Early Yukon automobiles were a novelty

How could the Yukon ever live without the automobile? The answer is that we did quite well a century or more ago, but time and technology have shifted our frame of reference.

How could the Yukon ever live without the automobile? The answer is that we did quite well a century or more ago, but time and technology have shifted our frame of reference.

The first automobiles came into the Yukon around the year 1900, but they were a mere curiosity in the beginning. At the time, everyone relied upon river boats, horses, dog teams, bicycles or their own two legs. There were no main roads connecting population centres like Whitehorse, Atlin, Dawson City and Grand Forks, only wagon roads at best.

I found several references to two small gasoline-powered vehicles being brought to Bennett at the terminus of the Chilkoot Trail in 1900 by a Frenchman named Lamarre. From there, he planned to dash over the ice to Dawson at 50 kilometres per hour. But the Lemarre party arrived too late in the season to travel over the ice, and according to a photo I found at the Yukon Archives, ended up in Atlin instead.

A Dawson man named E.H. Clear was reported to have ordered a fleet of six automobiles, to be used between Dawson and the Creeks, with larger ones to follow that would be used on the trail from Dawson to Whitehorse. I found no further evidence of what happened to that enterprise, or whether the cars ever arrived in the Klondike.

One little automobile did reach Dawson City in 1900. It belonged to Count Eugene Carbonneau. While he had planned to drive it over the trail before break-up, he ended up shipping it in by boat. The machine proved to be a disappointment. “It travelled too slowly to suit the count and countess [Belinda Mulroney] and had a bad habit of balking in most awkward places.” The temperamental little vehicle broke down, and attempts to revive it failed. It was quickly parked behind the Fairview Hotel and left exposed to the elements.

Move ahead three years: another automobile arrived in the Yukon. Fernand de Journel, a lawyer and local playwright, brought a small Oldsmobile to Dawson City the summer of 1903 and made several trips into the surrounding creeks. At a roadhouse on Hunker, the machine scared a team of horses so badly, the owner advertised a $50 reward for anyone who could find and return them.

The little Olds then sent a terrified team of horses stampeding up Front Street in Dawson, wagon and all, until, at the north end, the team stopped and one of the horses keeled over with a thud.

De Journel took the little Oldsmobile up Bonanza Creek to Grand Forks, where he gave a ride to a man named Dalgleish. The passenger was uneasy about his ride because “he saw no reins to pull on to stop the rig.” A second trip up Bonanza ended in a breakdown at claim number 62 below Discovery. The two passengers were left stranded at the nearest roadhouse.

The day after that, on a third trip up Bonanza, the little car came to a sad demise. On a narrow turn in the road, it encountered a six-horse stage. On one side, the hill rose in a cliff above the road; on the other, was an embankment falling away from the shoulder. The little auto moved over as far as it could to the shoulder and the passengers got out while the stage inched its way past. One of the horses panicked and the stage lurched ahead, hitting the little vehicle square in the middle, “crunching it as easily as a stack of cards.”

Skip ahead another four years to 1907. The Dawson Daily News states that there were only two automobiles in the Klondike that year.

One was a Peerless, a luxury car delivered to Dawson City on the steamer Whitehorse in early July for O.B. Perry, the manager of the Yukon Gold Company. The car came with a mechanic, Harry Fowler, who used to work for the famous American race car driver, Barney Oldfield. Perry used the automobile to transport him around the extensive company holdings in the goldfields.

The other vehicle was a 1906 Pope-Toledo purchased by Captain Hubrick, a local businessman. It came with a chauffeur, Carl Lillesternia, and was immediately put to use hauling passengers around the creeks.

“Both are gasoline machines with water cooling apparatus,” reported the Daily News, “stoutly be-springed for rough road work, gaily upholstered and luxuriant.” The Peerless was so quiet it practically whispered.

The Pope-Toledo made good money for Captain Hubrick during the summer. Painted blood red, it quickly acquired the name “The Red Devil.” But it was not without its technical problems. Only a few days after its arrival in Dawson, it suffered a burnt coil, and left a number of passengers stranded near King Solomon’s Dome. They returned to Dawson on the stage (chalk up one point for the horse-drawn carriage), while the auto was hauled back “under slow bell.”

Hubrick left the territory in the fall without paying his bills. In early December, the sheriff seized the vehicle when chauffeur Lillesternia claimed for unpaid wages totaling $240.12.

The sheriff must have sold off the vehicle to make good on Lillesternia’s claim, because a few months later, Stanley Scearce had acquired the Red Devil. To prove its utility, he, Lillesternia and a third passenger, Frank Davis, made a return trip over the rapidly melting Yukon River ice in mid-April of 1908, from Dawson City to the mining town of Forty Mile, 85 kilometres down river.

They drove through a blinding spring snowstorm with gale-force winds, over hillocks and buckling ice, through knee-deep standing water. At one point, the rear end of the Pope-Toledo broke through the ice, and a team of horses had to be brought in to extract the stranded auto. The travel time for the 170 kilometre round trip was 14 and a half hours, at a speed of about 12 kilometres per hour.

Scearce proudly declared the trip a success, proving the practicality of using an automobile for passenger service under trying conditions. By the summer of 1908, he was offering scheduled round-trip service to Granville for ten dollars, as well as Sulphur, Hunker, Bear and Bonanza Creeks.

Up till 1910, the automobile remained a novelty in the realm of the rich; it had not yet become the defining centerpiece of American (or Yukon) culture in the twentieth century, but that would soon change.

While it appears that the Carbonneau automobile was the first to travel the streets of Dawson City, there could have been others at or before that time. I wonder if anyone reading this can identify any other automobiles from the early days in the Yukon?

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 msgates@northwestel.net