‘There’s no choice (between the Chilkoot Pass and the White Pass),” said pioneer Mont Hawthorn when comparing the two major gold rush passes to the Klondike, “One’s hell. The other’s damnation.”
It was hard to believe the extent of the hardship and death that loomed over the White Pass during the fever-tinged frenzy of the gold rush when I hiked the Canadian portion of the route in 1973.
At that time, there was no highway from Whitehorse to Skagway, only the train. My reason for being there was to evaluate the impact upon historical resources that would result from the construction of the new road.
We clambered off the train at Log Cabin, and as the train rumbled off into the distance toward Skagway, we shouldered our heavy back packs and laboured along the tracks all the way to the summit. There, on a level spot just above the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway, we set up camp next to a boundary marker.
Over the next couple of days, we walked back along the proposed route for the new road link looking for any remains from the gold rush period, or other occupation, but, unlike the rich scattering of relics found on the nearby Chilkoot Trail, which is now a national historic site, we found surprisingly little evidence of the mass movement of people through the region between 1897 and 1899.
During the gold rush, many of the inexperienced and ill-informed stampeders had gained the impression that the White Pass would be the easier route.
The picture painted of the Chilkoot Trail was intimidating to the uninformed. Having to haul a half a tonne or more on your back up a dangerous and steep rocky escarpment and 30 kilometres beyond seemed like cruel punishment, when compared with the relatively easy job of moving goods over the lower and less precipitous White Pass.
Why, the accounts in guide books and newspaper accounts implied, take the Chilkoot route when you could pack your belongings over the summit on the backs of horses? The trip would be nothing more than a walk in the park for the gold-seekers.
How wrong they were.
Thousands of fanatical stampeders struggled to unload their cargo from the steamers in Skagway harbour and haul it ashore before the tide came in. It didn’t always work. One man, for instance, bringing in a small flock of milk goats, tied them to the pilings under the dock while he went to find a wagon to haul his outfit farther up the trail.
But the tide came in, and all that could be seen of the poor creatures was “just their tails, floating around the top of the water.”
Skagway had an extraordinary selection of toughs and low-lifes to avoid at all cost, especially after the arrival of Soapy Smith, but the violence and crime did not end at the limits of town.
Take this account of a gun fight, for instance:
“… a chap was held up at the mouth of the canyon early in the afternoon and robbed of $300 by a gang of gamblers carrying on their operation there. He immediately appealed to the commander of a detachment of American troops camped on the trail at the outskirts of Skagway, but the only satisfaction he got was advice to go and take his money from them! So next day, instead of taking a gun big enough for the business, he borrowed a miserable little .22 calibre and went and demanded his money.
” They told him to “git”, but he pulled the popgun and began to blaze away at them, shooting one man through the hand. They took refuge behind anything that was handy and opened fire on him, one from behind a tree with a rifle, but so hurried was their aim that not one bullet struck him while he stood calmly under fire, and reloaded and again emptied his revolver at them. Just then, another man, sitting down on a sled some distance away, to rest, was hit by a stray bullet. It entered his mouth and came through his cheek; he set up a yell; men began to gather, the gamblers lit out, and have been seen no more in that vicinity, and all this within easy reach of American soldiers, busily engaged in chopping wood.”
And if the novices believed that the trek over the White Pass would be any easier, they were mistaken. One man drowned crossing the Skagway River when he fell off a log and his 50-kilogram pack pulled him to the bottom.
The trail criss-crossed the Skagway River. Each crossing posed more threats to those using the route. Everywhere they turned, they were being gouged for one thing after another. There was a toll for using the trail. Everything had a price, and an inflated one at that.
The first part of the trail seemed easy enough, but beyond Liarsville, there was the climb to Black Lake, and beyond that, Porcupine Hill. While portions of the trail were improved by constructing log corduroy over the bogs and dead horses, it was not easy going. Each change of season brought with it a new variety of challenges and hazards.
Horses were treated cruelly, being pushed beyond their limit by ambitious teamsters. If they weren’t worked to death, they died in the bog holes or struggled over slimy rocks and steep climbs. Some fell off cliffs, others died from overwork while many perished from exhaustion and starvation.
Some witnesses swore that they saw animals commit suicide by leaping to their deaths rather than continue.
Tappan Adney, the correspondent for Harper’s Magazine, saw one horse that had fallen on the trail and broken its leg. The owner removed it pack and put the animal out of its misery, then the traffic continued over the still warm corpse. When Adney returned later in the day, “there was not a vestige of that horse left except his head lying on one side of the trail and his tail on the other. The traffic had ground him up.”
During the winter on 1897/98, hundreds, if not thousands of horses perished along the White Pass trail, but the full extent of the horror was not revealed until the melting snows of spring revealed the countless corpses scattered beside the trail, and the hot temperatures of summer produced a stench of rotting flesh that was indescribable.
Once they crossed over into Canadian territory at the summit, things seemed to improve. The Mounted Police maintained control of the traffic. They kept out undesirable elements, ensured that everyone was properly outfitted with sufficient supplies, and monitored their trip until they reached their destination in the Klondike.
It seemed a far cry from the disorder, crime and chaos that reigned on the American side of the border until the completion of the White Pass railroad put an end to it once and for all.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is available in stores throughout the territory.