George Tuxford, his brother Alan, and friend James Thomson, left Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, May 24, 1898. They were headed for Dawson City, where they hoped to sell their herd of cattle and oxen to the hungry Klondike miners who were stampeding north that summer.
By late August, they had herded their cattle to Carmack’s Post, swum them across to the opposite side of the river, and taken them downriver to Rink Rapids, which is the final stretch of turbulent water on the way to Dawson.
But don’t think that it was clear sailing from that point.
One normally sees cattle drives as being overland affairs. This was not the case for the cattlemen who came to the Klondike. Ahead of the Tuxford party were 500 kilometres of sinuous Yukon River to navigate before reaching market.
This phase of the Tuxford cattle drive was the most physically and logistically trying. It consisted of two elements: the preparatory phase, and the river phase.
The camp they established beside Rink Rapids was a good location for them. There was plenty of feed and water for the cattle, and an abundant supply of timber on the bench behind their camp.
They set about constructing the apparatus they needed to complete their journey. Next to their camp, they built a corral to contain the cows, and a chute down which they would be led to slaughter. Beside this they constructed a series of overhead frames that they referred to as “gallows” upon which to hang and dress the meat after the animals had been dispatched.
They had to assemble enough timber to construct three rafts upon which the meat was to be loaded for the trip to Dawson. To accomplish this, they fashioned makeshift harness from rope and local wood, and employed the oxen in their herd to haul the logs to their camp
The two largest rafts were 18 metres long, held together, at four-metre intervals with cross-braces that were connected with hand-made birch pins.
This work was more than they could do by themselves, so they hired a party of four stampeders to assist them with the work. Nevertheless, their slow progress was frustrating as they watched other consignments pass their camp.
Cattle belonging to Rudio and Kaufman from Walla Walla, Washington, Sissons from Medicine Hat, and Charlie Thebo floated by. Billy Perdue from Calgary passed behind their camp with a herd he hoped to get as far as Fort Selkirk.
Two other herds, one belonging to Jack Dalton, the other to a man named Charlton, were camped on the opposite side of the river,
A scow holding 200 sheep floated by, while another foundered in Fiver Finger Rapids. The owners of the latter apparently drowned, but many of the sheep made it ashore. One of these ended up in the Tuxford larder.
One day, from their camp beside the rapids, they watched a raft float by that didn’t steer into the safe channel along the eastern shore. As the powerful current pressed the craft against the rocks beneath the surface, it tilted crazily into the air and the supplies cascaded into the river, and the cattle on board were ditched in the icy waters and had to swim for shore.
Construction complete, they set about the gory work of killing the animals, and then dressing and loading the meat onto their makeshift rafts. The weather was getting progressively colder, which kept the meat from going bad.
Finally, they pushed off from shore with a load of six tonnes of beef. In the first day, they covered 100 kilometres, but that distance was deceptive. During the night, the river level dropped, and their rafts were stranded in a back channel near Fort Selkirk.
They unloaded their payload, disassembled their rafts, moved them to a better location, reconstructed them, and re-loaded the sides of beef. This occurred process several times during their downstream journey. Once, it took them five days of labouring in the cold and wet to free their raft.
They weren’t alone in this ordeal; one of Charlie Thebo’s scows became stranded on a river bar and they had to throw 128 quarters of beef into the river to lighten the load enough to dislodge the vessel.
Using the large sweeps that they had installed at each end of their rafts, the Tuxford party could, by stroking in opposite directions at the right moment, “roll” their rafts past treacherous sand bars yet, on several occasions, in the sub-zero temperatures, often immersed in water, they had to free their beached craft.
The days were getting shorter, the temperatures were dropping. The river was choked with ice, and at one point, the group accompanying the Tuxford party insisted in stopping to take part in the stampede to stake placer claims on Thistle Creek.
On one occasion, George Tuxford fell into the Yukon River, and would have been carried away by the current, except for the rope that was attached to the raft that he clung to.
Finally, on October 22, Tuxford, and his meat-laden raft arrived at Dawson, exactly five months after leaving Moose Jaw, and were safely pulled ashore. One of the other Tuxford rafts drifted helplessly past the waterfront and came ashore several kilometres downstream.
The third raft was frozen into the ice upriver from Dawson and the meat had to be transported into town by dogsled, a chore that was completed by the end of November despite a spell of minus 45-degree weather.
Most of the meat was sold to the owner of the Delmonico Restaurant for 88 cents a kilogram (forty cents a pound).
Once their transactions were completed, they hauled the raft logs to their cabin site, and visited in town. They, like thousands of others stranded in Dawson that winter, took in all the excitement and crazy events, and then left Dawson for home with their gold when the river ice broke up in the spring.
The journey home was much easier than the original drive to Dawson. Tuxford and his partner Thomson took river steamers all the way to Bennett. For them, this was luxury after what they had been through. The train took them from Bennett to Skagway.
Thomson, on arriving home reported that “Moose Jaw looked awfully good. It looked like a place I never wanted to leave again.”
Tuxford’s brother Alan stayed in the Klondike until August of 1900.
Despite all of the ordeals that George Tuxford endured on the trail to the Klondike, he gained over 10 kilograms in weight. He went back to farming, but 15 years later, distinguished himself in battle during the First World War, by the end of which he had risen to the rank of brigadier-general.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is now available everywhere in the territory.