the five men came to the creek, one of them dipped his pan at random into the stream bed and washed it out. At the bottom of the pan, mixed with heavy black sand, lay six dollars worth of coarse gold dust. The find was incredible. To put this in perspective, earlier that year Robert Henderson- a veteran prospector who made a habit of only settling down to dig after finding glowing prospects- decided to excavate a location on nearby Gold Bottom Creek after finding eight cents in his pan. Stander, Whipple, Keller, Clements, and Phiscator had unwittingly stumbled upon the richest gold-bearing creek in the world.

The five men pounded in their stakes immediately and got to work. Soon, they were joined by a party of four led by an Illinoisan named Louis Emkins. In defiance of the unwritten prospectors’ code which had characterized Yukon’s earlier gold rushes, Stander and his companions initially tried to discourage the newcomers from more closely inspecting the creek bed, saying they had found nothing but dirt. Emkins was unconvinced. He and his partner George Demars staked their own claims on the creek. The other two prospectors took Stander and his companions’ advice at face value returned the way they had come.

The third party to come to Bonanza’s pup included three Norwegians and an ex-reporter from Chicago named William Johns. There, the newcomers met with Emkins, Demars, and Frank Keller, all of whom were mysteriously vague about the creek’s prospects. Warily, the prospectors crept upstream, where they found Stander, Whipple, Clements, and Phiscator crowded around a pan. According to Johns, they looked “like a cat caught in a cream pitcher.” The four newcomers knew immediately that the creek was rich, and set about staking their own claims. One of the Norwegians jokingly dubbed the creek Eldorado. For reasons the newcomers would soon learn, the name stuck.

Soon, more prospectors ventured over to Eldorado from Bonanza Creek. Encouraged by the eleven pioneers who had settled down on the creek to dig, they decided to stake their own claims. In no time, every inch of Eldorado Creek was owned by one prospector or another.

Although the prospects on Eldorado Creek were better than good, nobody could tell how rich the area really was until a shaft was sunk to bedrock and the gravel washed in a sluice- a process which would take until spring. Some of the early prospectors on Eldorado sold their claims for a tiny fraction of their true value, leaving fortunes untouched in the permafrost. Jay Whipple sold his claim to a man named Skiff Mitchell for next to nothing. George Demars sold his stretch of land for eight hundred dollars. And William Johns sold half his claim for five hundred dollars, and the other half three months later for $2,500. In three years’ time, each of these claims would be worth over a million.

One of the most successful prospectors to stake a claim on Eldorado Creek was a massive, illiterate Nova Scotian labourer known as “Big Alex” McDonald. McDonald, who arrived in the Klondike nearly penniless, purchased an especially profitable stretch of land on the creek on credit. Instead of working the claim himself, he leased it to other men who mined for him. When the men had worked claim and reaped the rewards, Big Alex kept half the profit, and let the miners keep the rest. He used the profit to purchase more Klondike claims on which he repeated the process. Within a year, the Maritime giant rose from obscurity to fame and fortune, and earned himself the moniker “The King of the Klondike.”

 

The Dawn of Dawson City

The first trader to take advantage of the Klondike Gold Rush was Joseph Ladue, the man who had originally outfitted Henderson and urged him to prospect the watershed of the Indian River (a tributary of the Yukon River near the Klondike). In the fall of 1896, Ladue built a saloon and sawmill at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers, the site of an ancient seasonal Han fishing camp. Newcomers to the Klondike gravitated to the log buildings, and in no time a sizable tent town revolved around it. This tent town was the seed that would grow into the thriving boom town of Dawson City, the largest city the Canadian north has ever known.

In those first few seasons of the Klondike Gold Rush, goods were scarce in the tent town that would become Dawson City. Prospectors would pay hundreds of dollars for bent and burnt nails with which they would construct their sluice boxes. Butchers sold halves of beef for thousands of dollars. Food became so scarce that dog meat became a staple. Gold seemed to be the only commodity in good supply.

Throughout the fall of 1896 and the winter if ’96/’97, the Outside- a term northerners used to refer to the rest of the world- was largely unaware of the Klondike gold. Throughout the winter, a thin trickle of prospectors arrived by steamboat on the Yukon’s west coast, bound for Circle City, Alaska. These newcomers scaled the Chilkoot Pass, hiked up the Chilkoot Trail to Lake Bennett (a lake which led to the Yukon River), built boats on the lake’s shore, and waited for the spring thaw. When spring came, and the waters became navigable, the prospectors traveled down the Yukon River to their destination and stumbled upon the burgeoning town of Dawson. Upon stopping in the town’s saloons, hearing the stories, and catching glimpses of the gold nuggets with which Sourdoughs paid for their drinks, many abandoned their Circle City plans and set up camp in Dawson.

When spring came, the Klondike prospectors who had worked throughout the winter washed the dirt from their dump piles in sluice boxes and collected the gold which sank to the bottom. Many of them ended up extraordinarily wealthy. While many had earned their wealth working claims on the creeks of the Klondike, however, others made fortunes by catering to the prospectors who returned to Dawson from the diggings. Ten cent cigars sold for $1.50. Log cabins sold for $200/square foot. The price of bacon and tea was inflated to eight times its original value. Fresh eggs were priceless.

By summer, Dawson had swelled to a town of 3,500. According to Charles Constantine, the head of the NWMP detachment in the Yukon at the time, many of the newcomers “appeared to be the sweepings of the slums and the result of a general jail delivery.” Soon, rough-hewn log buildings were being built all over town, replacing the tents that had dominated the area all winter. This new Dawson was a new breed of northern mining town, one which’s character differed starkly from that of the other Yukon-Alaska boom towns which preceded it. In Dawson, the Golden Rule and the old, unwritten Prospectors’ Code to which the Sourdoughs of Fortymile and Circle City had adhered was eclipsed by greed. No longer could prospectors leave their cabin doors open to passing travelers and expect their goods and gold to remain untouched.

In early June, two steamboats arrived in Dawson loaded with food, alcohol, and other supplies. One was the Alaska Commercial Company’s steamboat, Alice. The other was a vessel privately owned by John J. Healy, an American merchant with an interesting Canadian past who had a trading post on the Dyea Inlet. After Healy and the ACC employees aboard sold their wares to the boom town merchants, the two steamboats took on passengers who wished to return to the Outside. Some of these passengers were prospectors who had struck it rich on the Klondike, and were eager to blow their wealth in the bars of Seattle and San Francisco. These ragged prospectors would become the first heralds to bring word of the tremendous wealth to be made on the Klondike to the Outside world. And thus began the heyday of the Klondike Gold Rush.

 

Henderson’s Misfortune

“Hey, wait a minute,” some of you might ask, “whatever happened to Robert Henderson, the first guy to find gold in the Klondike?” If you haven’t read our article on the Klondike gold discoveries and have no idea what I’m talking about, have no fear; I’ll give you a brief summary of that story in the paragraph below:

Just days before their famous August 16 discovery which catalyzed the Klondike Gold Rush, George Carmack, Skookum Jim, and Tagish Charlie visited a prospector named Robert Henderson at his mining camp. Henderson- who, at the time, was mining on a tributary of the Klondike River he had dubbed Gold Bottom Creek- had came upon the three men earlier that summer at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers. There, he told Carmack, a white, of the good prospects he had found on Gold Bottom Creek. At the same time, he insulted Carmack’s companions, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie (both of them Tagish Indians), by informing them that they were not welcome to stake claims on the creek. With that, the two parties went their separate ways; Carmack’s group up Rabbit (Bonanza) Creek, and Henderson’s up the Klondike (from which he would travel up what would become Hunker Creek to Gold Bottom). Some time later, Carmack and his companions found themselves in the vicinity of Gold Bottom Creek. They visited Henderson at his work camp, exchanged some words, then returned in the direction they had come with a promise to send word to Henderson if they found gold. On August 16, they made their discovery and, without sending word to Henderson as they had promised, traveled to Fortymile with the news. 

While prospectors from all over the Yukon funneled onto Bonanza Creek, Henderson toiled away on Gold Bottom, oblivious. One day in early September, two prospectors stumbled into his work camp. They had traveled the length of Bonanza Creek, and were in search of fresh prospects. Henderson spoke with them and quickly learned of the three-week-old gold rush on Bonanza Creek, and of Carmack’s betrayal. Swallowing his dismay, Henderson realized he would need to stake a claim on Gold Bottom quickly before overflow from Bonanza Creek reached the area. He set off immediately down the creek, bound for Fortymile.

Gold Bottom was a tributary of a longer creek which flowed into the Klondike. After travelling down that nameless creek for some time, Henderson came upon two prospectors: Charles Johnson and the more senior Andrew Hunker. The two men informed Henderson that they had found quality colour on the creek. Because of their find, and Hunker’s seniority, the creek would be known thereafter as Hunker Creek. The find was richer than Henderson’s find on Gold Bottom, and Henderson determined it would be worth his while to forfeit his discovery claim in order to stake a claim on this new creek. With that in mind, he continued on to Fortymile, where he staked a claim on Hunker Creek.

Henderson never had the opportunity to work his claim. Earlier that year, while prospecting in the bush, he had badly injured his leg. The injury prevented him from working his claim that winter. When spring came, he opted to do some more prospecting on the Klondike tributaries before returning home to his family in Colorado. At Fortymile, he boarded a steamboat bound for St. Michael, Alaska, from where he hoped to board another steamer which would take him down the Alaskan Panhandle and the British Columbian coast to Seattle. Unfortunately, the ice which formed on the Yukon River mid-journey proved to be too much for the steamer, and Henderson was forced to spend the winter in Circle City, Alaska. There, he fell ill, and was forced to sell his claim on Hunker Creek in order to pay for his medical bills. In years to come, that claim would prove to be one of the richest claims on the creek.

In the spring, Henderson finally made it to St. Michael. Next, he traveled by steamer to Seattle. At last, he arrived back home in Colorado with nothing to show for his discovery of the gold that would help launch the Klondike Gold Rush. In the end, the co-discoverer of the Klondike Gold Rush returned home penniless.

By Hammerson Peters

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By 1896, nearly a decade had passed since the gold rush of Fortymile River (one of the many tributaries of the Yukon River). In the space of that decade, prospectors from all walks of life had flocked to the Yukon to try their luck on the Fortymile and the creeks surrounding it. In 1891, gold was discovered on the Sixtymile River (which flowed into the Yukon River sixty miles upriver of Fort Reliance), and many prospectors left the Fortymile for the new diggings. The following year, gold was discovered on Birch Creek, Alaska, and the process was repeated. The miners who congregated on Birch Creek founded a boom town which they named Circle City, after its proximity to the Arctic Circle. A handful of miners struck it rich and returned to civilization with small fortunes, or blew their wealth in the saloons of Fortymile and Circle City. Many more toiled to no avail and left the Yukon broke and embittered. A ragged scattering of Sourdoughs, a term used to describe seasoned prospectors who had weathered at least one northern winter, remained behind. And every once in a while, small parties of tenderfoot Cheechakos– newcomers to the north trickled over the Chilkoot Pass, hungry for fortune, adventure, and respite from Victorian society. By 1896, there were 1,600 men scouring the Yukon and Alaska for gold. Few might have guessed that, in two years’ time, the area would be home to 30,000 prospectors. Few might have guessed that the Klondike River, an obscure tributary of the Yukon, would be the site of the Klondike Gold Rush, the biggest gold rush in Canadian history.

Henderson’s Discovery

One of the Sourdoughs who lived in the Yukon in 1896 was a Nova Scotian named Robert Henderson. He was one of the co-discoverers of the gold that launched the Klondike Gold Rush.

Henderson was a prospector to the core, and had spent his entire adult life searching for gold. He left Nova Scotia at a young age to pan the goldfields of Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. After years of labouring fruitlessly under the southern sun, he left for Pike’s Peak Country of what is now Colorado, USA. Over the years, he panned and picked his way north up the Rocky Mountains until he found himself in the Yukon. Instead of trying his luck near Fortymile, Sixymile, or Circle City, he panned himself penniless on the Pelly River, a headstream of the Yukon River. When he reached rock bottom, he poled down the Pelly to the Yukon River, then floated down the Yukon to Ogilvie, a hamlet at the mouth of the Sixtymile River. There, he met with Joseph Ladue, co-owner of the community’s trading post.

Back in the 1880’s, Joseph Ladue had partnered with Arthur Harper, Jack McQuesten, and Alfred Mayo, the three patriarchs of the Yukon. Together, the four men traded tools and provisions to Yukon prospectors. Over the years, they had outfitted nearly every miner in the area. In accordance with the strange prospector’s etiquette to which nearly all northerners adhered, the four traders frequently supplied men on credit alone. Henderson hoped to take advantage of this Sourdough’s code of honour and secure himself an outfit.

Ladue was better than his reputation. He lent Henderson everything he would need for another prospecting venture, and even advised him where to pan. The Klondike River- or Tr-ondek, as the local Han Indians called it- would never yield quality gold, Ladue maintained. However, the trader believed wholeheartedly that the silt at the bottom of the Indian River concealed a wealth of gold just waiting to be discovered.

Henderson set off immediately, taking Ladue’s advice. He panned the Indian River and its tributaries doggedly. He found placer gold here and there, but never enough to warrant a more thorough investigation. While he moved from stream to stream, Henderson noticed something interesting. All the Indian River’s northern tributaries seemed to flow from a single source: a round peak which towered over the surrounding hills. Perhaps spurred by a prospector’s curiosity, Henderson decided to explore the peak. After a grueling 4000-foot climb, Henderson crested the mountain and met with a spectacular sight.

The round mountain- which would one day become known as King Solomon’s Dome- was a focal point from which creeks flowed in all directions, like tentacles from the body of an octopus. The creeks on the mountain’s southern slopes flowed into the Indian River. The creeks on the east side flowed into the Yukon. And the creeks on the northern slopes flowed into the Klondike River.

Upon his ascent, Henderson happened to be closest to the head of a small tributary of what would become known as Hunker Creek. Out of curiosity, he shambled down the hillside and followed the creek until he found a suitable place to pan. The prospector dipped his pan into the creek bed and washed away the gravel. At the bottom of the pan he found heavy black sand and eight cents of coarse gold. The find was promising, and Henderson made the trek back to the Indian River to share the news with fellow prospectors, as was Sourdough custom. Little did he know that his discovery would set in motion a chain of events which would culminate in the Klondike Gold Rush.

Henderson returned to the creek on the northern slope of the Dome- which he named Gold Bottom Creek- with three other men. The miners began to dig a shaft and extracted $750 before running low on supplies. On their way back to Ladue’s trading post, Henderson and his new partners shared the news of their find with every prospector they came across. They outfitted themselves at Ogilvie and promptly poled back up the Klondike to return to their diggings. Instead of travelling up the Indian River, which was dangerously shallow when, the prospectors decided to pole up the Klondike, and then up Hunker Creek to Gold Bottom.

Carmack’s Gold Discovery

At the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers, at the site of present-day Dawson City (the future epicentre of the Klondike Gold Rush), Robert Henderson and his companions came upon a party of five. The party included ‘Skookum’ Jim Mason, ‘Tagish’ Charlie, Kate Carmack, Kate’s daughter Graphie Gracey, and Kate’s husband George Carmack. These five, like Henderson, would go down in posterity as the co-founders of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Keish ‘Skookum’ Jim Mason was the largest of the five. On the surface, he appeared to be a massive Tagish Indian. Years later, George Carmack described him as, “straight as a gun barrel, powerfully built with strong sloping shoulders, tapering… downwards to the waist, like a keystone. He was known as the best hunter and trapper on the river, in fact he was a super-specimen of the northern Indian.” On the inside, however, Skookum Jim was as ambitious as any white man. In general, the Tagish Indians of Lake Tagish and Lake Bennett contented themselves with hunting and fishing and cared little for wealth and power, unlike their competitive Tlingit neighbours on the other side of the Coast Mountains. Skookum Jim was an anomaly. In the mid-1880’s, he hauled prospectors’ supplies over the Chilkoot Pass for money alongside Tlingit packers. After packing an enormous 156-pound load of bacon over the Pass, he earned the nickname ‘Skookum’, meaning ‘burly’ in Chinook Jargon (a trade language of the Pacific Northwest). Skookum Jim was also a prospector, and dreamed of striking it rich.

‘Tagish’ Charlie was Skookum Jim’s nephew, but he was not a giant like his uncle. Lean and limber, Tagish Charlie was, according to George Carmack in a later reminiscence, “alert as a weasel”.

Kate Carmack was Skookum Jim’s sister. Her mother was a member of the Tagish Wolf moiety and her father, Kaachgaawaa, was the chief of the Tlingit Crow moiety. According to local Indian tradition, she was the heir to her father’s title. Her daughter, young Graphie Gracey, was a mixed blood born to George Carmack.

George Carmack was the only white man of the group. He was Kate Carmack’s husband, Graphie Gracey’s father, Skookum Jim’s brother-in-law, and Tagish Charlie’s uncle. Carmack was a trader, fisherman, and trapper who had adopted the lifestyle of an Indian. Unlike Skookum Jim, his massive brother-in-law, he cared little for gold, and contented himself with living off the land and selling fish, lumber, and furs for white amenities. In contrast with many Yukon prospectors who took Indian wives and brought them into their cabins, Carmack took the Tagish-Tlingit Kate for his wife and moved into her caribou-skin lodge. For this, he was largely despised by fellow Sourdoughs. This effect was compounded by the fact that George Carmack had the nasty habit of stretching the truth. According to one Mountie stationed at Fortymile, Cormack was a man “who would never allow himself to be beaten and always tried to present his fortunes in the best possible light.”  In the Yukon Valley, many whites referred to him as ‘Lying George’.

Earlier that year, in May, the party of five was camped on the banks of the Yukon River near the charred ruins of Fort Selkirk, a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post that had been razed by Tlingit warriors in 1852. According to legend, one evening, George Carmack had a strange, prophetic vision. While staring into the sunset, he had a feeling that something remarkable was about to happen. He took out a coin and decided to flip it. If it landed on heads, he would go up the Yukon River. If it was tails, however, he would head down the river. The coin landed on tails.  Later that night, while he was sleeping, Carmack dreamed that he was approached by two massive salmon. Their scales were made of gold, and their eyes were twenty-dollar gold pieces. Upon meditating upon his dream, Carmack- instead of interpreting the dream as a sign to go prospecting, as many white men would certainly do had they been in his position- decided that the proper course of action was to head south and go fishing.

And so George Carmack, his wife Kate and daughter Gracie, Skookum Jim, and Tagish Charlie found themselves fishing at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers when they were approached by Robert Henderson and his partners.

Henderson, a strict adherent to the prospectors’ code, informed Carmack of his find on what was now Gold Bottom Creek. However, like many Sourdoughs, he harboured a prejudice against Indians, and didn’t want to see any of them staking claims on the site. He told Carmack as much, and made sure that his Tagish family were aware that they were not welcome at Gold Bottom Creek. With that, Henderson and his party headed up the Klondike River.

Carmack, who did not lust after gold like his white counterparts, would not abandon his family to chase after the yellow metal. After some deliberation, the party of five decided to head up Rabbit Creek (a creek which flows from King Solomon’s Dome into the Klondike River just before its confluence with the Yukon) to scout out quality timber, which they might fell, dress, and float downstream to Fortymile. They cached their boat at the creek’s mouth and headed up its banks on foot. In time, they came to King Solomon’s Dome. On a whim, they decided to hike over the slope to visit Henderson and his crew, who were working an open cut.

Historians are divided about what exactly was said between the two parties on that fateful meeting. However, most agree that at least three things happened that day on Gold Bottom Creek: 1) it was decided that Carmack and his family would head back to Rabbit Creek; 2) Carmack promised Henderson that he would send back word if he or any of his Tagish family found anything worthwhile on Rabbit Creek; 3) Henderson refused to sell any of his tobacco to Skookum Jim or Tagish Charlie. When they had concluded their visit, Carmack and his family left Gold Bottom Creek the way they had come and headed back over the ridge to Rabbit Creek.

That evening, on August 16, 1896, George Carmack and his family made camp about half a mile downstream of the headwaters of Rabbit Creek. While Carmack dozed under a birch tree, Skookum Jim headed into the brush with his rifle, hoping to bag a moose for supper. The big Indian succeeded, and went to the river to wash out a frying pan in which he would cook some of the meat. As he was cleaning the pan, he noticed that a protruding rim of bedrock was shimmering dully in the light of the setting sun. He examined the rock and pulled out a piece of solid gold as large as his thumb.

Elated, Skookum Jim informed his family of the find. The big Indian, Tagish Charlie, and George Carmack whooped for joy and danced around the pan. Said George Carmack in a later reminiscence, “I felt as if I had just dealt myself a royal flush in the game of life, and the whole world was a jackpot.” After they were finished celebrating, the three men panned Rabbit Creek- which would then be known as Bonanza Creek- and accumulated enough gold dust to fill a Winchester shotgun shell. After staking claims on the creek the following morning by writing on the wood of a nearby spruce, the party headed downstream towards the Yukon River, and to Fortymile beyond, spreading the word of their find to every prospector they came across. Some of those prospectors to first learn of the bonanza- including Dan McGillivery, Dave Edwards, Harry Waugh, Dave McKay, and Alphonse Lapierre- would become millionaires. In their haste, or perhaps out of spite, George Carmack and his family neglected to send word of their strike back to Henderson as they had promised.

Word of the find on Bonanza Creek spread like wildfire throughout the Yukon Valley. Soon, the goldfields of Fortymile, Sixtymile, and Circle City were emptied as every prospector in the north flocked to the Klondike for a piece of the pie. It was the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush.

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When I was growing up, my favorite poem, hands down, was The Cremation of Sam McGee, by Robert Service. If you’ve never had the pleasure of acquainting yourself with this fantastic poem or the man who wrote it, please allow me to fill you in. Robert William Service was a British-Canadian poet and banker who spent his youth tramping around in Canada and the United States, working odd jobs, before moving to Whitehorse, Yukon, in 1904. Only five years after the end of the famous Klondike Gold Rush, 30-year-old Robert Service began to write poems about the Canadian North and the hard men who inhabited it. One of his most famous poems is The Cremation of Sam McGee. In a nutshell, this poem is the story of a prospector who hauls the frozen corpse of his partner through the Arctic in search of a crematorium. The poem opens with the haunting lines:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun 

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee.

Over the years, the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-1899 has been the inspiration for and backdrop of countless fictional tales, like some of Robert Service’s most famous poems. From Jack London’s White Fang to Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush to the radio series Challenge of the Yukon, this exciting piece of Canadian history has been immortalized in North American popular culture. In addition to their entertainment value, these fictional pieces all give rise to the questions: What strange things were “done in the midnight sun?” Who were “the men who moil[ed] for gold?” What is the true story of the Klondike Gold Rush?

The Yukon

Before we can learn the true story of the Klondike Gold Rush, we must first familiarize ourselves with the land in which it took place.

The Klondike Gold Rush took place in what is now Yukon, one of Canada’s three northern territories. Today, Yukon is bordered by America’s Alaska to the west, British Columbia to the south, the Northwest Territories to the east, and the Arctic Ocean to the north. Before 1898, however, the area was part of Canada’s vast North-West Territories a region which, at one time, included nearly all western Canada (except British Columbia).

Yukon’s summers are short and warm and almost perpetually light, owing to the fact that, in the far north, the summer sun only sets late in the evening. In the Arctic Circle, northerners experience the midnight sun, a phenomenon in which the sun remains above the horizon even until midnight during the summer solstice. In contrast, Yukon’s winters are long, dark, and bitterly cold. In fact, the coldest day ever recorded in North America occurred on February 3, 1947, in Snag, Yukon. That day, the temperature dropped to a bone-chilling -63° C, or -81° F!

Most of the Yukon, save for the barren tundra in its north, is covered by taiga, or boreal forest, a timber-land consisting almost exclusively of pines and spruce. Yukon’s taiga is home to some sub-arctic denizens, including (but certainly not limited to) caribou, moose, wolves, eagles, ravens, lynx, and all three species of North American bear (black, grizzly, and polar). Due to its brutal climate, only the hardiest of animals survive in the Yukon.

In addition to the boreal forest and its residents, the Yukon is dominated by three main types of terrestrial features: mountains, lakes, and rivers:

The Coast Mountains in southwest Yukon include Canada’s five highest mountains: Mount Logan, Mount St. Elias, Mount Luciana, King Peak, and Mount Steele. In Yukon’s southeast are the Cassiar Mountains. In the east are the Selwyn and Mackenzie Mountains. The Yukon Ranges are in west and central Yukon, while the Brooks Range is in the north.

Some of the  most prominent of Yukon’s many lakes are Kluane Lake, Lake Laberge, and Mayo Lake.

Last, but certainly not least, the geography of the Yukon is dominated by the watersheds of two massive rivers: the Mackenzie and the Yukon. The watershed of the Mackenzie River, which flows latitudinally down the Northwest Territories to the east, makes its mark upon eastern Yukon. The massive Yukon River, however, begins in the Coast Mountains of southwestern Yukon and winds north and west through the territory before turning west into Alaska and emptying into the Bering Sea.

Where was Klondike Gold Rush?

“The Klondike”, the site of the Klondike Gold Rush, is a sub-region of the Yukon which gets its name from the Klondike River, one of the many tributaries of the great Yukon River. The Klondike River begins in the Ogilvie Mountains, one of the Yukon Ranges of central Yukon, and empties into the Yukon River at the site of present day Dawson City.

The Klondike, in the context of the Klondike Gold Rush, is a relatively small patch of land in west-central Yukon. It is roughly bounded by the Klondike River to the north, the Yukon River to the west, the Indian River (another tributary of the Yukon River) to the south, and a small stream called Flat Creek (which today is paralleled by the Klondike Highway) to the east. This square-like area is covered by a spiderweb of creeks, all of which seem to emanate from a single point, like spokes from a the hub of a wheel. This point from which the creeks of the Klondike goldfields flow is a 4000-foot-high peak known today as King Solomon’s Dome. Some believe that this mountain was the source of the Klondike’s gold.

The Klondike Gold Rush Background

For centuries before the Klondike Gold Rush, the Yukon was home to various First Nations. Athabascan tribes inhabited the interior. The Gwich’in resided in the north, the Han in the central west on the Yukon River (and on in the Klondike), and the North and South Tutchone in the central and south-central Yukon, respectively. The Kaska lived in the southeast, while the Tagish resided in the southwest around Tagish Lake and Marsh Lake. On the west coast and within the Coast Mountains lived the powerful, warlike Tlingit.

Long before the arrival of European fur trading companies, the Athabascans of the interior had routinely traded with the coastal Tlingit. The Athabascans would trade copper, hides, dried meat, obsidian, and mats of dried berries. In return, the Tlingit would give them eulachon oil, dried red laver seaweed, and Chilkat blankets. Eulachon oil was such a popular trade item that the interior-coastal trade routes were called “grease trails”. One well-used grease trail crossed the Coastal Mountains of southwest Yukon via the Chilkoot Pass, a mountain pass which would feature prominently in the Klondike Gold Rush. The coastal Tlingit were fiercely protective of the Chilkoot Pass and guarded it jealously.

Although the Yukon Indians were certainly aware that their country was chock-full of gold, they made no effort to extract the mineral. Gold is soft and malleable and a less than ideal material for tools. For many Indians, copper, another mineral prevalent in the Yukon, was a much more valuable commodity.

In the first half of the 1800’s, the Yukon was penetrated by two different types of European explorers from two different directions. Russian explorers employed by the Russian-American Company came from the west. Since 1732, the Russian Empire had laid claim to ‘Russian America’, the land we know today as the State of Alaska, and had established settlements along the Pacific Coast. They sought to exploit Russian America for its valuable furs, and paid little heed when explorers returned with tales of gold-bearing creeks.

At the same time, British-Canadian explorers employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company pushed into the Yukon from the east. The HBC had established fur trading posts on the Mackenzie River in present-day Northwest Territories, and sent expeditions further west in search of other prospects. They, too, were concerned predominantly with the acquisition of furs, and decided not to follow-up on rumors of a northwestern El Dorado.

The Yukon Pioneers

In 1848’s, far to the south, gold was discovered in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Over the next seven years, 300 thousand prospectors from all over the world flocked to the California goldfields to search for the precious metal. It was the first major North American gold rush.

Soon, gold fever made its way north into Canada. 1851 saw a minor gold rush on Queen Charlottes Islands, which mostly involved Hudson’s Bay Company employees and local Haida Indians. In 1857, gold was discovered on the Thompson River near present-day Lytton, BC. The ensuing gold rush, known as the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, was the catalyst for the formation of the Colony of British Columbia. Prospectors who had toiled in the Fraser Canyon to no avail left in search of greener pastures… and found one on Williams Creek, BC. The various strikes on William’s Creek and the surrounding area would lead to what has arguably become Canada’s most famous gold rush, the Cariboo Gold Rush of 1861-1867. Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, prospectors worked their way up Canada’s Rocky Mountains, starting the Wild Horse Creek Gold Rush of 1864 (near present-day Fort Steele) and the Cassiar Gold Rush of the 1870’s (in Cassiar Country in northwest BC).

Soon, the prospector diaspora which spread up western North America reached the remote wilds of the Yukon. The first man to enter the Yukon in search of gold was an Irishman named Arthur Harper. By the time he came to the Yukon, Harper was a seasoned prospector. He had worked the California goldfields in the 1850’s, and he had searched for British Columbian gold throughout the 1860’s. In 1872 and 1873, he traveled up the Peace, Liard, Mackenzie, Ray, and Porcupine Rivers to the Yukon River. He traveled further up the Yukon River until he reached Fort Yukon, an Alaskan village which revolved around an old Hudson’s Bay Company trading post of the same name.

There, Harper partnered up with two men named Alfred Mayo and Leroy Napoleon “Jack” McQuesten. Together, the three men panned the Stewart, Fortymile, Tanana, and Klondike Rivers for gold. They met with little success. In time, the prospectors began to work as traders for the Alaska Commercial Company. They established Fort Reliance on the Yukon River and traded American goods like flour, sugar, tea, and calico for Han copper and furs. In years to come, Fort Reliance became such a prominent landmark that creeks and rivers were named after their distance from it. For example, Fortymile River was so named because it flows into the Yukon River forty miles downriver from Fort Reliance.

Another of the early prospectors to come to the Yukon was an Ohio-born Quaker named George Holt. With the assistance of a two Indian guides, Holt traveled to the Dyea Inlet in southwest Yukon by boat sometime in the mid-1870’s. Then, he somehow managed to slip over the Chilkoot Pass without being killed (remember, the Pass was closely guarded by Tlingit warriors). He was the first white man to scale the Chilkoot Pass. Holt and his two native companions prospected around the headwaters of the Yukon River before travelling south to Sitka, a town on the Alaskan Panhandle. When Holt showed some of the Sitka residents the gold nuggets he had procured on the other side of the Coast Mountains, a number of enterprising prospectors traveled to the Chilkoot Pass armed to the teeth with rifles and Gatling guns. They persuaded the Tlingit to open the Pass for good.

After Holt, small groups of prospectors trickled through the Chilkoot Pass. They paid the local Tlingit to haul their outfits over the mountains. According to all accounts, Tlingit men were stocky, muscular, and physically powerful, and could easily shoulder heavy loads. Years later, during the Klondike Gold Rush, the ambitious Tlingit would make their fortunes hauling loads to the Klondike goldfields.

Another interesting prospector to make his way to the Yukon in the early years was a miner named Edward Lawrence Schieffelin. Schieffelin had been a prospector since he as 17 years old. He panned for gold and silver in Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and California before moving to Arizona. There, while prospecting in dangerous territory controlled by hostile Apaches, Schieffelin stumbled upon a silver bonanza. He, along with his brother and a friend, founded the Tombstone Gold and Silver Mining Company. The three partners opened a series of mines and quickly became millionaires.

Throughout his years of prospecting and studying geological maps, Schieffelin formed a theory that a great “continental belt” of minerals girded the earth. He believed that the belt roughly followed a path leading from Cape Horn, Argentina, up east Asia and down through the continental divide of North America. Interestingly, Schieffelin’s hypothetical mineral belt is roughly congruent with the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire (where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are common). To test his theory, he decided to make a prospecting expedition to the Yukon to see what minerals might be found. Along with his brother and three companions, he commissioned a steamer which he christened the New Racket. In 1882, the men took the steamer up the Pacific Coast to the western coast of Alaska. They entered the Yukon River delta and traveled all the way into the interior. After some panning, the seasoned prospector quickly found gold dust. However, the American had made his fortune labouring under the sweltering Arizonan sun, and was not very well prepared for the frozen Arctic. After selling the New Racket to Harper, Mayo, McQuensten, and their new partner, Joseph Ladue, the millionaire headed home never to return.

The Fortymile Gold Rush

Meanwhile, in the Yukon, Arthur Harper, Alfred Mayo, and Jack McQuesten had developed into respected frontiersmen. Mayo was a wiry ex-acrobat and McQuesten a barrel-chested ex-farmer. Resultant of the years in the far north, however, all three were now seasoned northerners well accustomed with what Robert Service termed, in his titular poem, “The Law of the Yukon”. The three men made their living trading with local Han Indians and outfitting the handful of prospectors that came to the area. In addition to Fort Reliance, they established a number of trading posts along the Yukon River. According to an Alaskan Commercial Company employee, the three partners were “typically frontiersmen, absolutely honest, without a semblance of fear of anything, and to a great extent childlike in their implicit faith in human nature, looking on their fellow pioneers as being as honest as themselves.”

In the winter of 1886/87, Harper suggested that two prospectors try their luck on Fortymile River. Sure enough, the men found quality gold dust in the river. They informed Harper of their find, and began to spread the word to other friendly miners in the area.

After hearing the news, Harper realized that a gold rush in the Yukon would be disastrous. He and his partners were the only outfitters in the interior. If too many prospectors came to the area, they would not have enough produce to feed everyone. Widespread starvation was a very real possibility. In a panic, he sent a messenger to the nearest point of civilization, requesting more stock.

It so happened that the nearest point of civilization was a trading post on the Dyea Inlet. The post was run by none other than John J. Healy, an American with an interesting Canadian past. Back in the 1860’s, Healy had lived in Fort Benton, Montana. There, he traded whisky and other goods to the local Blackfoot in exchange for buffalo robes. In the late 1860’s, the U.S. Army drove most of the Blackfoot north into British possessions. Healy, a wily businessman, decided to follow his customers. At the site of present-day Lethbridge, Alberta, he and some partners established a trading post which would become known as Fort Whoop-Up. Others followed their example and built trading posts nearby. The whisky that the Americans sold from their forts had a terrible effect on the local Indians. Soon, the situation became so bad that the Canadian government was forced to act. In 1873, the North West Mounted Police was formed, and in 1874 the Force marched west. When they arrived on the western Canadian plains, the Mounties shut down the whisky trade. Embittered and out of business, John Healy returned to Montana and became the sheriff of Chouteau County. In 1886, he predicted there would be a massive gold rush in Yukon country. And so he left the prairies and established a trading post on the Dyea Inlet.

Anyways, a steamboat man named Tom Williams agreed to bring Harper’s message to Healy. He set off, with an Indian guide, up a route which would one day become known as the Chilkoot Trail. After a harrowing journey through brutal winter conditions, the two men arrived at Healy’s post. Williams had come down with a horrific case of frostbite on his face, feet, and fingers and only survived for two more days. Before he died, though, he managed to pass on his message.

In time, word got around about the find on the Fortymile River. Soon, a minor gold rush was in the works. Many of the prospectors settled around the confluence of the Fortymile and Yukon Rivers, and a town quickly developed on the spot. The prospectors named the town Fortymile, after the river.

As Harper predicted, there was not enough food to go around at Fortymile during that first year. Many prospectors made the freezing journey to St. Michael, Alaska, at the end of the Yukon River. A handful remained in Fortymile and had a very hungry winter.

After winter, supplies arrived at Fortymile and the small gold rush resumed in full force. Adventurers, most of them American, flocked to the Yukon. Some were in search of fortune, others in search of respite from civilization. Some of them were Sourdoughs- hard men tempered by at least one winter in the north. Others were Cheechakos– newcomers to the Canadian subarctic. Some were veterans of the Civil War, while others were frontiersmen from the Wild West. Many were prospectors, and a handful were well-educated English remittance men. Some were even missionaries. All, however, had something in common. Perhaps Robert Service described this elusive quality best in the first verse of his poem, The Men That Don’t Fit In:

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
    A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
    And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
    And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
    And they don’t know how to rest.
The miners of Fortymile employed a unique mining technique to get to bedrock, where the gold was. Since the ground was perma-frozen, digging was next to impossible. Instead of digging through frozen earth, they built fires on the spot where they wished to mine. In the morning, the fires were out and the ground was thawed. The miners would spend the day digging through the thawed earth before starting the process all over again. In the spring, they built sluice boxes and diverted spring runoff into them. Then, they shoveled the dump from the mine into the sluice boxes, which was washed away by the water. In the crossbars at the bottoms of the boxes, heavy gold would accumulate.
The social life at Fortymile revolved around the ten saloons that sprung up. The saloons sold either diluted whisky or hootchinoo, a rough northern alcohol. In accordance with the strange, anarcho-communistic code of honour that the Fortymile prospectors adopted, every man who bought a drink was obliged to buy a round for everyone in the saloon. And everyone who received a drink was obliged to finish it. In addition, the patron, who paid for the drinks in gold dust, was expected to turn his back while the bartender weighed out the amount.
Another of the bizarre forms of entertainment enjoyed by the Fortymile prospectors was a weekly dance with local Han wives. According to a spectator:
“We were attracted by a row of miners who were lined up in front of the saloon engaged in watching the door of a very large log cabin opposite, rather dilapidated with the windows broken in.…
They said there was going to be a dance, but when or how they did not seem to know.…
The evening wore on until ten o’clock, when in the dusk a stolid Indian woman with a baby in the blanket on her back, came cautiously around the corner, and with the peculiar long slouchy step of her kind, made for the cabin door, looking neither to the right nor to the left.…
She was followed by a dozen others, one far behind another, each silent and unconcerned, and each with a baby upon her back. They sidled into the log cabin and sat down on the benches, where they also deposited their babies in a row: the little red people lay there very still, with wide eyes shut or staring, but never crying.…
The mothers sat awhile looking at the ground on some one spot, then slowly lifted their heads to look at the miners who had slouched into the cabin after them – men fresh from the diggings, spoiling for excitement of any kind. Then a man with a dilapidated fiddle struck up a swinging, sawing melody and in the intoxication of the moment some of the most reckless of the miners grabbed an Indian woman and began furiously swinging her around in a sort of waltz while the others crowded and looked on.
Little by little the dusk grew deeper, but candles were scarce and could not be afforded. The figures of the dancing couples grew more and more indistinct and their faces became lost to view, while the sawing of the fiddle grew more and more rapid, and the dancing more excited. There was no noise, however; scarcely a sound save the fiddle and the shuffling of the feet over the floor of rough hewn logs; for the Indian women were as stolid as ever and the miners could not speak the language of their partners. Even the lookers on said nothing, so that these silent dancing figures in the dusk made an almost weird effect. One by one, however, the women looked on.
One by one, however, the women dropped out, tired, picked up their babies and slouched off home, and the men slipped over to the saloon to have a drink before going to their cabins. Surely this [dance] was one of the most peculiar balls ever seen.…”
The culture of Fortymile was equally peculiar; almost utopian. Outfitters like Harper and McQuesten gave prospectors supplies on unlimited credit. Prospectors shared everything they had, including knowledge of gold finds, with their neighbours. And each man’s cabin was open to travelers. The only law that prevailed in Fortymile was the “Golden Rule”.
The prospectors of Fortymile settled their disputes in so-called ‘miners’ meetings’, which were typically held in saloons. Disputes were settled democratically, and decisions were made by a show of hands. In 1893, John Healy took offense to one of the rulings of a miners’ meeting, and took matters into his own hands. To make a long story short, he endeavored to restrict the freedom of one of his female employees, and was condemned for it by the miners, many of whom valued freedom above all else. Instead of accepting the verdict of the prospectors, however, he entreated the support of his old enemies, the North West Mounted Police.
Due in part to Healy’s entreaty, in 1894, the NWMP came to Fortymile. The small detachment, led by Inspector Charles Constantine, quickly brought Canadian law and order to the wild northwestern frontier. Little did the Mounties know that their presence in the area would prove to be absolutely vital in two years’ time, when the Yukon would be rocked by the biggest gold rush Canada has ever known.

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O Canada – The Canadian National Anthem

On Monday, January 25, 2016, kids all over the country stood for the O Canada before morning announcements. Young men- like the Medicine Hat Tigers in Prince George, BC, and the Kindersley Klippers in Wilkox, Saskatchewan- removed their helmets for the Canadian National Anthem before battling the home team on the ice. And grey-haired bureaucrats in Ottawa, the Capital of Canada, discussed the fate of the O Canada before adjourning at 7:30 pm.

On January 25, Canada’s House of Commons resumed, and with it the efforts of Liberal MP Mauril Belanger to make the Canadian National Anthem “gender neutral”. Belanger, who is suffering from ALS, has declared that he intends to reintroduce his bill to change our national anthem’s second line. Specifically, he wants to change true patriot love “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command”. The Ottawa-area MP argues that the current lyrics “in all thy sons” neglect to reflect the sacrifices and contributions Canadian women.

Belanger is not the first parliamentarian to take up the torch on this perceived issue. In accordance with the epidemic of political correctness that has taken this millennium by storm, left-leaning Canadian politicians have tried to “modernize” Canada’s national anthem for years. Some, like former Governor General Michaelle Jean, have championed Belanger’s crusade. Others, like former Toronto city councillor Howard Moscoe, fear the O Canada’s words “our home and native land” are exclusive to Canadian immigrants. Others still seek to remove the anthem’s religious references so as to not offend secularists and religious minorities.

Many of us Canadians are strongly opposed to these proposed changes. We see the Canadian National Anthem as a fundamental element of our national identity. To us, the O Canada is something that should not be subject to change, lest we want to advertise to the world our country’s lack of pride in its lineage and lack of faith in itself. 

Proponents of Belanger’s cause present a solid counterargument, however. They remind us that the words “in all of us command” are actually closer to the lyrics of an earlier version of O Canada written in 1908. They argue that a “gender neutral” version would actually be more authentic than the version we have now. That counterargument raises a couple of questions: How many versions of our national anthem are there? When was our national anthem first written? What is the history of Canada’s National Anthem?

The History of O Canada

The first version of The Canadian National Athem was written by French Canadian composer Calixa Lavallee. Lavallee wrote the piece in 1880, just thirteen years after Constitution.

Lavallee lived a colourful life. He was born in a suburb of Montreal in 1841. His father, a master organ builder, taught him to play the organ at a young age. At 25, Lavallee left Canada for the United States. There, he won a music competition and ended up touring Brazil and the West Indies with a Spanish violin virtuoso. He returned to the United States just in time to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War. In the Reconstruction Era following the war, Lavallee toured the United States with show companies. When he was not on the road, he took up residence in various cities, including Montreal, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City. He ended up settling down in Boston.

Despite being an expatriate, Lavallee was considered by many to be a Canadian national musician. Like Edvard Grieg in Norway and Jean Sibelius in Finland, Lavallee performed and composed music which helped young Canada establish a national identity.

In January 1880, the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec commissioned Lavallee to compose a tune for St-Jean-Baptiste Day. St-Jean-Baptiste Day is a Catholic Quebecois feast day on June 24 which celebrates the birth of John the Baptist. The tune was put to the lyrics of a poem written by Adolphe-Basile Routhier, a French Canadian judge and writer. Lavallee completed the song in time. It was performed for the first time on the evening of June 24, 1880, in Quebec City. It was entitled the “Chant national”.

When translated literally from French to English, the Chant National Lyrics read:

Under the eye of God, near the giant river,
The Canadian grows hoping.
He was born of a proud race,
Blessed was his birthplace.
Heaven has noted his career
In this new world.
Always guided by its light,
He will keep the honour of his flag,
He will keep the honour of his flag.

From his patron, the precursor of the true God,
He wears the halo of fire on his brow.
Enemy of tyranny,
But full of loyalty,
He wants to keep in harmony,
His proud freedom;
And by the effort of his genius,
Set on our ground the truth,
Set on our ground the truth.

Sacred love of the throne and the altar,
Fill our hearts with your immortal breath!
Among the foreign races,
Our guide is the law:
Let us know how to be a people of brothers,
Under the yoke of faith.
And repeat, like our fathers,
The battle cry: “For Christ and King!”
The battle cry: “For Christ and King!”

English Translations

By 1908, a number of Canadian writers translated the Chant National from French to English. Among them was Dr. Thomas Bedford Richardson, Mercy E. Powell McCulloch, Wilfred Campbell, Augustus Bridle, and Ewing Buchan.

The only English translation to gain widespread acceptance was one written by Robert Stanley Weir, a Montreal judge and writer, in 1908. Weir wrote the O Canada Lyrics in his summer home to mark the 300-year anniversary of the founding of Quebec City. He entitled the piece “O Canada”. His lyrics read:

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love thou dost in us command.
We see thee rising fair, dear land,
The True North, strong and free;
And stand on guard, O Canada,

We stand on guard for thee.

Refrain

O Canada! O Canada!
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.

O Canada! Where pines and maples grow,
Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow,
How dear to us thy broad domain,
From East to Western Sea;
Thou land of hope for all who toil!
Thou True North, strong and free!
(Refrain)

O Canada! Beneath thy shining skies
May stalwart sons and gentle maidens rise,
To keep thee steadfast through the years,
From East to Western Sea.
Our own beloved native land,
Our True North, strong and free!
(Refrain)

Ruler Supreme, Who hearest humble prayer,
Hold our dominion within Thy loving care.
Help us to find, O God, in Thee,
A lasting, rich reward,
As waiting for the Better Day
We ever stand on guard.
(Refrain)

Revisions

Weir’s lyrics have undergone a number of revisions over the years. The first revision took place in 1913. It was a small revision to the second line, which replaced “thou dost in us command” with “in all thy sons command”.

Weir made the change himself without publicly disclosing a reason. Some historians suggest that Weir might have changed the lyrics in protest of the increasing fanaticism of the women’s suffragette movement. Whatever the case, the words “in all thy sons command” have since come to resonate with many Canadians as an homage to the 100,000 Canadian men who lost their lives fighting in the First and Second World Wars.

Weir made further minor amendments to the lyrics in 1914 and 1916.

In 1927, the O Canada was officially published in time for the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation. At the time, it was undoubtedly the most popular national song in French Canada. In English Canada, however, the Canadian National Anthem vied for popular supremacy with another patriotic song, The Maple Leaf Forever. The Maple Leaf Forever was written by Alexander Muir at the time of Confederation.

In 1980, the anthem was modified again. It became the version we know today. It might surprise some Canadians (me included!) to learn that there are actually four verses in the official anthem. Most of us are only familiar with the first verse. The additional three verses are slightly modified versions of the original verses written by Weir in 1908. These three are rarely sung. You can read all four verses at OhCanadaAnthem.com. The Oh Canada Lyrics first verse, the one most of us are familiar with, goes thus:

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land, glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee;
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

The Canadian National Anthem

On June 18, 1980, the House of Commons voted on a bill proposing O Canada as Canada’s official national anthem. The vote was unanimous; the bill was passed. Almost exactly a century after Routhier and Lavallee created the its first version, the O Canada was proclaimed the official national anthem of Canada.

Since then, the anthem has become an integral part of Canadian identity. It has become as firmly rooted in Canadian culture as ice hockey, Mounties, and the Maple Leaf. It is sung daily in Canadian schools all over the country. It is played at sporting events and official ceremonies. It even features in some of our beer commercials!

So, what do you think, Canada? Should we change a couple of words in our national anthem to make it more politically correct? Or should we keep it the way it is? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

 

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Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls is the collective name for three massive waterfalls on the Niagara River (the short river that drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario): the Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls, and the Bridal Veil Falls. As the river straddles the Canadian-American border, so, too, do the waterfalls. Horseshoe Falls is the largest of the three. It is also known as the ‘Canadian Falls’, as two thirds of it are on the Canadian side of the boundary line. The American Falls, as its name suggests, rests entirely on the American side of the divide. The Bridal Veil Falls, the smallest of the three, is also located on the American side. Taken together, these three waterfalls, the Niagara Falls, are the largest waterfalls by flow rate in the world.

Niagra Falls Early History

The origin of the word ‘Niagara’ is a bit of a mystery. Some historians believe the word has its roots in the name of an obsolete First Nations tribe. The Onguiaahra, or Niagagarega, were a tribe of the Neutral Confederacy who occupied the area around Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Their name means either “near the big waters”, “thundering waters”, or “point of land cut in two” in the extinct language of the Neutral Confederacy. Others believe Niagara was the name of an Iroquois village in the area. Others still maintain that the name comes from the Iroquois word onyara, meaning ‘neck’. Perhaps we will never know for sure.

Another mystery surrounding the Niagara Falls is the identity of its discoverer. Of course, the local Iroquois and Neutral Confederacies had known about the existence of the Falls long before the first white man stepped foot in the Americas. However, many historians are divided on the name of the first European to discover them. The famous French explorer Samuel de Champlain was the first to write about the Niagara Falls, although he did not see them himself. The explorer heard reports of the great waterfalls from local Indians in the early 1600’s. Some historians speculate that a number of French Jesuit missionaries may have seen the Niagara Falls in the 1630’s and ’40’s. Among them was St. Jean de Brebeuf, who would be famously martyred by the Iroquois just west of the present day Capital of Canada in 1649. If these Jesuits saw the Niagara Falls, however, they neglected to write about them. Rene de Brehant de Galinee, a French Sulspician missionary, became the first white man to write about hearing the Falls in 1669. And in 1678, Louis Hennepin, a Flemish Recollect missionary and adventurer, wrote about seeing the Niagara Falls. He, along with French explorer Robert de La Salle and his crew, were en route to the mouth of the Niagara River 20 km upstream. There, they would build Fort Conti and a sailing ship christened Le Griffon. Le Griffon  would mysteriously disappear on the return trip of her maiden voyage across the Great Lakes… but that’s a story for another time.

 

The Battle of Queenston Heights

Throughout the years, the Niagara Falls have witnessed a number of important events in Canadian history. The first major event to take place within sight of the Falls was the Battle of Queenston Heights, the first major battle of the War of 1812.

On the early morning of October 13, 1812, three and a half thousand inexperienced American soldiers gathered on the American shores of the Niagara River. These Americans, under the command of General Stephen Van Rensselaer, attempted to cross the river about eights kilometers downriver of the Niagara Falls. They hoped to capture the British village of Queenston, thereby cutting off British supplies to western Upper Canada.

A sentry warned the British detachment at Queenston of the American advance. By the time the British soldiers had formed up, the first wave of American troops had crossed onto their side of the river. A small group of British infantry engaged this first wave while their artillery barraged the American landing stage from atop Queenston Heights. In return, American artillery across the river bombarded the village of Queenston. Despite British efforts, the first wave of American troops quickly beat back the defenders and captured the British battery on Queenston Heights.

Earlier that morning, British Major-General Isaac Brock heard cannon fire from nearby Fort George. Brock got out of bed, quickly mounted up, and arrived on the scene with a small detachment. Upon learning of the gravity of the situation, he sent word to Fort George for reinforcements. Rather than wait for the reinforcements to arrive, however, Brock decided to lead a charge from the village up to Queenston Heights to retake the artillery. Brock’s charge was repelled by the Americans, however. The General-Major himself was fatally wounded by a musket ball to the chest.

Throughout the day, British reinforcements began to arrive at the battlefield. The reinforcements included British regulars, Canadian Militia, and Iroquois warriors. The tide of the battle turned with their arrival. The British quickly regained Queenston Heights and thwarted the invasion. In the end, about nine hundred American soldiers surrendered to the British. The British themselves suffered minor casualties.

 

The Caroline Affair

Another major event to take place near Niagara Falls was the Caroline affair.

In the wake of the failed Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, a group of rebel leaders took refuge on Navy Island, a small river island about 4 km upriver of the Niagara Falls. The party was led by William Lyon Mackenzie. These rebels hoped to create a Canadian republic separate from the British Empire. The American government, which had no love for the British, sympathized with these Canadian rebels. They routinely sent a steamboat full of supplies to the rebel camp at Navy Island. The steamboat was named the SS Caroline.

The British soon learned of this development and dispatched a party of Canadian militia to sabotage the vessel. The militiamen were led to believe that the steamboat belonged to Mackenzie. They captured the boat on American territory and drove off the crew, killing a black crew member in the process. Then they set the boat on fire and let the current carry it past Navy Island and over the Niagara Falls.

 

The Maid of the Mists

In addition to the SS Caroline, a number of people and objects have gone over the Niagara Falls. According to Iroquois legend, the first person to go over the falls was a young Seneca widow named Lelawala. Upon losing her husband and suffering a number of misfortunes, Lelawala decided to end her life. One day, she got into her canoe and paddled down the Niagara River. She intended to paddle off the Niagara Falls to her death.

As Lelawala plunged over the waterfall, she was caught by Heno, the god of thunder. Heno took the girl to his home behind the waterfall, where he and his sons nursed her back to health. In time, Lelawala fell in love with Heno’s youngest son and became his wife. Together, they raised their family in a cave behind the waterfalls.

In 1846, a Niagara River ferry service was launched.The ferry would take passengers to and from the American and Canadian sides of the river. It was named The Maid of the Mists after the Iroquois legend. Over the years, The Maid of the Mists has been the name of various ferries and tourist attractions on the Niagara River. One such boat plies the waters below the Niagara Falls to this day.

In 1901, a schoolteacher named Annie Edson Taylor went over the Horseshoe Falls in a barrel. Taylor was 63 years old, and hoped her stunt would raise some retirement money. On October 24, she crawled inside the barrel. Her friends screwed the lid down. They used a bicycle tire to compress the air inside. Then, like any good friends would do, they plugged the hole with a cork and sent Taylor cascading over the Horsehoe Falls. Rescuers recovered the barrel shortly afterwards. After a bit of a struggle, they pried the lid open. They were astounded. Aside from a small head wound, Annie Taylor emerged from the barrel unscathed.

In the years to come, many more people would attempt to replicate Taylor’s stunt. Some, like Annie, went over the Niagara Falls in wooden barrels. Others went in kayaks, Jet Skis, or rubber balls. Some people have even gone over the Niagara Falls in nothing but their shoes and clothes… and lived to tell the tale! Many survived the fall. Some unfortunates did not.

In addition to human beings, a number of other animals have gone over the Niagara Falls. Some of these animals include buffalo, dogs, cats, raccoon, foxes, geese, eagles, and turtles. Most of these animals were sent over the Falls by people. A number of fish, however, go over the Niagara Falls on their own accord. According to some estimates, about 90% of them survive the fall.

Other Niagra Falls Stunts

In the fall of 1821, a 22-year-old American daredevil named Sam Patch jumped off the Niagara Falls. He jumped from a platform built on the edge of Goat Island, a tiny island at the top of the waterfall, into the frothing river 26 metres below. The crowd cheered wildly when Patch surfaced at the bottom, unharmed.

Patch repeated the stunt on October 17th of the same year. This time, however, he jumped from a staggering height of 40 metres. Against all odds, he survived. The daredevil went on to perform a similar stunt near Rochester New York. On Friday the 13th, November 1829, he jumped into Genesee Falls. The 38 metre fall killed him.

In 1859, a French tightrope walker named Charles Blondin successfully crossed the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope. The tightrope was not stretched over the Niagara Falls, but rather over the Niagara Gorge downstream. Blondin’s high wire act started a trend that would last for 37 years. Acrobats from all over the world flocked to the Niagara River to walk the high wire. Some of the more notable acrobats included William Hunt (a.k.a. ‘The Great Farini’) and Maria Spelterini. In 2012, American daredevil Nik Wallenda decided to one-up his 19th century predecessors. After receiving permission from both the Canadian and American governments, he walked on a tightrope across the top of the Niagara Falls. The tightrope was 550 metres long. According to Wallenda, that made his feat the longest unsupported tightrope walk in history. Wallenda crossed from the American side of the river to the Canadian side. At the end of his act, he pulled out his passport. Canadian border guards were waiting for him on the other side!

The Niagara Falls Today

Today, Niagara Falls is one of Canada’s most popular tourist attractions. On the Canadian side of the river, tourists can view the magnificent waterfalls from the Skylon Tower. For a more thrilling bird’s eye view of the natural wonder, tourists can tour the Falls via helicopter.

In Queenston, visitors can visit the site of the 1812 Battle of Queenston Heights. The park there is a National Historic Site. Brock’s Monument, a 56-metre tower, serves as a memorial for the Major-General who died there.

On the American side of the river, visitors can don blue plastic ponchos and take the Maid of the Mist boat tour to the misty base of the waterfalls. There, tourists can get a small taste of what thrill seekers like Annie Taylor must have experienced in their journeys over the Falls.

If you’d rather wear yellow ponchos, you can take the Cave of the Wind tour. The Cave of the Winds was a natural cave behind the Bridal Veil Falls (perhaps the home of the original Maid of the Mists?). Although the cave was destroyed in a rockfall in 1954, it still gets visitors. On the Cave of the Winds tour, tourists hike a wooden walkway to the base of the Bridal Veil Falls. The place is perpetually misty, and hikers often experience tropical storm-like conditions. To get any closer to the Niagara Falls, you’d have to be in a barrel!

 

Written by Hammerson Peters

 

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Capilano Suspension Bridge

If you travel a up the Capilano River from its mouth near the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver, BC, you’ll come to a long bridge suspended high up over the valley. This is the Capilano Suspension Bridge, one of British Columbia’s oldest and most popular tourist attractions.

History

In 1887, a Scottish civil engineer and real estate developer named George Grant Mackay sold his assets in the Highlands and left for the young city of Vancouver, Canada. An avid outdoorsman, he quickly became one of Vancouver’s first park commissioners, and was instrumental in the formation of Stanley Park.

In 1888, Mackay purchased 24 square kilometres of old growth forest on both sides of the Capilano River just north of the city and built a cabin at the southern edge of the canyon. The 65-year-old engineer knew that his recreational property on the north shore of the river was prime logging territory. He also knew that, if he was ensure its protection, he would have to establish some sort of presence there. Perhaps taking a cue from John A. Macdonald– who had the CPR built across Canada in the first half of that decade to ward against American occupation- Mackay decided to consolidate the two halves of his property by building a bridge.

In 1889, Mackay hired two local Coast Salish natives, Willie and August Jack Khatsahlano, to help with the construction. August, 12 years old at the time, would grow up become a chief and medicine man of the Squamish First Nation and the namesake of Vancouver’s Kitsilano district. Under Mackay’s direction, the two labourers helped Mackay build the simple suspension bridge from hemp ropes and cedar planks. With a team of horses, they brought the northern end of the bridge across the river. Then they hauled it up the canyon slope on foot and secured it to massive cedar logs, which they had buried on the other side.

In those days, the bridge became known by the natives as the Laughing Bridge cause of the noise it made when the wind blows through the canyon. Today, you can still hear the bridge laugh on a windy day.

In no time, Mackay’s bridge became Vancouver’s first tourist attraction. Adventurous Vancouverites known as ‘Capilano Tramps’ would make the short steamship journey from Vancouver, across the Burrard Inlet, to the North Shore. There, they would head up the rugged Water Works (now Capilano) Road to Mackay’s cabin and the bridge.

Ten years after Mackay’s death in 1903, the bridge was replaced with one made of wire cable. In 1910, a lawyer named Edward Mahon purchased the bridge. The story goes that he fell in love with and married his teenage bride, nine-teen-year-old Lilette Rebbeck. He brought her and her mother over from Vancouver Island. It is said he had bought the bridge for his bride as a wedding present. He built a Tea House on the property in 1911 and imported lavish oriental plants for his bride. His love for her is what made him furnish his land with gardens of beauty that surrounded the Tea House he built for her. Throughout the years, Mahon worked to improve the bridge’s structure.

In 1935, Mahon sold the bridge to his younger step-father-in-law, a Scottish forest ranger named ‘Mac’ MacEachran. MacEachran had married Lilette’s mother Elizabeth in 1921. Upon purchasing the bridge, the Scot invited the local natives to erect totem poles in the surrounding park. These totem poles still stand today. Mac promoted the bridge aggressively, dubbing it the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’. Due to his efforts, the Capilano Suspension Bridge grew into a thriving tourist attraction, an oasis in the economic desert that was the Great Depression.

In 1945, MacEachran, now a widower, sold the bridge to a man named Henri Aubeneau and moved to California. Aubeneau in turn sold the bridge to a man named Rae Mitchell in 1953.

Mitchell, a natural entrepreneur, improved upon the Capilano Suspension Bridge and marketed it extensively. In 1956, he rebuilt the bridge completely, strengthening the cables and the anchors. He had trails built on the west side of the bridge, and he converted Mahon’s Tea House into a gift shop. Under Mitchell’s ownership, the Capilano Suspension Bridge rose from a quaint local stop-off to an internationally renowned tourist attraction. By the early ’80’s, the business had quadrupled in size.

In 1983, Mitchell sold the Capilano Suspension Bridge to his daughter, Nancy Stibbard. Stibbard continued her father’s work in developing and marketing the bridge. In 2000, she was inducted into the Canadian Tourism Hall of Fame for her massive contribution to Canadian tourism. Nancy still owns the bridge today.

 

The Capilano Suspension Bridge Today

 

It has been many years since I visited the Capilano Suspension Bridge.  With 850,000 visitors a year it is one of Vancouver’s most popular attractions.

At the entrance to the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park are a number of stores and restaurants where visitors can shop and eat. At the Trading Post and Gift Store, Mahon’s old Tea House, tourists can purchase various Canadian souvenirs.

The Story Centre, located on the east side of the Capilano River, is a museum where visitors can experience the bridge’s history. Photo-murals, didactic labels, and flip books tell the story the bridge’s various owners, of the Capilano Tramps, and of the early history of Vancouver.

The Capilano Suspension Bridge itself is 140 metres long, and is suspended 70 metres above the Capilano River. Although structurally sound and completely safe, the bridge wobbles from side to side when walked on, giving visitors a thrilling experience. The view of the surrounding valley from the Capilano Suspension Bridge is breathtaking.

On the west side of the bridge is a series of trails. One of these trail series, called’ Cliffwalk’, is the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park’s newest attraction. Open since July 2011, this trail is really a narrow path cantilevered and suspended on a cliff face high above the Capilano River. On some stretches of the walk, the floor beneath hikers’ feet is made of thick transparent glass, revealing valley floor far below. Scary!

Another trail series on the other side of the bridge is the popular Treetops Adventure. Treetops Adventure is a series of seven suspension bridges connected to Douglas firs. The bridges take hikers from tree to tree, and offer a spectacular view of the surrounding BC rainforest.

The Capilano Suspension Bridge is one of Vancouver’s top ten attractions.

This year is the Bridge’s 114th Anniversary where it brings in tourists from around the world to see the beauty of the canyon and the wonder of the laughing bridge.

Written by Dora Chartier and Hammerson Peters

Editors Note: Dora Chartier (alias Dangerous) is a writer of some renown and a fellow BRAT.  

 

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Sasquatch – The History of Canada’s Bigfoot

On Memorial Day 2015, tens of thousands of music lovers packed on the grassy slopes of the Main Stage of The Gorge Amphitheater near George, Washington. It was the fourth and last day of the Sasquatch Music Festival. With a spectacular view of the Columbia River below, fans cheered as various hip-hop, rock, EDM, and indie bands performed their sets throughout the day. Behind them in the grounds, artists could be found painting cartoon-like interpretations of the Festival’s eponymous Sasquatch – images evocative of a video taken on a Memorial Day weekend nineteen years earlier, at a site 200 kilometres to the north.

In the early evening of May 26, 1996, seven campers lounged on the western shore of Lake Chopaka, WA, about 9 kilometres south of the Canadian border. They had just come in after a long day’s fishing. One of the party was playing catch with her son and dog. Another, Owen Pate, was building a fire.

Suddenly, one of the campers cried out. She had spotted something strange nearby on the slopes of Chopaka Mountain. One by one, her six companions, beers in hand, joined her in peering up at the hillside.

No sooner had the camper begun to explain to her fellow outdoorsmen what she had seen than a dark, hairy, human-like figure stood up, emerging from concealment behind a bush no more than 70 metres away. The figure watched the campers for a moment before dashing into the nearby woods.

Owen Pate’s wife Lori, one of the seven, had brought a camcorder with her to the scene. At the insistence of her husband, she turned the device on and began to scan the hillside. Several minutes later, the Pates’ foresight was rewarded; the figure emerged from the woods about 160 metres up the mountain. Lori filmed the creature as it loped across the rugged slope on two legs. Another camper, Tom Lines, watched the scene unfold through a pair of binoculars. “It’s a Bigfoot,” he suggested, as the figure disappeared into the trees.

Over the years, the Pates’ ‘Memorial Day’ footage has been analyzed and interpreted by experts from a number of fields. Some dismiss the video as a hoax, and maintain that the mysterious subject is nothing more than a human in a costume. Others claim that the video is evidence supporting the existence of a creature long relegated to the realm of myth and legend. Fake or not, the controversial video and the hype that it has engendered give rise to the question: what is the Sasquatch?

The Legends

From the Yowie of Australia, to the Yeren of China, to the Yeti of the Himalayas, hairy wildmen feature in folklore around the world. Some, like the Mapinguari of the Amazonian rainforest, are said to be huge and powerful. Others, like the Ebu Gogo of the Floresian jungle, are purported to be small and wiry. Some are held to be friendly, while others are considered aggressive and dangerous. Some are flesh-and-blood animals, while others are creatures of the supernatural.

For centuries, the First Nations of Canada’s Pacific Northwest have told their own stories of wildmen inhabiting the coastal rainforests of British Columbia and Yukon. Although the names for these wildmen are many and varied, most of them fall into one of four categories: Bukwus; Dzunukwa; Kushtaka; and Sasquatch.

Bukwus

Source:

  • Kwakwaka-wakw (Kwakiutl) of northern Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Sound.

The Bukwus is a savage, human-like spirit which lived on the edge of the rainforest and near rivers and streams. Emaciated and long haired, he is also known as ‘The Wild Man of the Woods’ and ‘The Chief of the Ghosts’. The Bukwus is associated with drowning victims, and is said to persuade human travelers to eat ghost food, which will turn them into spirits.

Dzunukwa

Sources:

  • Kwakwaka-wakw (Kwakiutl) of northern Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Sound.
  • Nootka of the west coast of Vancouver Island

Dzunukwa is a huge, old, black ogress who lives deep in the woods. She seeks to snatch up bad children and carry them to her lair in a basket, where she eats them. Slow, dim-witted, and nearly blind, Dzunukwa rarely succeeds in her endeavors. It is said that the call of Dzunukwa resembles the sound of the wind blowing through cedars. Accordingly, she is often depicted in masks and carvings with pursed red lips.

Kushtaka

Sources:

  • Tlingit of northwest BC, southern Yukon, and southeast Alaska
  • Tsimshian of the Pacific Coast near Prince Rupert and Terrace, BC
  • Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands
  • Nootka of the west coast of Vancouver Island

According to Indian tradition, Kushtaka, or ‘Land Otter Men’, are small shape-shifters which can take the forms of otters, humans, and human-sized otter men. Considered to be evil tricksters, the Kushtaka are said to prey on those who have drowned or become lost in the woods. They ‘save’ their victims before stealing their souls. Other times, the Kushtaka attack their victims with sharp claws. The Kushtaka is said to emit a high-pitched whistle alternating from low to high.

Sasquatch

Sources:

  • Coast Salish peoples of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon
  • Tsimshian of the Pacific Coast near Prince Rupert and Terrace, BC
  • Nuxalt of the Bella Coola Valley, BC

The Sasquatch are hairy, human-like giants who live deep within the forests. They are very tall, extremely powerful, and have a terrible smell. They communicate with each other through grunts and whistles, and can sometimes be heard howling in the night. Some legends maintain that Sasquatches are friendly. Shy and reclusive, they tend to avoid human settlements. Although they may abduct humans from time to time, they rarely harm them. Other legends suggest that the Sasquatch is a vicious creature prone to attack humans and kidnap children. In some tales, the Sasquatch feeds on human flesh.

Note: Stories of Sasquatch-like creatures are not only common on the Pacific Northwest, but also among the Athabascan tribes of the Canadian north.

History

For centuries, the First Nations of Canada’s Northwest Coast have told tales of encounters with the Sasquatch. However, it would not be until the 19th century when white men reported sightings of their own Big Foot.

In the winter of 1811, North West Company surveyor David Thompson and his crew searched for a passage west through the Rocky Mountains near present-day Jasper, Alberta. Their efforts would lead them to discover the Athabasca Pass. On January 7, while searching for the route, Thompson spotted a set of large, peculiar animal tracks in the snow. The tracks measured 14 inches long by 8 inches wide. They bore four large toes, each 3-4 inches long with small nails on the end. The ball of the foot sunk three inches lower than the toes. Thompson estimated that the creature had passed that way about six hours earlier, and was subsequently in no mood to pursue it. Today, some speculate that Thompson may have stumbled upon Sasquatch tracks.

Following the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1800’s, prospectors and miners returned from the wilds of the Yukon to civilization, telling all manner of strange tales. The saloons of Skagway and Dawson City, and the bars of Seattle and San Francisco, resounded with stories of hidden valleys, lost mines, phantom lights, woolly mammoths, and, of course, wild ape-men. Decades later, many of these tales found their way into obscure northern newspapers.

Perhaps the most famous of all Canadian Sasquatch encounters of the story of Albert Ostman. Ostman was a Canadian logger and construction worker. In 1924, after a particularly long construction project, he decided to take a much needed holiday. He purchased a prospecting outfit and set out for the head of Toba Inlet near Powell River, BC, where he hoped to search for a particular lost gold mine. According to the old Indian who ferried Ostman to the inlet, a Sasquatch had killed the prospector who initially discovered the bonanza.

After several days prospecting without luck, strange things began to happen. Ostman would wake after a good night’s sleep to discover that some of his things had been disturbed in the night. Some of his provisions started to go missing. One night, Ost climbed up onto a rock overlooking his camp, boots on his feet and rifle in hand. He hoped to catch the culprit in the act. No sooner had he nodded off, however, when he was jerked awake. Disoriented, he quickly realized that he was inside his sleeping bag, being hauled away by something huge.

After a very uncomfortable three hour ride, Ostman was let down. He crawled from his sleeping bag to discover himself inside a cave, surrounded by four hairy giants. In Ostman’s words, “they look like a family, old man, old lady, and two young ones, a boy and a girl.” According to the logger, the giants spoke in a crude language, often using gestures in order to communicate with each other.

The wildmen held Ostman captive for six days, feeding him “some kind of grass with long sweet roots”. On the sixth day, Ostman enticed the eight-foot-tall ‘old man’ to eat an entire box of snuff tobacco. In the chaos that ensued, the logger gathered his belongings and escaped into the woods. After a day of fleeing and a restless night, Ostman happened upon a logging crew and found his way back to civilization. Out of fear of derision, he chose not to reveal his story until 1957.

On the surface, Ostman’s tale seems too fantastic to believe. What lends it credence, however, is the fact that Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew McCormack Naismith, a respected police magistrate from Agassiz-Harrison BC, cross-examined Ostman in 1957. After a rigorous examination, Naismith concluded that the retired logger was of sound mind, had a seamless story, and appeared to be telling the truth.

Another Canadian Sasquatch story worth recounting is the tale of ‘Muchalat Harry’. Harry was a Nootka trapper of the Muchalat tribe from the now-abandoned village of Nuchatlitz (or possibly Yuquot), on Vancouver Island, BC. Physically imposing and reputedly fearless, he  was an anomaly among his fellow Nootka. Undaunted by the prospect of running into a Sasquatch, he often went on extended trapping trips that took him deep into the woods, alone.

On one trapping venture in the fall of 1928, Harry paddled his canoe from Nuchatlitz to the mouth of the Conuma River on Tlupana Inlet. There, he cached his canoe and proceeded up the river on foot. About twenty kilometres upstream, he made camp, built a lean-to, and set out his trap line.

One night, Harry, clad only in his underwear and wrapped in his blankets, was picked up by a massive male Sasquatch. Although the Indian was strong, he was no match for the larger animal. He struggled in vain as the Sasquatch carried him deeper into the woods.

After no more than five kilometres, the Sasquatch laid Harry down. The terrified Nootka found himself in a sort of camp filled with male and female Sasquatches of all ages. A number of large bones lay scattered at his feet. The wildmen made no move to hurt Harry, but simply stared at him curiously as dawn came. Every once in a while, an enterprising Sasquatch would step forward and touch him.

Eventually, the Sasquatch lost their interest and gradually moved out of the camp. Harry took advantage of the opportunity and ran into the woods. He raced past his own camp, leaving his gun and traps behind, and headed straight for his cached canoe. In nothing but his underwear, he untied his craft and paddled out into the fog.

Late that night, Harry’s canoe slid into Nuchatlitz. Using what strength he had left, the dying Indian called for help. Lamps were lit, and Harry, exhausted and hypothermic, was rescued.

Harry was nursed back to health by Father Anthony Terhaar, a Benedictine missionary living in Nuchatlitz at the time. During the three-week-long recovery, Harry’s hair turned from black to pure white. Upon his recovery, Harry refused to go back to the Conuma River to collect his belongings. In fact, in the aftermath of his escapade, Harry never left the village nor went into the woods again for the rest of his life.

Since ‘Muchalat Harry’ and Albert Ostman’s misadventures, there have been hundreds of reported Sasquatch sightings in British Columbia and the Yukon, along with many more in Washington, Oregon, and northern California. According to the Bigfoot Field Researchers’ Organization, there have also been a fair number of Sasquatch encounters reported in Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario.

Many of the purported encounters are eerily similar. Witnesses who claim to have seen a Sasquatch typically describe it as a 6-8-foot-tall bipedal animal covered in either dark brown or reddish hair. Most eye witnesses claim that the Sasquatch has a conical head, a flat face, black skin, long arms, and no neck. According to many supposed witnesses, the Sasquatch is preceded by a terrible stench somewhat akin to the smells of burning garbage, wet dog, and rotting flesh.

Although relatively few people claim to have seen a Sasquatch, many more believe they may have heard one. Residents of remote regions of the Pacific Northwest, very much familiar with the sounds of the local fauna, sometimes report hearing strange, high-pitched screams and howls in the night. Some people report hearing a mysterious whistle that alternates from low to high.

Explanations

There have been many ideas put forth over the years as to what exactly the Sasquatch is. Many of Canada’s First Nations believed that the Sasquatch is simply another animal, lying somewhere between the realm of Man and Beast. This sentiment is echoed by a number of biologists like Canada’s Dr. John Bindernagel, who believe that the Sasquatch is a rare species of North American great ape just waiting to be discovered.

Some anthropologists believe that the legends of the Sasquatch are the products of a collective cultural memory of prehistoric times. They believe that wildmen myths around the world are the legacy of the Neanderthal, Gigantopithecus, and other extinct hominids believed to have once walked the earth alongside early humans. Others believe that the Sasquatch and other wildmen are, in fact, those same hominids themselves.

Many skeptics argue that Sasquatch ‘encounters’ are examples of the mind playing tricks. They maintain that people believe what they want to believe. To these skeptics, a Sasquatch sighting is nothing more than the product of, for example, a bear encounter and a wild imagination.

Lastly, some people believe that the Sasquatch is not an animal, nor a figment of the imagination, but rather a supernatural entity. These people typically maintain that the wildman of Northwest Coast is a bad omen.

Whatever the case, the Sasquatch certainly ads to the aura of mystery and romance that surrounds the Pacific Northwest. If nothing else, the Sasquatch is- like the Ogopogo and the Turtle Lake Monster– one of the great Mysteries of Canada.

 

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Capital of Canada

If stones could speak, the bedrock of the Ottawa River in Ottawa, Ontario, would never stop talking. Throughout the years, the river that runs through the capital of Canada has borne all manner of watercraft, from the birch-bark canoes of Algonquin hunters to the iron-hulled steamboats of the Union Forwarding & Railway Company. As the river has seen countless tons of freshwater flow from its source in the Laurentian Mountains into the great St. Lawrence, it has witnessed a scrap of land on its shores rise from an obscure stretch of forest to the capital of Canada.

Long before the first white man stepped foot in Canada, the Ottawa Valley was home to Canada’s Algonquin First Nations. Primarily hunters and fishermen, these semi-nomadic people spent their summers in small seasonal villages. They often traveled up and down the Ottawa River in slender birch-bark canoes to trade with one another. In the fall and winter, they left their wigwams and scattered into smaller groups to follow the wild game.

In 1610, a young adventurer named Etienne Brule, under the guidance of French explorer Samuel de Champlain, went to live among the Huron people of Georgian Bay. He hoped to master their language and learn about their territory. On his journey, he became the first European to travel up the Ottawa River and see the site of the present-day capital of Canada. In the years to come, many young Frenchmen followed Brule’s example and took to the woods to live with the natives. These frontiersmen independents who fomented the North American fur trade became known collectively as the coureurs des bois. From the early 1600’s to the early 1800’s, they, along with indentured voyageurs, traveled up the Ottawa River and deep into the wilderness to trade French goods for Indian furs.

In the mid 17th century, war broke out between French/Algonquin/Huron and Iroquois forces. Several skirmishes were fought along the shores of the Ottawa River. In the spring of 1649, twelve hundred Iroquois warriors armed with Dutch firearms traveled up the Ottawa River and west into Huron territory. There, they massacred the Huron (along with several Jesuit missionaries) and drove the survivors north.

In the early 1800’s, the British Empire went to war with Napoleon’s France. The British Royal Navy, short on ships, turned to the Ottawa Valley for quality timber. In no time, a small logging village called Wrightsville (named after founder Philemon Wright) sprouted on the river’s shore. Huge timber rafts were assembled and floated down the river into the St. Lawrence and to Quebec City.

In the wake of the War of 1812, the British government feared an American invasion. In the event that American forces took the southern section of the St. Lawrence River, the important route between Montreal and Kingston would be severed. As a precaution, the British planned to build a waterway linking the Ottawa River with Kingston. Lieutenant-Colonel John By, a British Royal Engineer, was tasked with the canal’s construction. He chose a place for the canal’s entrance near Wrightsville and founded a town on the spot. The town, named Bytown after its founder, would one day become Ottawa, the capital of Canada.

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Construction of the canal commenced in 1826. After six years, 822,000 pounds stirling, and nearly a thousand dead workers, the canal was completed. The waterway, called the Rideau Canal, was 202 km long and included sections of various rivers and lakes. Since the project was over budget, John By was retired without praise and recalled to London. According to local lore, his spirit may have returned to haunt Ottawa’s very creepy Bytown Museum.  That’s a story for another time.

On New Years Day, 1855, Bytown was incorporated as a city and renamed Ottawa. Nearly three years later, on New Years Eve, 1857, Queen Victoria was asked to select a capital for the British Province of Canada. On the advice of John A. Macdonald, she chose Ottawa as the Capital of Canada.

 

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