New book charts history of Yukon River steamers

I am still digesting the historical feast that I received at Christmas. This year, old photographs replaced socks under the Christmas tree.

I am still digesting the historical feast that I received at Christmas. This year, old photographs replaced socks under the Christmas tree. I also received a number of historical books to read and enjoy; there is one in particular I would like to share with you.

This book, issued in 2015, is titled The Klondike Gold Rush Steamers: A History of Yukon River Steam Navigation, by acclaimed historian and author Robert D. Turner, published in British Columbia by Sono Nis Press. The title is actually a bit of a misnomer as this volume covers more than the Gold Rush.

I met the author Bob and his wife Nancy when they were guests at Berton House, the writers’ retreat in Dawson City. That was back in 2009, and he was gathering material for this book at that time. Bob is a retired consultant and curator emeritus at the Royal B.C. Museum, in Victoria, where he was the chief of historical collections for a number of years. His accomplishments are impressive. This is his 18th book, and he has written hundreds of articles and reviews.

Among Turner’s varied interests are Yukon River steamers, and this book is the distillation of many years of study on the subject. The Klondike Gold Rush Steamers is 352 pages jam-packed with details of the history of Yukon River navigation that span the period from the arrival of the first steam powered river boat in 1865 to the present day.

In its seven chapters, The Klondike Gold Rush Steamers covers, chronologically, the era before the gold rush, then the routes to the Klondike and the building of the fleet of steamers that serviced the gold rush trade, followed by a chapter on the armada of riverboats that descended upon the Klondike during the height of the gold rush (Chapter three is the longest). This is followed by the consolidation of the control of river transportation on the upper Yukon River by the White Pass and Yukon Route and its subsidiary river transportation division.

The fifth chapter covers the period up to 1920, and includes the gold rush to Fairbanks. This book has a lot to say about transportation on the Lower Yukon as well. The sixth chapter describes river transportation during the 1920s, and a final chapter that takes the reader through to the conclusion of steam river travel, and beyond.

Turner wraps everything up nicely in his epilogue, which is followed by several appendices on specific aspects of Yukon River steamers. The first of these is a detailed description of how the riverboats operated. Included in Appendix 1 are several excellent photographs with important structural features labelled that serve as a crash course for those who are not familiar with the anatomy of sternwheel riverboats.

Turner included nine pages of source notes and a five page bibliography at the end of the book. The index includes a special section to all the vessels referred to in this book. That list includes 361 riverboats.

The wow factor in this book comes from the 650 photos and illustrations, both historical photos, and contemporary pictures taken by the author, as well as insertions of ephemera. The captions accompanying the photos are detailed and informative. The photos are of excellent quality, rendered on glossy paper. I found them one of the book’s best features. The reader will enjoy examining the photos and reading the captions.

There are 15 maps scattered through the book. All are reproductions of historical maps from the period. One that appealed to me, on page 110, was a simple line drawing showing the route of the three trams that hauled freight around Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids.

Numerous sidebars are found throughout; they feature passages from books of the era, and quotes from people interviewed, including Dawson resident Joe Braga, former Whitehorse resident Rob McCandless (who sailed on the last voyage of the Keno) and former purser Ron Finlayson. Tables scattered through the text also reveal interesting details – one states the distances between each stop on the way from Skagway to Dawson. Another provides information about the fleet of river steamers built by the Moran Brothers for river trade during the gold rush.

This is a book to read and digest over months rather than in one sitting. I found that I could pick and choose what I wanted to read in the chronologically arranged chapters, and by referring to the index. One could use this as a reference book on any of a number of topics. I note, for instance, that biographical detail is provided about some of the early riverboat men, including, as examples, Captains John Irving and Syd Barrington, as well as entrepreneurs Francis Rattenbury and Pat Galvin.

The content is encyclopedic, and I think that the reader will find it to be a valuable reference. I have read a number of books on Yukon riverboats, but in my opinion, none has been as detailed, comprehensive and as complete as this one. This book will find a prominent place in my library so that I can reach for it at a moment’s notice.

The print size bothered me. With my aging eyes, I found the point size of the type too small for easy reading. The type in the side bars and photo captions was even smaller. Another annoying problem was the number of grammatical flaws that should have been weeded out during the editing process.

Circle City, Alaska, is identified as part of the Yukon Territory on page 41, and Rink Rapid is described as being located near Mayo, rather than Minto on page 306. Although Sam Steele is incorrectly identified on page 82 as the first commissioner of the Yukon, preceding William Ogilvie, there is no doubt he would have been a better man for the job than former Mountie James M. Walsh. While his knowledge of the general history and geography of the Yukon may occasionally miss the mark, his knowledge of the riverboats and their history is authoritative.

Despite these issues, this is a great book that contains almost everything you will want to know about Yukon River steamers. I will return to it again and again, and will enjoy every reading. The Klondike Gold Rush Steamers: A History of Yukon River Steam Navigation, by Robert D. Turner is a book on Yukon history that I would heartily recommend. 

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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