Some years ago, I uncovered an intriguing collection of photographs at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California.
The photos were in a souvenir album showing a cattle drive over the Dalton Trail in 1898. It was undertaken by Pat Galvin, a newly minted Klondike millionaire, and Charlie Thebo, a big cattleman from the United States.
The photos depict the cattle being herded from boxcars onto barges to be towed up the coast to Alaska. Others illustrate the huge cattle pens at Pyramid Harbor on the Alaska coast on the opposite side of the Chilkat Inlet from Haines. From there, the photos show the herd being guided over the long Dalton Trail to the Yukon River.
Most cattle drives along the Dalton Trail ended at Carmacks or continued along the west shore of the Yukon River downstream to Five Finger, Rink Rapids, or Yukon Crossing. At these points, it was easy to transfer the cattle, live or dead, onto scows and safely float the remainder of the distance to Dawson City.
But a pair of photos in this album showed the cattle and horses swimming across the Yukon River, to the far (eastern) shore, with the Tantalus Bluff at Carmacks clearly visible in the distant background.
A third photo, labelled “Killing Pens Near Selkirk,” shows the cattle drive camped on the shore of the Yukon River. At one end of the encampment a corral holding livestock is clearly visible beside rows of log frames set up for butchering. Two large scows were tied to the bank of the Yukon River at the foot of the gentle slope leading down from these butchering frames.
Farther along the shore, at the other end of the camp, is a cluster of large canvas frame tents and a group of men standing next to a large bonfire.
I had found casual or vague references in different sources during my research that suggested that one branch of the Dalton Trail extended along the eastern bank of the Yukon to the mouth of the Pelly River. The photos in this album were very convincing, but would it be possible to find the site where Thebo’s herd was slaughtered and cut up for market somewhere near Fort Selkirk?
After a talk I gave in Haines in 2009, an audience member approached me and said that the location depicted in the photograph was known as “Slaughterhouse Slough.” I wondered: could I find the location where this photograph was taken?
I contacted Bruce Barrett, historic sites project officer of the historic sites section of Yukon’s Department of Tourism and Culture. He was familiar with the name “Slaughterhouse Slough,” but he didn’t know the precise location either.
Responding to my eagerness to locate this site, Bruce arranged for me to accompany him to Fort Selkirk at the beginning of August, 2010, to seek out this historic feature. The weather was the warmest and driest of the summer.
Don Trudeau, the project manager for the restoration program at the historic site of Fort Selkirk, had been alerted to my arrival and the purpose of my visit. Don had learned from Franklin Roberts, long-time resident of Pelly Crossing and Fort Selkirk who knows the area well, that there was a place up river where there were piles of bones lying on the ground near the river.
Don, Bruce, Garth Stoughton, the restoration carpentry instructor at Fort Selkirk, and I climbed aboard Don’s boat and made our way up river from the historic site.
We arrived at the location where Franklin had pointed out the bones to Don, and sure enough, from the river, the hills behind the site matched those in the 1898 photograph. While Don held his boat in a stable position off shore, I madly snapped off a dozen photos of the view of the shore with the hills in the background.
At this point, my heart was pounding, and I felt a rising sense of impending discovery. It is a feeling that every history addict knows well.
Don slowly edged the boat in to shore.
We clambered up the loose gravel bank and immediately started finding bones scattered about the site, camouflaged in the dense undergrowth that has filled in the area since a recent forest fire.
The scattered bones consisted of foot bones, jawbones and skull fragments. When I returned to Whitehorse, I spoke to Stacey at Stacey’s Butcher Block in Porter Creek about this, and he referred me to information about butchering procedures. Sure enough, only the parts not of value for butchering of beef were left behind at the site.
Examining the 1898 photograph carefully, we moved a hundred metres farther along the shore to where we thought the encampment shown in the photograph would be located. Here, rather than bones, we found scraps of sheet metal, stove pipe and tin cans.
Our conclusion: the photograph corresponded nicely with the material we actually found at the site. The location was quickly abandoned after the butchering was completed, and for all we know, may never have been used again.
The collection of bones and artifacts scattered along the shore clearly represented the remains of the Thebo party that had herded cattle to this point in the fall of 1898, and then slaughtered them when it was cool enough that the meat would preserve.
The original plan was for Pat Galvin to meet them with a sternwheel river boat to transport the beef to Dawson, but due to bad planning and a late start, Galvin’s boat was stuck on the Lower Yukon and never made it. So Thebo built scows and loaded the beef onto them instead.
One of the scows, running for Dawson in the ice-clogged Yukon River in October, came aground on a sand bar in mid-stream above the mouth of the Stewart River. Battered by the massive chunks of ice forming in the river, and desperate to get off the sand bar, the cowboy/sailors jettisoned 128 quarters of beef to lighten the load. They succeeded, and continued to Dawson, although one newspaper reported that another of Thebo’s scows was wrecked near the Indian River, and the entire load was lost.
Within a year, Pat Galvin was bankrupt, and Charlie Thebo had taken over the beef business, and continued to do business in Dawson for several years after the gold rush.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org