The Peace River trail to the Yukon

In 1898, Inspector Moodie of the North West Mounted Police had proven that a route to the Klondike overland from Edmonton was possible, if not realistic or practical.

In 1898, Inspector Moodie of the North West Mounted Police had proven that a route to the Klondike overland from Edmonton was possible, if not realistic or practical. If nothing else, the NWMP regarded the trip as “historic proof of what they were capable of.”

This route was revived seven years later when NWMP commissioner A.B. Perry was trying to justify the very existence of the force. On March 1 of 1905, the new administrative division “N” of the Mounted Police was created with Charles Constantine as its superintendent. This district, whose headquarters were at Lesser Slave Lake in Alberta, included the Peace River district and northern British Columbia.

Constantine was no stranger to the Yukon. In fact he was the first officer of the Mounted Police, along with staff sergeant Charles Brown, to enter the Yukon in 1894. Constantine returned the following year with a force of 20 officers and men to assert British sovereignty over the region which was overrun at the time with American prospectors. Acting as mining recorder, it was Constantine who signed the application for the Discovery Claim on Bonanza Creek made by George Washington Carmack in 1896.

One of the first duties assigned to the newly formed division: to open a pack trail from Fort St. John, B.C., to Teslin Lake in the Yukon. It was to follow the route taken by Inspector Moodie to Sylvester Landing on the Dease River, “And from that point across to Teslin Lake by the easiest route.” The distance was estimated to be around 1,200 kilometres.

It was to be a packhorse trail that could be upgraded to a wagon road at a future date. It was to be about two and a half metres wide. Streams were to be bridged, brush cleared, and where they encountered muskeg, corduroy was to be laid down. Mileposts were to be placed every three kilometres, marking the distance from Fort St. John. Small log “rest houses” were to be constructed about every 50 kilometres where firewood and water were readily accessible.

The work began in an orderly fashion in the spring 1905 and 150 kilometres were completed by the end of the season. A survey party would take the lead, selecting and marking the route to follow. Next, a pack train would be sent ahead of the main party to cache supplies. A work party would follow that would start the clearing back along the survey line from the cache until they met a second party that was working forward along the route. This procedure continued for the next three years.

At the request of the premier of British Columbia, Sir Richard McBride, the route was changed during the second season. Instead of proceeding north from Fort Grahame on the Finlay River, they turned west and headed for the Telegraph Trail, some 270 kilometres away, reaching a point 32 kilometres west of Fort Grahame by the end of the summer of 1906 (in the 1960s, after the completion of the Bennett Dam, Fort Grahame was submerged beneath the rising waters of the Williston Reservoir). In 1907 the party reached Cabin 4 on the telegraph line that extended from Hazelton to Dawson City.

According to Commissioner Perry, who inspected the trail in 1907, the challenges were typical of mountainous country: “steep ascents and descents, rivers and streams, muskegs and soft places, forests and fallen timber; the difficulties were the shortness of the season … the forwarding of supplies and the necessity of haste; the discomforts were from flies, wet and cold. Owing to the luxuriant growth being saturated with a heavy dew, the men were scarcely ever dry even if the day were fine.”

The men fended off mosquitoes and other biting insects by smearing their faces, necks and arms with bacon grease and smudging with thick clouds of tobacco smoke or smoky campfires. After a while, “they must have smelled like over-cured hams.” By the end of a summer of heavy road-work and brush cutting, their field uniforms were in tatters. But the men generally enjoyed good health, with the main medical problems arising from axe-wounds. Some men had to be evacuated to receive treatment and recuperate from such injuries.

Horses were essential to the success of the project. During the long winter, one of the main duties of the Mounties was the care of them. They located winter camps, where they built corrals and cabins and cut hay for feed. The first winter, 65 tons of hay was cut by hand, but wet weather ruined much of that feed, and emergency feed was long in coming. Before the spring arrived, the horses had become malnourished and weak; 11 died before feed was delivered.

By all accounts, despite being posted to the trail for two years, the men remained in good spirits throughout the construction work and over-wintering. They received the same isolation pay that was given to the men stationed in the Yukon, and after returning to civilization, were given a lengthy furlough to compensate for the long months on the trail.

But once they reached the telegraph line, the project fizzled. Financial support promised by the premier of British Columbia failed to materialize, and the trail was abandoned, except for the occasional Mounted Police patrol. Landslides buried sections; washouts took away others. Bridges fell into disrepair or were washed away; forest fires obliterated the path and left an impassable tangle of deadfalls.

Three years after the trail construction was abandoned, Sergeant Darling of the Mounted Police, accompanied by two constables, with 11 pack horses, left Athabasca Landing in Alberta on May 4, 1910, on a patrol passing over this route, arriving in Whitehorse nearly six months later on Oct. 15.

They found that the abandoned trail had been obscured by fallen timber, and the bridges rotting badly or washed away. They encountered only a handful of people anywhere on what had been the much dreamed-of link to the Yukon. The trip covered over 2,800 kilometres; when they reached the Yukon telegraph line, their resupply had not been delivered, and they were forced to make a 600-kilometre detour to secure the supplies they needed to continue.

After this, the trail was more or less forgotten, and the construction of a road to the Yukon was abandoned for the next 30 years.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net.

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