Chris Bartsch boarded the vessel George K. Elder in Portland, Oregon, on August 15, 1897. It was the beginning of the Klondike stampede for the Swiss immigrant and he was determined to be in the vanguard.
He was born Christian Bartsch in Chur, Switzerland, in 1869 and emigrated to Wisconsin in 1888. He had been courting his sweetheart, Grace Graham, a school teacher in Hood River, Oregon, for five years. He hoped to catch a break in the Klondike that would enable him to marry the woman of his dreams. Would he succeed?
The George K. Elder arrived in the Lynn Canal five days later and anchored in the shallow waters three kilometres from shore. Bartsch was unencumbered by a large outfit, and immediately found work in the first butcher shop in Skagway with Herman Myers, the front man for the Frye Bruhn Meat Packing Company of Seattle.
Bartsch didn’t plan on staying in Skagway, far away from his intended destination. When the outfit of the Waechter Brothers arrived in Skagway in October after an unsuccessful attempt to take their herd of cattle over the storm-swept Dalton Trail, he joined them and helped them move part of their herd Bennett, B.C.
Chris Bartsch divided his time that winter between Bennett, at the end of the White Pass trail, and Skagway, where he watched the notorious Soapy Smith gang operate their schemes and strip money from unsuspecting newcomers.
The Waechter Brothers slaughtered half of their herd at Bennett and cached the frozen meat until the spring. Bartsch accompanied the Waechter enterprise in the spring when, at the beginning of April, they started hauling the beef over the ice toward the Klondike.
When they reached open water at the lower end of Marsh Lake, they set about whipsawing the lumber necessary for a scow to transport their beef down river. When finished, they loaded the still frozen meat into the scow and successfully navigated the heavily laden craft through Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids.
They reached Lake Laberge, which was still locked with ice. After 10 days, the meat was thawing, so they spent several days cutting it up, and, using salt they had brought with them, they laid the meat in a bed of the crystalline powder in the bottom of their boat. Another week passed before they were able to proceed.
When they arrived in Dawson, they found a great demand for their beef, the best cuts of which sold at two dollars, a 4,000 per cent markup over the price they could charge in Portland. They built a butcher shop and slaughtering pen. Then the remainder of the Waechter herd, which had been held in Skagway, live, for the winter, arrived in Dawson, and they were again kept busy supplying the hungry Dawson miners.
When the Waechter supply of cattle was depleted, Bartsch set up a butcher shop at Grand Forks, at the confluence of two of the richest streams in the entire Klondike: Eldorado and Bonanza. He picked up cattle that had arrived in small bunches from the Outside and set up a slaughtering pen and corral on Gold Hill overlooking the town. That didn’t last for long as gold was discovered there and the hill was soon staked from top to bottom.
Bartsch did a brisk business and operated his shop until the fall, when he sold the last of his supply to the hungry miners at 20 to 30 times the price offered Outside. He then decided to return to Seattle to pick up more supplies, visit his girlfriend Grace in Hood River, and then return to Dawson City. This decision to leave was a wise one. The city was flooded with an oversupply of beef that fall, and the price started falling from a dollar to 70 cents, then 50. The price fell until it reached 25 cents.
It looked as though he had waited too late to book passage up the Yukon River, but at the last minute, he was one of 70 passengers who prevailed upon the skipper of the small boat Willie Irving to take them to Whitehorse. Bartsch was chosen to act as first mate.
They fought the ice-clogged waters for the next 20 days, stopping frequently to gather more firewood, a task performed by the passengers, or to dislodge the steamer from numerous sand bars emerging as the river level fell.
It took them six days to reach Fort Selkirk, where they acquired more food, and heavy planking with which to reinforce the hull of the Willie Irving, which was taking a terrible battering from the ever-growing ice cakes flowing in the river.
They arrived in Whitehorse before freeze-up, dirty, lousy, irritable and exhausted. Bartsch made it to Skagway, where he was able to book passage on the steamship Farlow, and sailed for Seattle.
He then returned to Hood River, Oregon, where spent time with his beloved Grace, who was still waiting patiently for him.
During the winter of 1898/99, Bartsch returned to the Klondike, this time taking a supply of butter to sell in Dawson. At the foot of Lake Laberge, he met up with Charley Dumbolton, an American who was bringing a herd in overland during the winter months. Dumbolton, a tall, lanky man, had successfully brought a herd to Dawson the summer of 1898.
Dumbolton had purchased a large scow in which to haul the cattle, and two rafts to carry their outfit and feed for the cattle. They encountered treacherous ice jams, and successfully negotiated the rapid at Five Fingers, and arrived in Dawson after break-up with the live herd.
They ran a butcher business in Dawson and Grand Forks for the summer, then in the fall of 1899, Bartsch returned to Hood River, where, after a seven-year courtship, he and Grace Graham were married on Nov. 8.
Chris Bartsch established a business partnership with the Carsten Brothers of Seattle and prepared to leave for his third trip to Dawson City, this time with a herd of 50 cattle and 500 sheep, and accompanied by his new bride.
Next week: Grace Bartsch describes her adventurous journey to Dawson City.
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