In July of 1896, Willis Thorp, a butcher and business man from Juneau, Alaska, decided to try something new. He would take a herd of cattle into the Yukon and down the Yukon River to sell at the mining town of Circle City. He never made it.
Thorp’s herd of some 40 head of cattle arrived in Juneau in June, and departed some time later for Haines, Alaska. The herd landed there and Thorp moved the livestock up the Chilkat Inlet. The trail first went for more than a kilometre and a half through thick timber, then crossed a bad swamp, which was sometimes covered with tidewater, and then for three kilometres skirted the edge of the hills. That part of the trail was covered with big boulders.
They likely crossed Chilkat Inlet at this point and made their way up the valley of the Chilkat River, criss-crossing the meandering channels, spending considerable time in the icy river.
The cattle arrived in the Chilkat Tlingit village of Klukwan, without losing any of the herd, but all were footsore and lame.
They camped a day’s travel beyond Klukwan, on the trail being improved by Jack Dalton. Willis Thorp called his herders together and told them that they could expect trouble from Dalton. They must stand up for their rights, he said, and be ready to give the famed pathfinder a warm reception should he come within shooting distance.
Thorp told them to have their weapons cleaned and loaded and ready for instant action.
Nothing happened that night, but early the following morning, a single horseman rode rapidly up the trail. The newcomer came into camp and stopped alongside Willis Thorp who stood motionless, staring at him.
It was Jack Dalton, and he had a revolver prominently strapped in a belt around his waist.
“Thorp,” he said, “I want you and your crowd to get off this trail, and I want you to keep off of it, and I want you to be damn quick about moving.” Despite the defiant speech rendered by Thorp to his crew the night before, the cattle men submitted meekly.
Dalton had a reputation for a quick temper and the use of deadly force and was ready to follow them all the way to the Yukon River if necessary, to keep them off his trail. Thorp and his party turned off Dalton’s trail and instead herded the livestock up the Chilkat Valley and over the mountains to Kusawa Lake, which was then known as Lake Arkell.
From Kusawa they proceeded north, probably joining Dalton’s trail somewhere between Braeburn and Carmack’s Post, but by then, Dalton had made his point.
The Thorp party eventually arrived at the Yukon River, where they floated the herd downstream, but they only made it as far as the mouth of the Klondike River where they landed and sold their stock to the rapidly growing crowd of prospectors who were stampeding there to get in on the staking frenzy on Bonanza Creek.
The Thorp herd sold for a healthy sum and Thorp’s son Ed brought out $13,000 with him the over the Dalton Trail following summer.
The route they took over the mountains by way of Kusawa Lake soon became known as the Bounds Trail, named after George Bounds, a relative of Thorp, who was a member of the 1896 party.
In the ensuing years, thousands of head of cattle, sheep and horses were brought in over Dalton’s Trail. The Bounds Trail found its way onto maps but it was never used again for herding cattle to the Klondike.
The following summer of 1897, thousands of people were on the move to Dawson City. Several cattlemen brought herds north to make a profit feeding the insatiable demand for beef in the rapidly expanding gold rush town. The Dalton Trail proved to be the most successful route by which to bring them in.
Early in the summer Jack Dalton departed Pyramid Harbour on Chilkat Inlet with 60 Herefords, 40 oxen and two milk cows and headed up the Chilkat valley, then beyond that, the Klehini, before ascending and crossing over the Chilkat Pass.
From the summit, the herd followed the trail north, along the west side of the Tatshenshini River. This more or less parallels the route followed by the current Haines Road. At Dalton Post, which was about two kilometres up river from the First Nation trading village of Neskataheen, they forded the river. From there, the herd was moved north to Klukshu, along the Dezadeash River then up Mendenhall Creek to Hutchi, which was another Southern Tutchone settlement.
At Hutchi, rather than follow the traditional route down the Nordenskjold river to its confluence with the Yukon River, Dalton redirected his herd and moved them to the west side of Aishihik Lake. There they turned north and moved over high terrain to the north end of the lake.
From the settlement of Aishihik, he proceeded north with his animals, crossing the Nisling River and eventually meeting the Yukon River at Fort Selkirk. The cattle even gained weight during this 480 kilometre trek.
A Canadian surveyor named J.J. McArthur accompanied Dalton on the cattle drive and recorded the route, which subsequently appeared on many maps as the Dalton Trail. This was not the case, however.
The following year, according to Inspector Jarvis of the North West Mounted Police, “Mr. Dalton once did go through to Selkirk but says he will never attempt it again: he had to cross over a range of mountains 5500 feet (1675 metres) high, and the trail, or what was called a trail was something awful.”
Heading north from Hutchi, the Dalton Trail actually followed the Nordenskjold River until it joined the Yukon. Some of this section parallels the modern day Klondike Highway from Braeburn to Carmacks.
Upon reaching the Yukon, there was a sink-or-swim decision to be made. Some herds followed along the western side of the Yukon to points between Five Finger Rapids and Yukon Crossing. Due to the number of herds being moved north in 1897 and 1898, camps were set up all along this stretch of the river, and crews were busy slaughtering the cattle and building scows to transport the beef to Dawson City.
Other herds swam the Yukon River at Carmack’s post or else below Five Finger Rapids, and trailed down the eastern side of the mighty river, some reaching a point opposite Fort Selkirk, known as Slaughterhouse Slough. Here, these animals were also converted into carcasses that could be floated to Dawson on scows in the cool autumn season when the meat would stay fresh en route.
The Bounds Trail and the branch route from Hutchi to Fort Selkirk were interesting historical footnotes, but only confuse the matter of where the trail was actually located. To further confuse the matter, when the trail reached the Yukon, it forked and branches followed along both shores of the Yukon River.
Next week, I will write more about some of the interesting places found along the Dalton Trail.