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The mystery of Slaughterhouse Slough

As a history hunter, I have often been compelled to track down intriguing bits of information to assemble an historical account in the same way that one pieces together a jigsaw puzzle to reveal the hidden picture.

As a history hunter, I have often been compelled to track down intriguing bits of information to assemble an historical account in the same way that one pieces together a jigsaw puzzle to reveal the hidden picture. It is a compulsion I cannot resist because I am addicted to the pursuit of historical fact.

This was the case when I uncovered an intriguing collection of photographs in the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California.

The collection of photos was in an album that was a souvenir of a cattle drive over the Dalton Trail in 1898. Based on information associated with this album, I concluded this cattle drive was sponsored by Charlie Thebo, a big cattleman, who continued in the meat business in Dawson City for several years after the gold rush.

The photos depict the cattle being herded from box cars onto barges to be towed up the coast to Alaska. Others illustrate the huge cattle pens at Pyramid Harbour on the Alaska coast on the opposite side of the Chilkat Inlet from Haines.

From there, the photos show the herd being guided over the long Dalton Trail to the Yukon River.

Here is where it gets interesting.

There are many versions of the Dalton Trail that have been depicted on maps over the years, but most of them end at Carmacks or continue along the west shore of the Yukon River downstream to Five Finger or Rink Rapids. Below these points, it was easy to transfer the cattle, live or dead, onto scows to safely float the remainder of the distance to Dawson City.

What was interesting about this picture album was a pair of photos that showed the cattle and horses swimming across the Yukon River, with the Tantalus Bluff at Carmacks clearly visible in the distant background.

A third photo shows the cattle drive encamped on the shore of the Yukon River. At one end of the encampment a corral holding livestock is clearly visible beside rows of log frames set up for butchering. At the foot of the gentle slope leading down from these butchering frames, two large scows are tied to bank of the Yukon River. Farther along the shore, at the other end of the camp, is a cluster of large canvas frame tents and a group of men standing next to a large bonfire.

From the lack of leaves on the trees in the background, I deduced that the photo was taken in the fall when it was cool enough that butchered meat would not go bad. This makes sense, given the length of time it took to herd livestock over the trail. The handwritten caption below the photograph reads: “Killing Pens Near Selkirk.”

Could it be that there was a branch of the Dalton Trail that followed along the east side of the Yukon River? I had found casual or vague references in different sources during my research and suspected as much. The photos in this album were very convincing, but would it be possible to find the site where Thebo’s herd was slaughtered and cut up for market somewhere near Fort Selkirk?

After a talk I gave last year in Haines, an audience member approached me and said that the location depicted in the photograph was known as “Slaughterhouse Slough.” Could I verify this, and more important - could I find the location where this photograph was taken?

I contacted Bruce Barrett, project officer of the historic sites section of the Department of Tourism and Culture. Yes, he was familiar with the name, “Slaughterhouse Slough,” but he didn’t know the precise location either.

Responding to my eagerness to locate this site, Barrett arranged for me to accompany him to Fort Selkirk at the beginning of August for the purpose of seeking out this historic feature.

Don Trudeau, the project manager for the restoration program at the historic site of Fort Selkirk, had been alerted to my arrival and the purpose of my visit. Trudeau learned from Franklin Roberts, longtime resident of Pelly Crossing and Fort Selkirk who knows the area well, that there was a place upriver where there were piles of bones lying on the ground near the river.

When I arrived at Fort Selkirk, Trudeau, Barrett, Garth Stoughton, the restoration carpentry instructor at Selkirk, and I climbed aboard Trudeau’s boat and made our way upriver.

The fact that weather was the warmest and driest of the summer was a bonus.

We arrived at the site where Franklin had pointed out the bones to Trudeau and, sure enough, from the river, the hills behind the site matched those in the 1898 photograph. While Trudeau held his boat in a stable position off shore, I madly snapped off a dozen photos of the view of the shore with the hills in the background.

At this point, my heart was pounding, and I felt a rising sense of impending discovery. It is a feeling that every history addict knows well. It was a definite Eureka moment!

Trudeau slowly edged the boat in to shore.

We clambered up the loose gravel bank and immediately started finding bones scattered about the site camouflaged in the dense undergrowth that has filled in the area since a recent forest fire.

The bones we saw represented the extremities of the legs, as well as jawbones and skull fragments. When I returned to Whitehorse, I spoke to Stacey at Stacey’s Butcher Block in Porter Creek about this, and he referred me to information about butchering procedures. Sure enough, only the parts not of value for butchering of beef were left behind at the site.

Examining the photograph carefully, we moved a hundred metres farther along the shore to where we thought the encampment shown in the photograph would be located. Here, rather than bones, we found scraps of sheet metal, stovepipe and tin cans.

Our conclusion: the photograph corresponded nicely with the material we actually found at the site. The location was quickly abandoned after the butchering was completed and, for all we know, may never have been used again.

The collection of bones and artifacts scattered along the shore clearly represented the remains of a party that had herded cattle to this point in the fall of 1898, and then slaughtered them and placed the beef into the scows to float down to the hungry miners of Dawson City.

Newspaper accounts detail what happened next.

One of the scows, running in the ice-clogged river, came aground on a bar in the middle of the river. Battered by the massive chunks of ice forming in the river, and desperate to get off the sandbar, the cowboy/sailors jettisoned 128 quarters to lighten the load. They succeeded, and made it to Dawson.

Piecing together the photographs with newspaper accounts and my visit to the site provided a nice fix for this history addict!

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