tales of windy arm

Windy Arm is a southern Yukon landmark that is full of history. It is an extension of Tagish Lake that extends north-south along a narrow valley just south of Carcross.

Windy Arm is a southern Yukon landmark that is full of history. It is an extension of Tagish Lake that extends north-south along a narrow valley just south of Carcross. If you have driven to Skagway, then you have traveled along its western shore. During the gold rush, it was one of the hazards one encountered when running the water gauntlet to Dawson City.

When the wind blows in from the coast, it funnels along Tutshi Lake and into Windy Arm. It’s a natural wind tunnel, and I have seen waves a metre and a half high crashing onto shore along this stretch of water. It is frightening to watch, and terrifying to experience if you are in a boat.

The early guide books warned the stampeders to be careful along this stretch of water as the wind could increase in velocity in a short time, catching inexperienced boatmen unprepared. Many gold seekers perished in this stretch of the lake when the wind whipped the water into a frenzy, and the waves swamped the overloaded boats.

Jack London and his party passed this stretch of water in the fall of 1897. He was an experienced boatman who had rigged a sail on his hand-made craft, and crossed the Windy Arm in the twilight of a late September day. They sailed down Tagish Lake without incident, guided in the darkness by the sound of the surf crashing on the shore. During their passage through this dangerous water, however, they witnessed two other boatloads of gold-rushers capsize and drown.

When the lake froze in the late fall, the turbulent waters were tamed. Windy Arm then became one of the alternate routes used by would-be prospectors headed for the Klondike. Thinking that locating here temporarily would give an advantage over the thousands camped farther back at Lindeman and Bennett on the Chilkoot trail, George Black, a New Brunswick lawyer, and his party stopped on the snow-covered shore of Windy Arm. Using the abundant supply of good timber nearby, they constructed two scows that were to take them to the Klondike. After the gold rush, Black stayed in the Yukon and later was Yukon’s member of Parliament for nearly 30 years.

Not far from where they probably camped, at the very southern end of Windy Arm, is a grave with a marker on it engraved with the name of Jonas Fred Whitcomb Jr. Whitcomb was an unfortunate stampeder from New Hampshire who died of a gunshot wound May 23, 1898. The cause was a self-inflicted injury, either by accident or by intent, and not from a shoot-out.

Scattered along the shore and up the hillsides along Windy Arm, you will find the decaying remains of various mining ventures. The most noticeable of these is the decaying frame of the old Venus mine concentrator and assay office, standing between the highway and the lake. A tramway ran down the mountainside from high above, carrying ore from the Venus Mine.

Optimism about the hard rock potential of the region led to the establishment of the community of Conrad City around 1905. Inspired by mining promoter John Howard Conrad, speculators quickly moved in and soon, a cluster of 15 wooden structures and a scattering of temporary tent shelters sprang up. Just as quickly, mining engineer J. B. Tyrrell gave the prospects here a failing grade. By 1908, Conrad was a thing of the past, leaving only scattered reminders of what had taken place there.

I visited the area in 1973. Under the direction of the provincial archeologist for British Columbia. My job was to evaluate what cultural resources might lay before the bulldozer blade on the right of way for the proposed Skagway road. A hundred metres into British Columbia, on an alluvial fan protruding into Windy Arm were the remains of Wynton, which consisted of a sawmill and two hotels, the Lakeview, owned by “Big Bill” Anderson from Atlin, and the Wynton, belonging to A. R. McDonald. McDonald subsequently sold it in 1906 to contractors Gauld and Simpson.

Wynton was established because wily entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to exploit the difference in the liquor laws between B.C. and the Yukon. Soon, they thought, thirsty miners from Conrad would flock to their establishments, which stood side by side, overlooking the lake. It almost happened that way. Then the Conrad mining bubble burst, and, so the story goes, as told to me by John Scott, and Johnny Johns, the proprietors found themselves without customers.

One of the hotel keepers is said to have paid a visit to the establishment of the other. Slapping a coin on the bar, he ordered a round for the house. When they had consumed their drinks, the other proprietor picked up the coin, and the two men returned to the first establishment, where he did the same. As the season wore on, the two lonely men became each other’s best (and only) customer, and that coin was well used.

I asked Murray Lundberg, author of the book Fractured Veins and Broken Dreams, if he thought there was any truth to the story. He is well aware of the location and the existence of the two hotels, and had heard the story, but he could not vouch for its veracity. The story remains a colourful but speculative account that attests to the often-transitory nature of mining ventures in the North.

When I visited the site nearly 40 years ago, the raised outlines of the foundations for the two buildings were still clearly visible. The last time I drove past the site, however, I could see that someone had built a log cabin encampment close by. I don’t imagine that much remains today of those long-ago dreams.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, will be available in April. You can contact him at sgates@northwestel.net

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