Exploring the old Kluane wagon road

It’s the itch you have to scratch, the urge to which you must submit. It’s the compulsion to get out on the land and touch history where it happened. It is historitis, and Gord Allison of Haines Junction has a powerful case of it.

It’s the itch you have to scratch, the urge to which you must submit. It’s the compulsion to get out on the land and touch history where it happened. It is historitis, and Gord Allison of Haines Junction has a powerful case of it. He has even teamed up with another dedicated history hunter, Ron Chambers, to follow his passion.

Some years ago, Gord Allison’s wife Roberta was taking a course at Yukon College and needed a topic for one of her papers, so he suggested the old Kluane wagon road. In the early days, it connected the town of Whitehorse with Kluane (better known as Silver City today) on the shores of Kluane Lake.

She dug into records at the Yukon Archives. There, among other records, she found an unpublished manuscript written by the late Al Wright (author of the book Prelude to Bonanza) that included information about the wagon road. She also spoke to elders Josie Sias, Sue Van Bibber and Moose Jackson, all of whom are now deceased, about the wagon road.

According to Gord, Sias said that in the early days it took seven days to drive from Kluane to Whitehorse by automobile. Even as a young lad traveling to Whitehorse from Haines Junction on the Alaska Highway with his father, Gord remembers that stops at Canyon (at the Aishihik River), Cracker Creek and Mendenhall were still obligatory. Cracker Creek and Mendenhall are long gone today, although there is still a stopping place at Canyon where you can get gas and food.

Allison was intrigued by the long abandoned wagon road that linked Whitehorse and Kluane, and was drawn to the hills and fields along the route of the current highway to find vestiges of the earlier road, and reveal some history that dates back 113 years.

The road, he learned, had been partially surveyed in 1913, and then completed in 1915 by H.G. Dickson. The survey plan for this work still resides with the Canada Lands Survey Records. It shows a right of way for the road, one chain (66 feet or 20 metres) in width. All the changes in direction are clearly marked with the angle, and the distance from one angle to the next.

Each turn or change of angle along the road was marked either by pairs of hand-hewn wooden posts, or less frequently, iron posts. Over the course of the nearly 200 kilometres between the start and the end of the road at Kluane, more than 900 pairs of wooden and iron posts were pounded into the ground to mark the right-of-way.

Gord wants to follow the old route and locate as many of the surviving posts as he can. More than half of the original wagon road is covered by the present-day Alaska Highway. He has covered much of the remainder on foot or using an all-terrain vehicle, and upon occasion, snowmobile.

Ron Chambers has accompanied him on several of these outings, and they make a good team, Allison tells me. Ron has extraordinary skill in finding the human imprint on the landscape. While Gord is plotting each feature using GPS and taking pictures, Chambers is on the hunt for the next sign of the old road.

In the areas he has explored thus far, Allison has found more than 200 surviving posts, and he is determined to find as many more as he can. For this passionate pursuit of history as found on the landscape, both Allison and Chambers qualify as members of my elite history hunters club.

The origins of the Kluane wagon road are found in the discovery of gold in the Kluane region by Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley (two of the co-discoverers of the Klondike seven years earlier), which they staked on the fourth of July, 1903. A stampede ensued in which hundreds of individuals descended upon the region in hopes of finding another big goldfield like the Klondike.

Everybody in the southern Yukon had gold fever. Even Nellie Cashman, who had been to many mining camps in her life, checked it out. By May of 1904, there were an estimated 1,200 prospectors in the region. A small community was established on the shore of Kluane Lake, and citizens immediately petitioned the government to construct a wagon road to the new goldfield.

A bridge was constructed over the Aishihik River at Canyon in 1904 and more than $35,000 was expended by the government to survey and construct a road from the Takhini River on the overland trail to Dawson, 130 kilometres toward Kluane, including an eight kilometre winter road branching off to Ruby Creek. It was even proposed to extend a telephone line to Kluane, but that never happened.

The bubble quickly burst on the Kluane stampede, but it left a number of white prospectors residing in the area, with Kluane as its centre. There were a number of small roadhouses struggling to survive along the route, notably one at Champagne run by Shorty Chambers and another at Bear Creek, run by Joe Beauchamp and his wife.

A decade later, the white population had shrunk to a mere handful, struggling for their existence trapping, prospecting, outfitting and even raising foxes. A trip to Whitehorse was a rare and demanding occurrence.

The trip from one end of the road to the other could take more than a week to complete, and along the route travellers encountered abandoned and decaying buildings, unpredictable weather, bogs and mud holes. In one instance, a hunting party led by Tom Dickson got bogged down near the Boutellier summit. Despite much cussing and muscle work, the party was unable to free their heavily laden horse-drawn wagon. Finally, they were forced to unload the heavy cargo and haul it on their backs the short distance to the summit to lighten the load and dislodge their transport.

Another party travelling from Kluane to Whitehorse in the autumn of 1919 took five days during which time they and their horses ran short of feed. The roadhouses were few and far between on the road.

Despite the wagon road, travel from Kluane to Whitehorse was slow and arduous until the Alaska Highway was built along much of this route in 1942. Meanwhile, Kluane remained a tiny, remote and isolated camp.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book about the Yukon during World War I, titled From the Klondike to Berlin, is due out April 4. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net.

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