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

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