The Millennium Trail along the Yukon River, which is one of the finest urban walking trails I have had the pleasure to use, is also a walk through Whitehorse history.
Recently, I left the asphalt path to follow a straight raised trail that parallels the river, through the trees behind FH Collins Seconday School. Every metre or so there is a soft impression running across the dirt path.
The impressions that I noted in today’s trail are all that remain of the cross-ties that once held the rails of an old tramway in place.
I dug into my old field notes from over 30 years ago. In May of 1977, I walked along the same stretch of shoreline; at that time, there was no Millennium Trail, but the decaying logs from the old wooden tramway were still clearly visible.
I took small samples of the wood from the tramway with me to Ottawa, where I had them analyzed. The results: the wood was pine.
The Trail that circumvented Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids was an important traditional native route for getting from Marsh Lake to Lake Laberge long before Europeans arrived in the Yukon. Archeological evidence suggests an occupation of at least 2,500 years at a campsite above the canyon.
There were important fish camps around Miles Canyon and a village was located below Whitehorse Rapids.
Miners started coming into the Yukon in 1880 via the Chilkoot Trail, then down the Yukon River. When they got to Miles Canyon, they portaged their boats and supplies around the treacherous waters between there and a point below the Whitehorse Rapids.
In 1883, Frederick Schwatka, US Army lieutenant and explorer, noted that the miners were using a native trail along the east bank of the river. They had cut and laid down trees, whose bark had been removed to serve as stationary skids over which to drag their boats.
By 1887, Canadian Government geologist George Dawson noted that at one steep point on the trail: “a sort of extemporized windlass has been rigged up by the miners for the purpose of hauling up their boats.”
Josiah Spurr, a US government geologist used the Yukon route to get to the Fortymile gold diggings on the American side of the border. By then, some, including Spurr himself, were bold enough to hazard taking their boats through the rough waters of Miles Canyon and below.
The raging waters weren’t the only hazard that plagued the travellers. Several writers of the time wrote at great length and in colourful detail about the millions of mosquitoes that hung in the air here like a London fog. Even hats covered with mosquito netting failed to keep all of these cruel tormentors away from stampeders’ eyes and mouths.
Running the turbulent waters was not the safest way to get past this treacherous natural obstacle, however; the following year noted Klondike chronicler Tappen Adney stated that as many as 40 miners had perished attempting to float their boats through.
In the first days after the spring break-up of 1898, when stampeders first started running the rapids, 150 boats were wrecked in the foaming waters and five men drowned. Hundreds of river craft jammed up above Miles Canyon, uncertain what to do.
Superintendent Sam Steele of the North West Mounted Police, aiming to reduce the loss of life, imposed a rule that women and children had to walk the portage. If they had made it this far, he reasoned, a walk of 4.4 kilometres wouldn’t kill them.
If they defied Steeles’ edict and braved the rapids, they faced a $100 fine.
For a fee of $5, qualified pilots would take the flotilla of rafts, scows and boats through the canyon, and the loss of life diminished.
In late 1897 a young merchant named Norman Macaulay seized the chance to make a buck and, anticipating the horde that would be passing through the canyon, constructed a tramway along the eastern bank of the Yukon.
In just three weeks, with a crew of 18 men, he had constructed a tramway, made of a gravel bed upon which he laid tracks of pine and spruce poles on log cross-ties, that circumvented the rough water,.
When this was completed, horses were used to draw durable tram carts on special cast-iron wheels over the log rails around the dangerous stretch of water.
Macaulay’s business venture paid off. Not only did the stampeders use this detour, so did the riverboats that plied the river above and below the unnavigable waters. Freight was hauled the short distance for 6.6 cents a kilogram. Boats could be hauled around for $25 each.
When the tramline became really busy, Macaulay’s freight hustlers were working around the clock, hauling up to 80 tonnes a day. A second tramway was constructed on the opposite side of the River, but Macaulay bought it out for $60,000.
The summer of 1898, nearly 30,000 people funneled through or around Miles Canyon on their way to the Klondike. A small community called Canyon City sprang up where the tramway began; that included a hotel, saloon, restaurant, stables, Mounted Police detachment and numerous cabins and tents.
But none of it lasted for long. In August of 1899, the White Pass and Yukon Corporation bought both tram lines from Macaulay for the princely sum of $185,000.
The following year, the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway was completed to a point below the White Horse Rapids. The new town of Whitehorse grew up at the terminus of the railroad, and the small community at Canyon City dried up with the loss of traffic.
In 1959, the turbulent current of Miles Canyon was submerged by the rising waters of a new dam, which was situated directly on top of the White Horse Rapids. There is still enough rapid water below the dam to remind us of what it must have once been like.
In 1977, the city of Whitehorse contemplated turning the riverside property along behind the high school into a heritage park with restored historical buildings, but that never happened.
You can still see the boiling, foaming water from the viewpoints at the fish ladder, or while standing on the footbridge, looking up stream.
Archeological work conducted about 10 years ago has helped to recover some of the lost history.
Time and technology have blurred the remains of the old tram line. Some of it now lies at the bottom of Schwatka Lake. Road and dam construction have obliterated some of it. The decaying rails that I witnessed in 1977 are now gone, hauled away as souvenirs, or simply rotted into the forest floor.
The next time you walk along the Millennium Trail on the east side of the Yukon River, remind yourself that this was once a major thoroughfare for gold rush traffic, and if you walk along the natural trail there, you are walking on the remains of the old track bed.
Michael Gates is a local historian
and sometimes adventurer
based in Whitehorse.