History Hunting on the Hepburn Trail

Thursday of last week I went history hunting on a little known Whitehorse historical feature. The Hepburn Trail, or more accurately, the Hepburn Tramway, was an important element of Whitehorse gold rush history.

Thursday of last week I went history hunting on a little known Whitehorse historical feature. The Hepburn Trail, or more accurately, the Hepburn Tramway, was an important element of Whitehorse gold rush history.

I joined others for the exploratory trek on this long overlooked historical trail at a marshalling point near Miles Canyon suspension bridge. Just behind the outhouses above the parking lot, is a footpath that heads south (upstream) along the west side of Miles Canyon.

A short distance along this path, we turned right along an old tractor cut and made our way through the brambles and deadfalls uphill until we intercepted a badly overgrown grade that runs along the hillside parallel to the canyon. At this place, slumping and moss had nearly obliterated the flat bed that was nearly 1.5 metres wide.

Our party consisted of Peter Long, the instigator of this adventure, Bruce Barrett, former historic sites project officer with the Yukon Department of Tourism and Culture, Doug Davidge (Yukon Transportation Museum), Wynne Krangle and Jan Horton. Our dogs Charley, Freya and my golden retriever Casca, accompanied the party and enjoyed the freedom of exploring the woods along the trail.

During the gold rush, Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids were the most challenging water obstacles that had to be overcome between Bennett and Dawson City. When the horde of Cheechakos converged upon the rapids in the spring of 1898, most did not have the skill to navigate the hazardous waters of this six kilometre section of river.

Within a short period of time, nearly two hundred rafts and scows had been shipwrecked in this treacherous stretch of water, and several people had drowned. Superintendent Sam Steele of the North West Mounted Police introduced a mandatory rule that only craft guided by experienced rivermen would be allowed to navigate these waters. Women and children walked around, and a stiff fine was levied upon violators.

Credit is due to my wife Kathy, who patiently pointed me to references in the Victoria Daily Colonist. According to reports in the Colonist, John Hepburn left his home in Victoria in July of 1897 to build a tramway around the treacherous waters of Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids. By November, he had returned to Victoria, where he reported that he had the right-of-way blasted, the roadbed graded, and ties laid. He was back in the British Columbian capital to purchase horses, wheels and axles for tram carts, which would be constructed using local material once he returned to the Yukon.

Hepburn proclaimed that he would be able to transport a boat plus three or four tons of supplies around the rough water in just two hours at a price of one cent a pound. I have always assumed that the Macaulay tramway was operating before the Hepburn line, so it is interesting to note an article in the Colonist of May 19, 1898 stating that Hepburn’s tramway was completed, while Macaulay’s competing line would not be ready in time for the opening of the river.

Hepburn’s route was longer than that built by Macaulay, and started where the World War II feature now known as the “American Laundry” was later constructed some distance upstream from Canyon City (where the Macaulay line commenced). The starting point of the tram line appears to have been obliterated by the wartime construction.

The Hepburn line ran upon rails that were squared on three sides, compared to the rounded poles used by Macaulay. As a consequence, they must have required more work to prepare. Hepburn’s company, the Miles Canyon and Lewes River Tramway Inc., was short-lived; in July of 1899 Macaulay bought out Hepburn for $60,000. It is not known whether Macaulay kept Hepburn’s tramway open after the purchase.

The question is academic in any case; once the White Pass railroad line was completed as far as its terminus at Whitehorse, both tramways became obsolete. By August of 1899, White Pass began negotiations to buy out the whole kit and caboodle from Macaulay and thus secure a transportation monopoly. They eventually paid Macaulay $185,000 to gain ownership of the two tramlines. The rail link between Whitehorse and the line from Skagway to Carcross was completed June 8, 1900.

We hiked along the course of the line as it snaked its way through the heavily treed hillside above the Yukon River, stopping at one point to examine decaying rails that were still visible along the edge of the path. Everyone clustered around with cameras to record the feature.

A little farther along, the procession stopped again; this time to examine one of the cross-ties to which the squared rails were attached by wire, rather than square, nails. When the tramline reached the terrace above the valley, it straightened out and followed an almost level grade.

Peter Long also pointed out another path diverging from the tramline. This one followed closer to the edge of the terrace that overlooked the river. Old telegraph wire was still visible in the trees at one or two places. If the government telegraph had stations on the opposite side of the river, when and how did the line on the western side of the river come into use?

The bed of the tramline was noticeably built up, and in places, a trench or ditch was visible beside it. This, presumably, was the source of borrow material to construct the track bed. Gauging by the length of my walking stick, the bed upon which the tramline was built was almost a metre wide. Because of the almost level grade, it is easy walking.

We observed that where motorcyclists had used certain portions of the trail, they had cut deep ruts that made the path practically unusable by pedestrians. It is clear that the old tram bed would quickly be chewed up by any continued use by motorcyclists and made unusable for foot traffic. Which use would be the more appropriate for this trail?

Peter Long was eloquent about the possibility of developing this historic route into another walking trail to add to the extensive network of trails that already criss-cross the landscape around Whitehorse. The gentle grade and the existing roadbed would make this trail a good choice for development.

There are plenty of good walking trails in the Whitehorse area. For dozens of choices, check out: http://whitehorsewalks.com/loops/LoopWalkingTrails.html

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing as book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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