Dead horses on the Dalton Trail

"From Skagway to Bennett they rotted in heaps.

“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 freight or smothered in the slime; and they were disemboweled… 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 which did not break—and they became beasts, the men on the Dead Horse Trail.”

I pondered these immortal words from Jack London as I recently examined the bleaching skull of a horse which lay beside the old Dalton Trail. After 110 years, it was surprising to me that such remains could still be found along this gold rush corridor.

Equally surprising is the testimony to the inhumanity of humankind toward these four-footed animals that the bones provided. The conditions on the Chilkoot Trail and along the White Pass route have been well known and documented over the years.

Like the Chilkoot and White Pass Trails, the Dalton Trail was also littered with the corpses of horses that perished during the Klondike gold rush.

In 1896, the first herd of cattle went into the Yukon valley via the Dalton Trail, and for the next four years, this was an important route for driving cattle to Dawson City. Thousands of horses, cattle and sheep travelled over this route to supply the demand for meat created by the ravenous miners in the Klondike.

Jack Dalton attempted to secure contracts to carry mail over this route, and he even set up a pony express and pack train business to carry freight and passengers 563 kilometres inland from Pyramid Harbour to Five Finger Rapids, and return. Dalton brought in hundreds of horses for the business, but the enterprise failed.

The autumn of 1897 took a particularly brutal toll on the poor suffering animals. Willis Thorp was a businessman from Juneau, who had successfully taken in the first herd of beef to the infant city of Dawson the summer before. He returned to Juneau after spring break-up in 1897, planning to bring another herd in before freeze-up in the fall.

Thorp, his son, and party, departed Seattle aboard the Farallon on September 3 with 92 cattle, 60 horses, and 3.5 tonnes of supplies, headed for Pyramid Harbor and the trail they thought would be superior to either the neighboring Chilkoot or White Pass routes.

In his optimism, and feeling the glow of success from his previous drive, Thorp paid no attention to the time of year. The herd hit the Chilkat Pass in October and was caught in brutal early winter weather.

They carried on for 18 days, with horses dropping dead daily on the trail. The party didn’t even stop to remove the packs and the valuable provisions as there was no way they could add any load to the remaining pack animals.

After 30 horses had perished in the bitter cold and drifting snow, the Thorp party divided; Thorp’s son made a dash for the Yukon River with his winter supplies, and Thorp senior turned back from the summit of the Chilkat Pass with the cattle and remaining horses.

The trail was now obscured by the deep drifting snow. Thorp led his party back toward the coast by following the dead horses, discarded harness, saddles and provisions they had abandoned on their inward journey.

Israel Albert Lee, a gold-seeker from Boston, was following the Thorp party with 12 pack horses of his own. He didn’t fare any better, although he travelled as far as Dalton’s trading post. “All our horses are dead from exposure or starvation,” he wrote from Dalton Post, “and we have packed about 1,600 pounds of food on our backs, for the last 35 miles, going ahead with what we could carry and then returning for more. . . .”

In the end, he too gave up and returned to the coast.

One beneficiary of the Thorp tragedy was Della Murray Banks. The following summer of 1898, she accompanied her husband in the company of a party of others over the Dalton Trail with dreams of Klondike riches. She was provided a slow, steady pack horse, riding without a saddle and only a rope around its neck, and a blanket to sit on.

They found a mule bit for her horse, then, when they arrived at Glacier camp near the summit of the Chilkat Pass, they traded that for a regular bridle found hanging in a tree. By the time they arrived at Dalton Post, she was riding on a fine saddle and with good bridle, both acquired from the dead animals they passed along the way!

The trail was reasonably easy to follow, and Dalton and his crew had cut down trees to create corduroy through some of the marshy areas, yet horses still became trapped in the bogs through which they passed.

While it was the bitter cold and starvation that killed off the animals in the winter, it was the swamp that got them in the summer, assuming that the mosquitoes didn’t drive them mad first.

William Shape, another stampeder, and his partner stopped to help two men whose pack horse had become bogged down in one of these awful places. The four of them were able to get the poor animal out of the mire, but it was shaking, exhausted, and unwilling to move on. A single shot from their revolver put the spent beast out of its misery.

Shape was no shining example of human compassion. He and his partners purchased a mare and a little sorrel from a cattle drive camped near Fort Selkirk to carry their supplies out of the Yukon over the Dalton trail.

Day after day they pressed on over the trail. They showed little regard for the condition of the animals. The faithful little mare weakened daily, but they would not stop, to allow her to regain her strength. Onward they pressed toward the coast.

Nearing their goal, Shape noted that the mare had collapsed several times during the day, “but was doing nicely.” Two days later, she could go no further, so they shot her.

Ironically, Shape, who in the past 14 months had walked 2,800 kilometres, over all kinds of terrain, through all kinds of weather, had gained nearly eight kilograms!

Michael Gates is a local historian

and sometimes adventurer

based in Whitehorse.