Picture this: the Klondike gold seekers came down the river in thousands.
During the gold rush, the Yukon River was the territory’s lifeblood, and the stampeders were its pulse.
As they coursed along this corridor, the stampeders made a stop at Tagish where they could check for mail, or register a claim. Here was a hint of civilization in what was to most of the newcomers was a perplexing wilderness.
At Tagish, they also registered with the North West Mounted Police. Each boat was given a number, and against that number, carefully inscribed in ledgers, were the names of the passengers. Just in case…
It must have been an impressive sight as their leaky handmade scows approached Tagish Post from the lakes over which they had just passed.
At this point, Tagish Lake constricts into a long neck of water that flows into Marsh Lake. On the east side of the channel were dozens of boats pulled up along the broad shore, which rose to a low terrace overlooking the smooth water.
The terrace was a hive of activity, with men moving to and fro, talking to each other, reporting to the Northwest Mounted Police and checking their craft to ensure their precious supplies were safe and dry.
The edge of the terrace was dotted with small white canvas tents, and in the centre of it all, a neat and impressive quadrangle of log buildings was built by the Mounties to house the detachment of nearly 50.
Around the mail, which was laid out on the ground in the middle of the open square, a mob clustered in hopes of finding letters from home. This was a significant stop among the numerous stops on the way to the Klondike.
Today the Tagish site has completely changed.
It is 110 years later and my young friend Pete and I slowly approached the site not from the water, but down a narrow twisting dirt road, over which I drove carefully to avoid scraping the bottom of the car.
We arrived at our destination, where we were greeted from within the confines of a canopy enclosed by mosquito-proof nylon mesh by a crew of archeologists who had stopped for lunch.
The mosquitoes surrounded us in large numbers; this was the biggest horde of the little biting creatures I have encountered this summer, and I was thankful that I applied a generous layer of bug dope before stepping out of the car.
We were welcomed by Victoria Castillo, the project archeologist, her husband Grant Zazula, and their three-month-old son Roman (the youngest archaeologist on the crew). Rae-Ann Sidney and Austin Smith, both students from Carcross, complete the team working at the site.
While we were eating our sandwiches, Castillo provided me with a picture of the project they are working on.
Sponsored by the territorial government and the Carcross-Tagish First Nation, they are engaged in the second year of recording and testing of the former gold-rush stopping place.
Last year, they plotted the layout of the remains at the site, which consist mainly of scattered clusters of rusting tin cans and the rectangular mounds of sod that were once piled against the outer walls of the more than two-dozen log buildings.
This year, researchers are refining and adding to the record.
The buildings were eventually disassembled and moved to Whitehorse.
After the initial stampede, the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad reached Whitehorse from the coast and the river route was abandoned almost overnight.
The detachment was reduced to three men, and then closed down entirely around 1905.
The mounds and countless rusting cans remain as testimony to the events of more than a century ago. Castillo, who is currently completing her PhD at the University of Alberta, patiently walked me through the dense undergrowth and showed me what they have found.
Last summer, they located and mapped the remains of almost 30 buildings. Of these, only two remain standing, and history may or may not be connected with that of the mounted police use of the site.
What now remains is camouflaged amidst spruce and pine trees and leafy willow branches.
With a keen eye, you can pick out the rectangular mounds of sod that are slowly softening with age and lying hidden beneath a dense layer of leaves and plant matter.
It’s hard to make sense of the buildings scattered in the forest, but with the use of GPS plotting, a map has emerged that reveals the formalized institutional distribution of buildings around the old parade square.
It’s impressive. At its busiest, the site covered more than 120 hectares. Unravelling the mysteries of a site so large seems daunting to me.
Sadly, Castillo showed me a small area where vandals have recently disturbed the site. She tells me that this activity disturbs the historical context, and the material that is taken away is usually stuck on someone’s mantelpiece, where most of the context is lost or forgotten. Everyone is a loser, I realized, even the vandals.
She told me that the real value of archeological sites is found in the context that is carefully recorded during careful excavation.
Everything is plotted before removal, then bagged, analyzed and cared for so that future generations may enjoy and learn from what is being uncovered.
We returned to the shelter of the canopy where her husband Grant has laid out some of the artifacts they have recovered from their test excavations.
We looked through these and saw some fascinating bits and pieces of the past.
An old shell casing (45-75 WCF) may have been used in the standard issue model 1876 Winchester rifle that was used by the mounted police at the time
Other artifacts that they have uncovered include: fragments of ceramic, butchered bone and the sole of a tiny shoe.
We debate whether this sole represents a child’s shoe, or that of a woman. What, I wonder, was their presence at this site?
Amidst the specimens that were spread out for us to examine was a fragment of heavy twisted wire. Something in the pattern of the piece captured my interest. I turned it over, and its significance became obvious: they make up the letters MP.
I conjured up an image of one of the officers at the post fashioning this simple NWMP sign to add character to their newly constructed post.
As the crew continues to gather information about the post from what remains, Castillo will piece together a clearer picture of this site, what was here, and what went on here.
It will be a fascinating story for all of us to enjoy.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.