gold fever sparked crazy ideas

The mania of the Klondike Gold Rush spawned many wild schemes, some of which actually led to tragic results, but most were only announced in the Klondike-hungry newspapers and never got off the ground. Others were abject failures.

The mania of the Klondike Gold Rush spawned many wild schemes, some of which actually led to tragic results, but most were only announced in the Klondike-hungry newspapers and never got off the ground.

Others were abject failures.

The reindeer relief expedition, which I described in a previous column (June 1, 2007), was one example in the latter category. It was a scheme of the United States government (which was either confused by or ignorant of the fact that the Klondike was in Canada) by which to save the starving miners of Dawson City.

In the end, the US government dropped the idea, but the reindeer expedition went to Dawson anyway, arriving 18 months too late and in need of relief itself. Costing $200,000, was probably the biggest boondoggle of the entire gold rush, but it had some stiff competition.

Before they settled on the reindeer expedition to supply relief, President McKinley and his cabinet had considered a number of options. Jack Dalton had offered to lead a relief expedition, an offer that was turned down, and the US Army was arranging one themselves, But one option being considered was championed by then-secretary of war Russell Alger: steam-powered snow locomotives.

These 16-ton devices had already been used for hauling logs through the snows on Alger’s own property in Michigan. George T. Glover of Chicago, the purported inventor (and certainly the main promoter) of the device, was confident that these machines were the solution to the problem of hauling relief supplies to the goldfields. In Michigan, they could haul payloads of up to 12,200 metres of logs at a speed of 19.3 kilometres per hour.

He was confident that getting these massive machines over the Chilkat Pass was not an insurmountable challenge, but he was as ignorant of the local conditions of the terrain of the Yukon, as were most outsiders. Using the steam-powered windlasses on the machines, Glover stated, they would simply pull themselves over the steepest part of the summit. This would take no more than 48 hours for the first train, and then, after consulting the crude maps that were available, and misinterpreting the geography of the region, he asserted that the Dalton Trail would make for easy travelling to Fort Selkirk, from whence travel on the ice of the Yukon River would make a fast trip to Dawson City. One veteran of the Yukon, upon hearing of this proposition, described it as a Jules Verne fantasy.

The wood-fired snow machines, which were built on a steel frame, were moved by a giant, heated, cogged-tooth drive wheel mounted beneath the engine that would chew up the miles. Glover felt that he could have several of these machines delivered to the trail head by the beginning of February and ready to start for the Klondike two weeks later.

In a news interview in January of 1898, Glover announced that he was building seven of these machines in Chicago and New York and 32 freight and passenger cars in Portland, Oregon, and that they would be in Dyea by February 1. Each of the units, he said, would be capable of hauling 100 tonnes.

I found this entire proposition intriguing and dug into it a bit deeper. I’m not finished with this yet, but I found that US Patent number 593,466, for a snow locomotive, was granted to George Glover’s brother, Byron F. Glover, November 9, 1897.

The snow locomotive was built upon a frame with sled runners at the front and back of the device. The supposed key to its success was the large traction wheel located in the middle of the engine. This was covered with steel teeth that could be removed and replaced when they wore down. Hot air, rather than steam, was directed into the interior of this wheel, thus heating it up from the inside out. Use of dry air would avoid the problems of condensation inherent in of steam.

“My invention,” stated Byron Glover in his patent, “relates to machines adapted for hauling sledges or the like over snow or ice roads and involving, usually, a hollow traction-wheel which is driven so as to propel the machine and is heated from its interior so as to melt down or pack the snow and thereby form such roads.”

In early January, Charles Strauss, lawyer representing the Snow and Ice Transportation Company expedition, announced that Joe Ladue, who had organized the firm, appointed E.J. Rosenfeld as the general manager, and that a contract was made up with the army. The company was to provide the engines and 35 cars carrying supplies, escorted by a company of US Army soldiers under the command of Captain Brainard, to take the relief through Canadian territory to Dawson City.

The cost of building each train and its transportation to Dyea would be less than $35,000. The Snow and Ice Transportation Company, which owned the rights to the locomotive, would charge the government 55 cents a kilo for transporting three hundred tonnes of relief supplies.

Once in Dawson City, he said, four of the machines would be used to transport supplies to the gold fields, while the remainder would return to the coast to make a second trip to Dawson before the end of winter. The company started taking reservations for passengers, but the whole thing appeared to be a fraud. Anybody who laid down $400 to book feared never seeing their money again, or getting to the Klondike. By February 22 of 1898, Mrs. Minnie Cronin of Seattle had J.A. Smiley, the local agent for the company, and his assistant Phillip Hanna, arrested for obtaining money under false pretences.

Joe Ladue, who was advertised as the president of the company in the newspapers, was quick to tell the Seattle chief of police that he had nothing to do with the business. Meanwhile, agent Smiley continued to claim he had a government contract to haul the relief supplies.

Hot air had a lot to do with this enterprise, but not with the operation of the snow locomotives. The much-heralded engine had arrived at the beginning of the trail, and was demonstrated, much to the amusement of local citizens. Instead of making the advertised progress to the Klondike, it could barely move forward on level streets, let alone haul people and supplies over the steep passes and through the rugged Yukon terrain.

By March, the entire caper had been abandoned.

General manager Rosenfeld announced satisfactory settlement had been made with all but one of the ticket holders, and the firm, which held a contract with the government, was considering filing a claim to recover the expenses. Given the performance of the snow locomotive, I wonder if that lawsuit ever got any “traction.”

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is now available. You can contact him at wmsgates@northwestel.net

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