Cattle drives to the Yukon

When you think of the great cattle drives of the pioneer West, you think of the famous Chisholm Trail in the United States, or the big cattle ranches…

When you think of the great cattle drives of the pioneer West, you think of the famous Chisholm Trail in the United States, or the big cattle ranches of Alberta.

For a brief time, the Yukon had its own cattle drives as challenging as anything experienced in the Wild West.

The first cattle drive in the Yukon took place over the Dalton Trail in 1896, before the Klondike Gold Rush.

Willis Thorp, a merchant from Juneau, took a herd of 40 cattle over the trail, headed for Forty Mile, the trading centre for the Fortymile and Sixtymile mining areas.

They took the cattle through 400 kilometres of wild country to the Yukon River, and continued along the west side to a point below the Rink Rapids where they were loaded onto rafts to be floated downriver.

At the mouth of the Klondike River they came upon the scene of frenzied activity at the newly discovered gold field, so it is not known how much of the herd ever made it to Forty Mile.

It was a big treat for the miners, used to living on a monotonous diet of bacon, beans and biscuits, to have fresh beef.

Some of this beef made its way into Alaska, where it was reported that: “The first beefsteak that ever reached Circle City sold for $48 per pound a few weeks ago.

The steaks consisted of a 10-pound piece of beef slaughtered at Forty-Mile Creek, packed and shipped 250 miles to Circle City by Thomas O’Brien.

When O’Brien reached camp, the miners turned out in a body to see the steak. It was placed on exhibition and attracted as much attention as an eight-legged calf…”

A price of $48 for beef got the attention of the ranchers on the prairies, where beef was selling for three cents a pound.

Prairie ranchers started having dreams that would make Midas blush.

For the next few years, cattle from as far away as Oregon, Manitoba and Saskatchewan were transported to the Seattle or Vancouver by train, loaded onto boats and shipped north to Haines and Skagway on the Alaskan coast, then overland to where they could be loaded, dead or alive, onto rafts for the journey down the Yukon to Dawson City.

The distances travelled were greater than those over the Chisholm Trail, through unfamiliar terrain.

The risk was high for the cattlemen.

The animals could get lost or starve, and a skinny cow didn’t bring much profit in Dawson City.

Along the trail, the livestock was victim to predators and disease, swamps and ever-present mosquitoes.

The weather could be hostile, and the seasons worked against them. Woe to the cattleman who started his herd over the trail too late in the season!

On the Dalton Trail, before reaching Canada, the cattle drivers had to pay a toll to Jack Dalton’s men: $2.50 per cow, 50 cents for goats, sheep and swine.

There were plenty of herders who paid the toll.

During the summers of ’97 and ‘98, thousands of cattle, horses and sheep came in over the famed Trail.

Each herder came north with dreams of making a big profit in Dawson City, but it was hit and miss. Drovers of three herds over the Dalton trail late in the summer of 1898 found that out.

When they arrived at the Yukon, the cattle were slaughtered and rafted downstream.

Both the slaughtering and he raft building were time consuming and labour intensive. With winter closing in, it was a race against time.

One herd was butchered and shipped when the weather was too warm: most of the meat spoiled on the voyage downriver.

The next herd, belonging to Pat Burns of Calgary, and headed by cattleman Bill Henry, arrived at the Yukon shortly after.

The nine men set about constructing corrals, building rafts 21.6 by nine metres, and slaughtering 180 steers, each weighing 720 kilograms.

As the cool October weather enveloped the herders, the carcasses were frozen to prevent spoilage.

In a race against time, the herders steered their ungainly rafts downriver and arrived safely before freeze-up.

The North West Mounted Police purchased 75,000 pounds of the meat at 75 cents a pound, while the remainder sold at $1 a pound, yielding a small fortune for the summer’s labour.

Another herd, travelling a few days behind Bill Henry weren’t so fortunate; the river froze before they could bring them downstream.

Even the waste left behind proved to be a valuable commodity.

At Yukon Crossing, three mushers passing along the trail saw an opportunity, and spent the winter serving up the offal from the butchered animals to passing teams for dog feed, and made $1 a pound for their effort.

Other herds were driven over the White Pass and floated downriver, but they had to brave the treacherous waters of the various rapids along the way and the tempestuous waters of Lake Laberge.

One herd was brought up over the Telegraph trail, a route championed as the “All-Canadian” route, and arrived at Teslin Lake with 200 head, worn out and thin from the rigours of the trail.

They slaughtered and butchered the meat on the shore of the lake, and by mid-October, set their rafts out onto the calm waters for Dawson City.

The calm did not hold, and the rafts were dashed upon the rocky shore and the meat was lost.

The completion of the White Pass Railway put a swift end to the era of cattle drives into the Yukon.

A few years later, in 1906, the newspapers heralded Jack Dalton’s final cattle drive over his trail, and 200 head of animals that passed through Dawson City on their way to Fairbanks, Alaska.

For More information on the Dalton Trail and the Henry Dow Banks collection of photographs, visit and enjoy the MacBride Museum today.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.

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