Skip to content

It’s the what ifs that make history interesting

Sometimes, it’s the what-if’s that make history interesting. It’s rather like the butterfly effect: a time traveller goes back in time to view events in the distant past, being careful not to disturb anything while on the journey...

Sometimes, it’s the what-if’s that make history interesting.

It’s rather like the butterfly effect: a time traveller goes back in time to view events in the distant past, being careful not to disturb anything while on the journey, but returns to find everything in the present has changed dramatically, and to his horror, a dead butterfly in the mud stuck to the bottom of his boot.

One butterfly, dramatic changes in the course of human events.

The 19th century was an era of empire-building around the world: the Russians, the Portuguese, the Spanish, French, Russians, English and Americans were all vying to expand their sphere of influence and trade around the globe, always at the expense of the people whose territory they were horning in on.

Such was the case along the Alaskan coast in the area known as the “Panhandle.” Vitus Bering explored the region for Russia, which led to a lucrative trade in furs along the

Aleutian chain, and down the Alaskan coast as far south as 55 N. The British, particularly the meticulous navigator George Vancouver, were plotting the twists and turns of the rocky-timber-lined coastal waters, while the Spanish, unsuccessfully, attempted to stake a claim to the area.

Meanwhile, the Yankee traders were moving up and down the coast, looking for profit opportunities in trade of guns and whiskey for furs.

Without due concern for the people who already lived along the coast, and in order to reduce conflict between them, the Imperial nations came to understandings about where each other’s turf lay. In 1825, the Russians and the British agreed to an imaginary line running north and south from the top of North America through a land that neither country had even visited: the 141st meridian.

The line ended in the St. Elias Mountains, and the Russians claimed territory running south along the Alaskan coast from this point to Prince of Wales Island. In the 1825 agreement was a vaguely worded description that provided for a 10-league (50-kilometre) coastal zone that separated the trading sphere of the Russian-American Company on the coast from that of the Hudson Bay Company in the interior.

The Russians sold their North American interests to the United States in 1867, and the Americans inherited what became, four decades later, a bone of territorial contention. No one really worried about the specific details of the specific boundary between Canada and the United States until questions of jurisdiction arose. British Columbia, after becoming a province, awakened the long-dormant interest in demarcation of the dividing line, and the onset of the Klondike Gold Rush made resolution of the line an imperative.

It boiled down to the vague wording of the 1825 agreement. Canada, now the third, but junior, party in the international negotiations, claimed a definition of the boundary that would give us the head of the many inlets along the coast by claiming the 10-league distance should be measured from the outer edge of the coastal islands. America, on the other hand, claimed a 50-kilometre strip that started on the coast of the mainland and completely separated Canada from the Pacific along the entire Panhandle.

During the gold rush, various attempts were made by Britain and the United States to resolve the boundary dispute, with Canada, the fledgling nation, playing the role of pouty junior partner.

The United States, for instance, claimed territory inland from Skagway and Dyea on the coast, as far as Lake Lindeman or even Bennett in the interior, while Canada claimed that both Skagway and Dyea, both predominately populated by Americans, fell within her jurisdiction. Sam Steele established the final dividing line, when, following instructions of Clifford

Sifton, Canada’s Minister of the Interior, he stationed detachments of Mounted Police at the summits of the Chilkoot and White Passes.

Steele sent Inspector Jarvis and 18 officers and men to Haines Mission, farther down the Lynn Canal, to establish a post on the Dalton Trail at Pleasant Camp to control access to Canada via this route.

The location of these posts was critical to the final disposition of the dividing line in a treaty that was signed in 1903. The United States, using incontestable precedents and applying

Teddy Roosevelt’s “big stick” diplomacy, got Britain to side with them on the resolution of the final boundary line.

Canada, who had been dragging her feet, and acting contrary throughout the sensitive negotiations, fired by a heavy dose of anti-American sentiment, came out of the negotiations feeling that she had been betrayed, even sold-out by Mother England.

The chance of winning her claim to the headlands of the coastal inlets was slim to nil, yet, on two occasions, during the height of the gold-rush mania, Canada was offered the opportunity of having a saltwater entrepot at Pyramid Harbour, then the site of a now-abandoned fish cannery across the Chilkat Inlet from present-day Haines, and the main starting point for the Dalton Trail. Canada rejected this offer in hopes of a more favourable settlement.

At a time when a number of railroad lines were being proposed from the coast of Alaska into the Yukon, an all-Canadian route being the favoured choice by our country, such a concession by America would have given great weight to a railroad being built over the Chilkat Pass and the Dalton Trail.

So I ponder the big “What If”: what if Canada had accepted the American offer? She would have had the coastal link from which to run a railroad to the interior. As early as 1897, surveyors were evaluating the Dalton Trail as a rail route to Dawson City. Preparatory work on the right-of-way even started in the spring of 1898. Gaining a foothold on the coast could have been the point at which the impetus turned to favour the Chilkat Trail route to the Klondike.

Had circumstances gone that way, would the White Pass and Yukon Route have ever been completed? Would Skagway have withered away, like Dyea did after the rail link was completed? Would Pyramid Harbour have displaced Haines as the important entrance to the interior, and would it have flourished?

If a railroad had been built over the Chilkat Pass and followed the so-called Dalton Trail to the Yukon River, would it have extended all the way to Dawson City, or would Carmacks,

Five-Fingers or Fort Selkirk become the busy exchange-point instead of Whitehorse?

While this is mere idle speculation, it makes me comprehend the significance of the transportation link upon the development of the city that Whitehorse eventually became.

It would have meant an entirely different history for the Yukon and the development of the southern part of the territory. Tarr Inlet wouldn’t have been the only piece of geography at the south end of the territory with a physical connection to the Pacific.

But really, it is all fantastic speculation, isn’t it?

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer

based in Whitehorse.