Grace Graham waited patiently in Hood River, Oregon, while her sweetheart, Chris Bartsch, made a second trip to the Klondike. They had been courting for seven years. Finally, upon his return from Dawson City for the second time, they were married November 8, 1899.
They honeymooned in California for two weeks, but the real honeymoon was yet to begin, and would be an unforgettable adventure.
They sailed on the steamer City of Seattle from its namesake port on April 3, 1900, and arrived in Skagway four days later with 500 sheep and 50 cattle. They transferred the livestock to railway boxcars which transported them through the snow-filled White Pass to Bennett.
From Skagway, Grace and her new husband took the train over the White Pass summit by moonlight on the newly constructed line, as far as Bennett. Bennett was still a thriving town at that point, with all activity centred along a single street that paralleled the waterfront.
Cold and tired, they went in search of a place to stay for the night. They rejected the first hotel as dark and dingy and secured a room in the Grand Palace Hotel. The room was small, but clean, and they were soon fast asleep. This would be the last civilized accommodation they would enjoy until they reached Dawson City.
They set off the next day; Grace rode in a horse-drawn sleigh across the sun-bathed icy expanse of Bennett Lake while Chris tended to their large flock of sheep. Grace was the only woman among a crew of 20 men. That night, she slept in a tent on a bed of spruce boughs for the first time.
At Tagish, she found a hospitable but crude log roadhouse with sleeping accommodation that housed four men per bed with a similar bunk above. This area was separated from the dining room by a canvas divider. She had been warned that these bunks were infested by “creatures of a troublesome nature,” but this was luxury compared with what lay ahead. She later remembered wishing that she had gone with Chris rather than stay in this roadhouse.
Marsh Lake was starting to break up and the party had to stay clear of the open water along the shore. One of the men preceded the horse and sleigh to test the ice for thickness. Grace walked behind, confident that if the ice could support the weight of a horse and sleigh, then it would be safe to follow.
They camped at the start of the Fifty Mile River, in the area where the Alaska Highway crosses the Yukon today. She had a canvas tent with a stove in the corner and a bed of spruce boughs. While staying there, she visited a nearby native encampment where she traded some of her clothes for two pairs of leather moccasins.
Later, according to Grace: “The Indians came again during the day. I expect to have an empty trunk when I arrive in Dawson and nothing to wear unless I could make use of the things that I traded my clothes for. My other trunk with my good clothes was still in Skagway and would not come in until the first river boat arrived.”
Circumventing Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapid, they camped on the Riverdale side of the Yukon. At the time, this place consisted of “one street with a dozen or fifteen low log houses built on both sides of it … there were not too many people living here; most of them were moving over to the new town … where the new railroad would soon come to be laid.”
Chris and his party, with the livestock, had followed a route along the opposite side of the river following the partially completed railroad grade. On April 28, from across the river, Grace watched the burning of the fledgling town of Whitehorse.
It was now May. They continued on to Lake Laberge where they set out on foot across the decaying ice with their large flock of sheep, the cattle having gone on before them. The frozen surface deteriorated during the warm days, and Chris and Grace became separated from their supplies while navigating the dangerous ice with their flock.
For a week they slept under the stars. At one point, they went for two days without food. Their nanny goat ate Grace’s veil so she had no protection against the ravenous hordes of mosquitoes that descended upon them.
It was during the crossing of the lake that one day the entire flock nearly sank through the ice, along with Grace’s new husband, but they made it safely. They had a refreshing break at Lower Laberge, where Grace had her first contact with another woman since leaving Tagish a month before.
Finally, they left Lake Laberge on foot, for the water was too low for them to use their scows, and they reached Hootalinqua on the second day. From there, their party, complete with livestock in several scows (those for the sheep had two decks to pack them all aboard), headed down the river.
They safely negotiated the waters of Five Finger and Rink Rapids and arrived on May 24, in Dawson City, 52 days after leaving Seattle. Grace replaced her tattered clothes with the only fresh outfit left after the long journey. Being the first to arrive in Dawson with fresh meat that year, their livestock demanded top dollar.
Through it all, in her diary of the trip, Grace Bartsch did not write one word of complaint.
The Dawson City she had arrived in after her long journey was still exciting. Around her she saw all classes and all kinds of people, and the dance halls and saloons operated day and night.
She didn’t stay long in the Klondike. On June 12, she and Chris departed for the Outside aboard the Sybil, with plans of returning in the fall. She made two more trips to Dawson City but this was the most memorable. She and Chris subsequently moved to Alberta, where he worked for the Pacific Cold Storage Company as a buyer and manager. Over the years, they operated several ranches and other businesses throughout the province.
They remained in Alberta the rest of their lives. Chris retired to Calgary in 1937, and they lived there until they both passed away in 1959 after 60 years of marriage.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org