Damn the journey, damn the track
Damn the distance there & back
Damn the sunshine, damn the weather,
Damn the goldfields altogether.
– written on a blazed tree beside the trail near the south end of Teslin Lake.
The Teslin Trail was once heralded as the All-Canadian route to the Klondike by the Canadian government. It may have been all Canadian, but it was all trouble from start to finish. Six thousand unfortunate stampeders pitted themselves against this gold rush trail during 1898.
The route followed the Stikine River from its mouth near Wrangell, Alaska, 200 kilometres upstream to Glenora, and beyond that to Telegraph Creek, British Columbia. From there, it turned north for 250 kilometres, more or less, to the south end of Teslin Lake.
From Teslin Lake, it was supposed to be easy sailing to Dawson City and the gold of the Klondike.
The Stikine River was once a major Tlingit trade route to the Tahltan people of the interior. Then Buck Choquette discovered gold there in 1861. It didn’t amount to much, but it prompted British Columbia governor James Douglas to declare it part of British territory. More gold discoveries followed in the Cassiar district and at Dease Lake.
The Stikine was quiet until gold was discovered in the Klondike and then things became hectic in a hurry. Thousands of people converged on the North, gaining access from every direction of the compass.
More heavily used routes like the Chilkoot and the White Pass trails required passage through American territory, accompanied by the imposition of heavy duty, or inspection by officials – for a fee of course – which was almost as expensive. Many Canadians simply bought American outfits to start with to avoid the penalties, and Canadian merchants were outraged.
Passage up the Stikine River was exempt from American duty, which made the Teslin Trail the choice of Canadian merchants, and thousands of stampeders were sold on travelling over the patriotic trail. They quickly found out that was a big mistake,
It didn’t help that the information about the trail was misleading. Guide books of the day, cashing in on the insatiable appetite of cheechakos for information, provided descriptions of the routes of access. Most of them, however, were inaccurate enough to be dangerous.
One guide book described the route as “the best highway to the gold fields from the coast yet discovered.”
A Canadian newspaper stated that the trail was “passing through exceptionally easy country.”
Another stated that “the country from Telegraph Creek to Teslin is flat and easily travelled and pack trains can be hired at the former place at reasonable rates.”
That was not the case. To get a good start, many outfits went up the Stikine River in the early spring, relaying supplies upriver over the ice. Many lost their outfits or even their lives falling through the ice.
The conditions were deplorable. Three inexperienced Californians laboured through tough conditions. Their feet were perpetually wet and cold, eventually requiring amputation when they became gangrenous. Other men froze to death or died of scurvy.
Pack trains weren’t available as advertised. The Canadian government purchased what stock was to be had to carry supplies for the Yukon Field Force, which consisted of 200 militia members going to the Yukon. Their purpose was to bolster the thinly stretched force of the mounted police who were struggling to maintain law, order and sovereignty.
The Laurier government signed an ill-advised contract with Mackenzie Mann and Company to construct a railroad to Teslin Lake from Telegraph Creek. The land concessions granted the company were considered too liberal by the opposition, and the controversial contract failed to gain the support of the Senate.
The railroad was abandoned after only 20 miles (32 km) of rail bed were constructed, and all those who chose this route because they expected to find swift passage, found only disappointment. The trail started off easily enough. As far as the Nahlin River, the trail passed through a mountainous region bisected every so often by shallow icy cold streams.
According to one observer, “the table lands resemble bits of wild park with beautiful blue mountain lakes.” In some places, however, loads had to be hauled up hill using block and tackle.
Stampeders encountered ubiquitous hordes of mosquitoes, and long hours of back-breaking labour. The trail was too narrow and rough for wagons. Some enterprising individuals resorted to using one-wheel “go-devils;” others employed dogs as pack animals.
The horses that were available suffered under the often brutal conditions of the trail. “It breaks one’s heart,” said an observer, “to see the conditions of many animals that return from the trail – pitiful weary creatures with great blotches like inflamed scalds upon their backs … the animal walks on in dumb agony, with a festering fist-deep sore fresh goaded every moment by the load above it, until he drops on the trail and is mercifully shot.”
North of the Nahlin River, the land flattened out and was either “bog or log” all the way. Travelers were walking through bog moss beaten into a sodden mush by thousands of feet, or clambering over miles of fire-burnt deadfall.
Where the bog was the worst, log corduroy was laid on top, but these slippery logs proved dangerous for man and beast and were often avoided. In some places where fire was active, they walked on burning moss, through ash and smoke.
Several herds of cattle were driven over the trail, but this only worsened trail conditions. One herder got only as far as Telegraph Creek before giving up and selling his beef in a temporary shop there.
Other herds made it to Teslin Lake, but never reached their destination. One party lost its cargo of beef in the rough waters of Teslin Lake; another had two scow loads of beef that were frozen in and never made it to Dawson. Of the five herds that I have documented for the trail, only one actually reached the Klondike capital.
The Teslin Trail to the Klondike proved to be all hype and no trail and quickly fizzled out.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org