The horror of the White Pass Trail

'There's no choice (between the Chilkoot Pass and the White Pass)," said pioneer Mont Hawthorn when comparing the two major gold rush passes to the Klondike, "One's hell. The other's damnation.

‘There’s no choice (between the Chilkoot Pass and the White Pass),” said pioneer Mont Hawthorn when comparing the two major gold rush passes to the Klondike, “One’s hell. The other’s damnation.”

It was hard to believe the extent of the hardship and death that loomed over the White Pass during the fever-tinged frenzy of the gold rush when I hiked the Canadian portion of the route in 1973.

At that time, there was no highway from Whitehorse to Skagway, only the train. My reason for being there was to evaluate the impact upon historical resources that would result from the construction of the new road.

We clambered off the train at Log Cabin, and as the train rumbled off into the distance toward Skagway, we shouldered our heavy back packs and laboured along the tracks all the way to the summit. There, on a level spot just above the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway, we set up camp next to a boundary marker.

Over the next couple of days, we walked back along the proposed route for the new road link looking for any remains from the gold rush period, or other occupation, but, unlike the rich scattering of relics found on the nearby Chilkoot Trail, which is now a national historic site, we found surprisingly little evidence of the mass movement of people through the region between 1897 and 1899.

During the gold rush, many of the inexperienced and ill-informed stampeders had gained the impression that the White Pass would be the easier route.

The picture painted of the Chilkoot Trail was intimidating to the uninformed. Having to haul a half a tonne or more on your back up a dangerous and steep rocky escarpment and 30 kilometres beyond seemed like cruel punishment, when compared with the relatively easy job of moving goods over the lower and less precipitous White Pass.

Why, the accounts in guide books and newspaper accounts implied, take the Chilkoot route when you could pack your belongings over the summit on the backs of horses? The trip would be nothing more than a walk in the park for the gold-seekers.

How wrong they were.

Thousands of fanatical stampeders struggled to unload their cargo from the steamers in Skagway harbour and haul it ashore before the tide came in. It didn’t always work. One man, for instance, bringing in a small flock of milk goats, tied them to the pilings under the dock while he went to find a wagon to haul his outfit farther up the trail.

But the tide came in, and all that could be seen of the poor creatures was “just their tails, floating around the top of the water.”

Skagway had an extraordinary selection of toughs and low-lifes to avoid at all cost, especially after the arrival of Soapy Smith, but the violence and crime did not end at the limits of town.

Take this account of a gun fight, for instance:

“… a chap was held up at the mouth of the canyon early in the afternoon and robbed of $300 by a gang of gamblers carrying on their operation there. He immediately appealed to the commander of a detachment of American troops camped on the trail at the outskirts of Skagway, but the only satisfaction he got was advice to go and take his money from them! So next day, instead of taking a gun big enough for the business, he borrowed a miserable little .22 calibre and went and demanded his money.

” They told him to “git”, but he pulled the popgun and began to blaze away at them, shooting one man through the hand. They took refuge behind anything that was handy and opened fire on him, one from behind a tree with a rifle, but so hurried was their aim that not one bullet struck him while he stood calmly under fire, and reloaded and again emptied his revolver at them. Just then, another man, sitting down on a sled some distance away, to rest, was hit by a stray bullet. It entered his mouth and came through his cheek; he set up a yell; men began to gather, the gamblers lit out, and have been seen no more in that vicinity, and all this within easy reach of American soldiers, busily engaged in chopping wood.”

And if the novices believed that the trek over the White Pass would be any easier, they were mistaken. One man drowned crossing the Skagway River when he fell off a log and his 50-kilogram pack pulled him to the bottom.

The trail criss-crossed the Skagway River. Each crossing posed more threats to those using the route. Everywhere they turned, they were being gouged for one thing after another. There was a toll for using the trail. Everything had a price, and an inflated one at that.

The first part of the trail seemed easy enough, but beyond Liarsville, there was the climb to Black Lake, and beyond that, Porcupine Hill. While portions of the trail were improved by constructing log corduroy over the bogs and dead horses, it was not easy going. Each change of season brought with it a new variety of challenges and hazards.

Horses were treated cruelly, being pushed beyond their limit by ambitious teamsters. If they weren’t worked to death, they died in the bog holes or struggled over slimy rocks and steep climbs. Some fell off cliffs, others died from overwork while many perished from exhaustion and starvation.

Some witnesses swore that they saw animals commit suicide by leaping to their deaths rather than continue.

Tappan Adney, the correspondent for Harper’s Magazine, saw one horse that had fallen on the trail and broken its leg. The owner removed it pack and put the animal out of its misery, then the traffic continued over the still warm corpse. When Adney returned later in the day, “there was not a vestige of that horse left except his head lying on one side of the trail and his tail on the other. The traffic had ground him up.”

During the winter on 1897/98, hundreds, if not thousands of horses perished along the White Pass trail, but the full extent of the horror was not revealed until the melting snows of spring revealed the countless corpses scattered beside the trail, and the hot temperatures of summer produced a stench of rotting flesh that was indescribable.

Once they crossed over into Canadian territory at the summit, things seemed to improve. The Mounted Police maintained control of the traffic. They kept out undesirable elements, ensured that everyone was properly outfitted with sufficient supplies, and monitored their trip until they reached their destination in the Klondike.

It seemed a far cry from the disorder, crime and chaos that reigned on the American side of the border until the completion of the White Pass railroad put an end to it once and for all.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is available in stores throughout the territory.

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

Just Posted

An avalanche warning sigh along the South Klondike Highway. Local avalanche safety instructors say interest in courses has risen during the pandemic as more Yukoners explore socially distanced outdoor activities. (Tom Patrick/Yukon News file)
Backcountry busy: COVID-19 has Yukoners heading for the hills

Stable conditions for avalanches have provided a grace period for backcountry newcomers

Several people enter the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Coast High Country Inn Convention Centre in Whitehorse on Jan. 26. The Yukon government announced on Jan. 25 that residents of Whitehorse, Ibex Valley, Marsh Lake and Mount Lorne areas 65 and older can now receive their vaccines. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Vaccine appointments available in Whitehorse for residents 65+

Yukoners 65 and older living in Whitehorse are now eligible to receive… Continue reading

Diane McLeod-McKay, Yukon’s Ombudsman and information and privacy commissioner, filed a petition on Dec. 11 after her office was barred from accessing documents related to a child and family services case. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon government rejects Ombudsman requests for documentation filed to Supreme Court

Diane McLeod-McKay filed a petition on Dec. 11 after requests for documents were barred

Buffalo Sabres center Dylan Cozens, left, celebrates his first NHL goal with defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen during the second period of a game against the Washington Capitals on Jan. 22 in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)
Cozens notches first NHL goal in loss to Capitals

The Yukoner potted his first tally at 10:43 of the second period on Jan. 22

Rodney and Ekaterina Baker in an undated photo from social media. The couple has been ticketed and charged under the Yukon’s <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> for breaking isolation requirements in order to sneak into a vaccine clinic and receive Moderna vaccine doses in Beaver Creek. (Facebook/Submitted)
Former CEO of Great Canadian Gaming, actress charged after flying to Beaver Creek for COVID-19 vaccine

Rod Baker and Ekaterina Baker were charged with two CEMA violations each

The bus stop at the corner of Industrial and Jasper Road in Whitehorse on Jan. 25. The stop will be moved approximately 80 metres closer to Quartz Road. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
UPDATED: Industrial Road bus stop to be relocated

The city has postponed the move indefinitely

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Faro photgraphed in 2016. Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old building currently accommodating officers. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Faro RCMP tagged for new detachment

Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old… Continue reading

In a Jan. 18 announcement, the Yukon government said the shingles vaccine is now being publicly funded for Yukoners between age 65 and 70, while the HPV vaccine program has been expanded to all Yukoners up to and including age 26. (1213rf.com)
Changes made to shingles, HPV vaccine programs

Pharmacists in the Yukon can now provide the shingles vaccine and the… Continue reading

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

Most Read