The great cattle drives to the Klondike

Before the Klondike gold rush, a Juneau butcher named Willis Thorp got the bright idea that there might be a market for beef in the tiny gold camps of Forty Mile and Circle City.

Before the Klondike gold rush, a Juneau butcher named Willis Thorp got the bright idea that there might be a market for beef in the tiny gold camps of Forty Mile and Circle City. In 1896, with help from his family, he took a herd over the mountains north of Haines, Alaska, and through the interior of the Yukon to the Yukon River.

He never made it to Forty Mile or Circle. Gold had just been discovered, and everybody was stampeding to the mouth of the Klondike River. Thorp sold his beef there at a good price, and left the following summer.

A small amount of his beef did make it to Circle that winter and sold for the astronomical sum of $105 a kilogram ($48 a pound). Outside, where beef was selling for 10 to 12 cents a kilogram, newspaper accounts of this remarkable price raised plenty of interest.

The following spring, 1897, two dozen different cattlemen moved herds north to the Klondike. The beef shipped to Dawson City by these entrepreneurs brought prices between two and four dollars a kilo and helped stave off famine in a rapidly growing town where, the winter of 1897/98, gold was more plentiful than food.

The following summer of 1898, the number of livestock imported to the Yukon doubled. Cattlemen from as far away as Prince Edward Island and New Mexico set off for the Klondike coming via several different routes.

A small number of herds, stimulated by prairie political hype, attempted to reach the Klondike market from Edmonton by following a route that paralleled the route of today’s Alaska Highway. One outfit that started from Wyoming via the Edmonton route with 75 horses reached its destination the following year – with one horse and two mules. None of these cattle herds reached the Yukon.

At least half a dozen herds were herded north from Ashcroft, British Columbia, over the Telegraph Trail to Teslin Lake. Most never made it, but a man named Hughes, who brought oxen in over this trail, sold them in Dawson for four times the price he paid in Glenora. One herd was even taken in via the Copper River from Valdez, Alaska, but its eventual fate is not known.

By far the best routes to bring cattle into the Yukon were from points along the Lynn Canal. The best route of all was over the Dalton Trail from Pyramid Harbour. This route avoided the hazards of the lakes and canyons of the Upper Yukon River. Once over the Chilkat Pass, cattle gained weight as they grazed their way along 480 kilometres of fairly level terrain. It was late August or September before they reached the Yukon River below Five Finger Rapids.

In late September and early October, when the temperatures were hovering around the freezing point, these herds were slaughtered and butchered beside the Yukon River. The beef was then loaded onto scows or rafts assembled at these riverside abattoirs, and shipped to Dawson before the river froze solid.

Those who brought livestock via the White Pass had their own set of problems. After unloading their animals at Skagway, they herded them up the White Pass Trail toward Bennett. There, they built scows carefully partitioned to keep the cattle from shifting and capsizing the vessels. With any luck, they were able to secure one of the small fleet of boats to tow them through the lakes and rivers as far as Miles Canyon.

The White Pass had one advantage over the Dalton Trail: because of the heavy use of the trail, it was passable in the winter. Livestock were taken to Bennett, or even farther, during the cold winter months, and then slaughtered.

The Waechter Brothers brought in a herd that was slaughtered at Bennett in 1897, and the meat was moved ahead over the winter, giving them a head start in the spring. With the warmer spring weather, the beef had to be salted to prevent it from spoiling. When the Waechters arrived in Dawson in the spring of 1898, the beef commanded almost $4 a kilogram.

As much as 2,500 tonnes of beef as well as sheep and hogs, were brought to the Klondike during the height of the gold rush. Assuming an average price of $1.50 per kilogram for the meat sold to the restaurants and hungry miners of Dawson, the Klondike beef industry was worth $3.75 million in 1898. Given that the total amount of gold recovered in the Klondike that year is estimated to have been between eight and ten million dollars, it is easy to see that supplying beef to the hungry miners could be more lucrative than gold mining.

The completion of the White Pass and Yukon Route in 1900 changed the nature of the cattle industry. Hauling cattle by train to Whitehorse displaced the Dalton Trail route, which was last used in 1906. Some cattlemen still refused to patronize the train over the White Pass trail, but in 1903, the White Pass and Yukon Route had crews destroy bridges on the old mountain trail, which brought that practice to an end.

Arriving in Whitehorse, cattlemen could herd their livestock north via the overland road. After the turn of the century, some brought herds all the way to Dawson over the frozen trail during the winter. White Pass, with its fleet of river boats, pushed cattle barges down the Yukon River to the Klondike.

Several of the cattlemen who were prominent during the gold rush continued to operate their meat businesses in later years, including the Waechter Brothers (Burns bought out their business in June, 1928), Chris Bartsch, and Charlie Thebo.

But Pat Burns of Calgary appears to have topped them all. He had branch stores at various times in Dawson City, Mayo, Keno City, Whitehorse (all in the Yukon), Atlin, Pine City, and Bennett (all in British Columbia). The Burns building still stands on Main Street Whitehorse to the present day.

By 1908, the White Pass and Yukon Route had made the cost of shipping cattle by rail and barge highly competitive during the navigation season. In the fall, 1921, T.C. Richards, then the manager of the Burns Company business in Whitehorse, took a herd of cattle overland from Fort Selkirk to Mayo. This heralded the end of the overland cattle drives.

This is a revised version of a column from 2010. History Hunter will return shortly.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Children’s performer Claire Ness poses for a photo for the upcoming annual Pivot Festival. “Claire Ness Morning” will be a kid-friendly performance streamed on the morning of Jan. 30. (Photo courtesy Erik Pinkerton Photography)
Pivot Festival provides ‘delight and light’ to a pandemic January

The festival runs Jan. 20 to 30 with virtual and physically distant events

The Boulevard of Hope was launched by the Yukon T1D Support Network and will be lit up throughout January. It is aimed at raising awareness about Yukoners living with Type 1 diabetes. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Boulevard of Hope sheds light on Type 1 diabetes

Organizers hope to make it an annual event

City of Whitehorse city council meeting in Whitehorse on Oct. 5, 2020. An updated council procedures bylaw was proposed at Whitehorse city council’s Jan. 18 meeting that would see a few changes to council meetings and how council handles certain matters like civil emergencies. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Whitehorse procedures bylaw comes forward

New measures proposed for how council could deal with emergencies

A Yukon survey querying transportation between communities has already seen hundreds of participants and is the latest review highlighting the territory’s gap in accessibility. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Multiple reports, survey decry lack of transportation between Yukon communities

A Community Travel survey is the latest in a slew of initiatives pointing to poor accessibility

Mobile vaccine team Team Balto practises vaccine clinic set-up and teardown at Vanier Catholic Secondary School. Mobile vaccine teams are heading out this week to the communities in order to begin Moderna vaccinations. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Mobile vaccine teams begin community vaccinations

“It’s an all-of-government approach”

A file photo of grizzly bear along the highway outside Dawson City. Yukon conservation officers euthanized a grizzly bear Jan. 15 that was originally sighted near Braeburn. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon News file)
Male grizzly euthanized near Braeburn

Yukon conservation officers have euthanized a grizzly bear that was originally sighted… Continue reading

Mayor Dan Curtis listens to a councillor on the phone during a city council meeting in Whitehorse on April 14, 2020. Curtis announced Jan. 14 that he intends to seek nomination to be the Yukon Liberal candidate for Whitehorse Centre in the 2021 territorial election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Whitehorse mayor seeking nomination for territorial election

Whitehorse mayor Dan Curtis is preparing for a run in the upcoming… Continue reading

Gerard Redinger was charged under the <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> with failing to self-isolate and failing to transit through the Yukon in under 24 hours. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Man ticketed $1,150 at Wolf Creek campground for failing to self-isolate

Gerard Redinger signed a 24-hour transit declaration, ticketed 13 days later

Yukon Energy, Solvest Inc. and Chu Níikwän Development Corporation are calling on the city for a meeting to look at possibilities for separate tax rates or incentives for renewable energy projects. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Tax changes sought for Whitehorse energy projects

Delegates call for separate property tax category for renewable energy projects

Yukon University has added seven members to its board of governors in recent months. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
New members named to Yukon U’s board of governors

Required number of board members now up to 17

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Your Northern regulatory adventure awaits!

“Your Northern adventure awaits!” blared the headline on a recent YESAB assessment… Continue reading

Yukoner Shirley Chua-Tan is taking on the role of vice-chair of the social inclusion working group with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences’ oversight panel and working groups for the autism assessment. (Submitted)
Canadian Academy of Health Sciences names Yukoner to panel

Shirley Chua-Tan is well-known for a number of roles she plays in… Continue reading

Most Read