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Dead Horse Gulch

Alice Cyr, of Tagish, wrote the following informative and disturbing story about horses on the White Pass Trail, Dead Horse Gulch area. Thank you very much for the well written, sad story. I appreciate your effort.

Alice Cyr, of Tagish, wrote the following informative and disturbing story about horses on the White Pass Trail, Dead Horse Gulch area.

Thank you very much for the well written, sad story. I appreciate your effort.

Her story follows:

The horses are indeed one of the tragedies of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Actually, most writers using primary sources estimate at least 3,000 horses died on the White Pass Trail and their bleached bones can still be seen while hiking in the rock-strewn canyon near the summit.

Some came by train to Seattle from as far away as Montana; mostly they were older, often spavined animals that should have been enjoying a peaceful retirement from their labors in ranching, dairying and logging in the Pacific Northwest.

An animal that brought only a pittance at the glue-factory, could command $2.50 on the dock at Seattle and a whopping $200 in Skagway.

Eager to turn a quick profit, some ship captains had the horses tied tightly, side by side, in the ship’s hold by the engines where the terrified animals were forced to stand for the entire weeklong journey.

One old wooden ship put their horses on deck and the passengers below. Old boards tend to shrink and horses sometimes leak. Neither man nor beast was happy on that ship.

At Skagway, the horses were mostly just shoved overboard and made to swim ashore where they would be sold to whomever had the cash, never mind if the new owner knew anything about horses or not.

The Klondike Gold Rush was a race. The first to make it to Dawson would be the first to stake a claim and, in the Stampeders’ imaginations, the first to strike it rich, extravagantly rich beyond their wildest dreams.

The Stampeders, and it was literally a stampede, were running toward the promise of gold as hard as they were running away from the destitution following the Panic of 1893. Their immediate goal was Lake Bennett, where they would cobble together some kind of boat or raft.

They needed to get the goods required by the NWMP to the lake by September in order to have any chance to reach Dawson before freezeup.

The Chilkoot Trail was the shortest, at 33 miles, and by far the best winter trail.

But in the first bloom of the rush it was not yet winter and the lower, but longer, 45-mile White Pass Trail leading out of Skagway was more gradual. Instead of the Chilkoot 37-degree summit, White Pass was a series of five separate lower summits.

Almost no one brought hay for the horses and none was for sale in Skagway.

The trail to Lake Bennett would be a forced march and then, well, who cared. Grasses, poisonous to horses, grew at the summit and were consumed by the ravenous animals with frightful consequences. The horses were cursed and beaten and forced to stand, fully loaded, for days on end. The Stampeders, ever mindful it was a race, never knew when the long line of men and pack animals would begin to move again and they wanted to be ready.

As do soldiers in war, the Stampeders became inured to the carnage and cruelty around them. Tappan Adney, Klondike correspondent for Harper’s Weekly, swore a horse was seen committing suicide by deliberately walking over the face of Porcupine Hill.*

By September of ‘97 the White Pass Trail was closed, its lower reaches churned to a sea of mud and the rocky summit choked with the decaying bodies of 3,000 dead horses.

Jack London, who came up from San Francisco with the first wave in the fall of ‘97 said it best: “The horses died like mosquitoes in the first frost and from Skagway to Bennett they rotted in heaps; they died at the rocks, they were poisoned at the summit, and they starved at the lakes; they fell off the trail, what there was of it, and they went through it, in the river they drowned under their loads or were smashed to pieces against the boulders; they snapped their legs in the crevices and broke their backs falling backwards with their packs; in the sloughs they sank from sight and were smothered in the slime; and they were disemboweled in the bogs where corduroy logs turned end up in the mud—men shot them, worked them to death and when they were gone went back to the beach and bought more. Some did not bother to shoot them, stripping the saddles off and the shoes and leaving them where they fell. Their hearts turned to stone—those that did not break—and they became beasts, the men on the Dead Horse Trail.”**

Subscriptions were taken in 1929 for a monument to the pack animals that stands beside the railroad tracks at Inspiration Point overlooking Dead Horse Gulch.***

*In early spring, just below US customs on the Skagway Road, you can look across the canyon and still see the wagon trail, its flatness clearly outlined by the last of the snow, snaking along just below the railroad tracks to the south of 7B bridge. That boulder-strewn slope is pretty much the way the whole of the White Pass Trail looked in 1897-98.

** This passage is found in London’s book The God of His Fathers in a chapter titled, Which Make Men Remember.

*** When snow removal with Cats began in the 1960s, the monument was removed and for some years replaced in the summer. I’ll bet our mutual friend Carl Mulvihill knows where it is today. The monument is a bronze bas relief plaque with an inscription mounted on a large piece of granite. The early trains used to stop at Inspiration Point, last place to see Lynn Canal, and the passengers would get out and stretch their legs and wonder how the Stampeders ever did it.

Alice Cyr


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