“We dashed through virgin forests, climbed mountains, flew around dizzying curves, and skidded along narrow cliffs until my heart was in my throat and my soul was full of thrills.”
That was how seasoned travel writer Frank G. Carpenter described a 160 kilometre journey up and back on the overland trail from Whitehorse in the year 1916.
The main means of travel to Dawson City in the early days was by sternwheel riverboat. The overland trail was developed in 1902 primarily for use in the winter as an alternate means of traveling to Dawson City when the Yukon River was frozen solid.
Once the ground was hard and the trail was covered with snow, teams of horses could pull open sleighs carrying passengers and freight 560 kilometres between the two points. A one-way ticket cost $125, which was a considerable sum of money in the early days, although the price went down to $75 after the beginning of December each year.
The trip took five days and required the use of 15 teams of horses, which were changed at each roadhouse along the way. Each roadhouse had stockpiles of feed, stables and spare teams of horses. Special enclosed sleds which held charcoal heaters could even transport perishable goods over the trail when the mercury had retreated into the bulb.
The first attempt to travel the overland trail in an automobile took place the winter of 1912-13 when mining millionaire Joe Boyle attempted the trip in a Flanders car. He failed and was quickly followed by a second party that included Commissioner George Black. The Black party completed the trip in a driving time of 35½ hours.
Two years later, the trail was given an upgrade to better accommodate motor vehicles. By the time Carpenter was invited to accompany Herbert Wheeler, superintendent of the White Pass, on an inspection trip over the first part of the road leading out of Whitehorse, the conditions were much improved, but far from the standard we have come to expect for our modern highways.
The road twisted and turned like a corkscrew. According to Wheeler, the surveyors who laid out the original route must have followed the local rabbit trails, and the rabbits must have been drunk. Wheeler and Carpenter travelled to the crest of the hills beyond the Little River roadhouse. Chauffeur “Caterpillar” Ike did the driving.
Carpenter witnessed a crude road cutting through the wilderness, interrupted here and there by the log huts that served as the roadhouses along the way. Wildlife abounded. He saw the tracks of bear, caribou, fox, rabbit and moose. A lynx crossed the road at one point, and a flock of grouse were scared into flight at another.
The most annoying creatures however were the numerous ground squirrels that had dug their burrows into the roadbed. “We crossed many such burrows,” reported Carpenter, “our motor car going down with a bump that shot our heads up to the roof.”
They crossed the Takhini River on a cable ferry, stopping at the roadhouse for a quick snack before proceeding north through expanses of coniferous forests that were broken here and there by burns from recent fires. A colourful array of flowers adorned the burns “as though Mother Nature had gone on a spree and painted the whole country red.” In other places there were stretches of deadfall with the great root clusters thrust up into the air.
The road wound through forests, stretched across grassy plains, climbed hills and cut through the surrounding mountains. Carpenter noted that everywhere, the ground was underlain by permafrost, and once the protective cover of moss was disturbed, quickly melted, turning the clay into a soupy mess.
When wet, the ground assumed “the consistency of shoemaker’s wax, and like a quicksand, sucks in anything that goes over it.” In other places they passed an abandoned roadbed strewn with boulders over which it would be difficult for a man to crawl. In other places, the unstable ground undulated beneath their two tonne automobile.
At one point the heavy car became mired up to the axles in thick clay the consistency of putty. Using their axe, they cut down some surrounding trees to lay a corduroy in front of the car, and with their shovel, they started to dig out the undercarriage. They laid pine trees in the ruts and used one as a lever to assist the jack in hoisting the wheels from the sucking gumbo. Total extraction time: two hours.
After this experience, they circumvented the boggy spots entirely, or passed through them at sufficient speed that they would not sink in.
According to Carpenter, at some places on the road, “the movement of the road as we went over it was as though we were riding over a blanket or rubber sheet.”
It was only recently, he noted, that the road was upgraded to make it passable for automobiles. Parliament was reluctant to approve funding for a road that couldn’t possibly handle cars during the winter, so the round trip of Commissioner Black over the trail in the a few years earlier proved essential to getting the appropriation passed in the House of Commons.
On the return leg of their outing, Carpenter and Wheeler ate a hearty meal at the Takhini roadhouse before returning to Whitehorse.
This was the overland trail during its heyday. With the decline of mining, White Pass gave up the mail contract and winter transportation in 1921. Cat trains replaced the horse-drawn stages, so the stables were adapted to housing motorized vehicles instead. The roadhouses closed one by one. Within a few years, air travel replaced the overland route as a faster and more practical means of travel. The overland route was eventually replaced in the 1950s by the all-weather highway that we enjoy today.
When you drive from Whitehorse to Carmacks, you pass the remains of the old Montague roadhouse, which has been stabilized and restored thanks to the historic sites program of the Yukon government. It serves as a reminder of what once served as the essential supply link between Dawson City and the outside world.
While driving the (relatively) smooth-surfaced highways that now connect various Yukon communities, cursing the occasional inconvenient pothole or rough spot, you should appreciate the conditions that once prevailed for those who travelled over the old trails one hundred years ago.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere.