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

Just Posted

Lorraine Kuhn is seen with one of the many volleyball teams she coached. (Photo submitted by Sport Yukon)
The Yukon Sports Hall of Fame inducts the late Lorraine Kuhn

Lorraine Kuhn became the newest member of the Yukon Sports Hall of Fame for her work in growing volleyball amongst other sports

File Photo
A Yukon judge approved dangerous offender status for a man guilty of a string of assaults in 2020.
Yukon judge sentences dangerous offender to indefinite prison term

Herman Peter Thorn, 51, was given the sentence for 2020 assaults, history of violence

Crystal Schick/ Yukon News A former residential school in the Kaska Dena community of Lower Post will be demolished on June 21. Crystal Schick/ Yukon News
Lower Post residential school demolition postponed

On June 21, the old residential school in Lower Post will be demolished and new ground on a multi-cultural centre will be broken

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley announced 29 new COVID-19 cases on June 19 and community transmission among unvaccinated individuals. (Yukon News file)
Yukon logs record-high 29 new COVID-19 cases

F.H. Collins prom attendees and some Porter Creek Grade 9 students are instructed to self-isolate as community transmission sweeps through unvaccinated populations

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before using it on Nov. 24. The Yukon government is reopening the drive-thru option on June 18. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Drive-up COVID-19 testing opening June 18 in Whitehorse

The drive-up testing will be open from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. everyday and increase testing capacity by 33 spots

Whitehorse City Hall (Yukon News file)
City news, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council at its June 14 meeting

Murray Arsenault sits in the drivers seat of his 1975 Bricklin SV1 in Whitehorse on June 16. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Bringing the 1975 Bricklin north

Murray Arsenault remembers his dad’s Bricklin, while now driving his own

A presumptive COVID case was found at Seabridge Gold’s 3 Aces project. (file photo)
Presumptive COVID-19 case reported at mine in southeast Yukon

A rapid antigen rest found a presumptive COVID case on an incoming individual arriving at the 3Aces project

Jonathan Antoine/Cabin Radio
Flooding in Fort Simpson on May 8.
Fort Simpson asked for military help. Two people showed up.

FORT SIMPSON—Residents of a flooded Northwest Territories village expected a helping hand… Continue reading

A woman was rescued from the Pioneer Ridge Trail in Alaska on June 16. (Photo courtesy/AllTrails)
Alaska hiker chased off trail by bears flags down help

ANCHORAGE (AP)—An Alaska hiker who reported needing help following bear encounters on… Continue reading

Two participants cross the finish line at the City of Whitehorse Kids Triathlon on June 12 with Mayor Dan Curtis on hand to present medals. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
2021 Kids’ Triathlon draws 76 young athletes

Youth ages five to 14 swim, run and bike their way to finish line

NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq rises in the House of Commons, in Ottawa on May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘Unacceptable’ that Inuk MP felt unsafe in House of Commons, Miller says

OTTAWA—It’s a “sad reflection” on Canada that an Inuk MP feels she’s… Continue reading

Lily Witten performs her Canadian Nationals beam routine on June 14. John Tonin/Yukon News
Three Yukon gymnasts break 20-year Nationals absence

Bianca Berko-Malvasio, Maude Molgat and Lily Witten competed at the Canadian Nationals – the first time in 20 years the Yukon’s been represented at the meet

Most Read