Three little boats played a big part in Yukon history

A B.C. architect made his mark in Yukon history - and didn't design a single Yukon building.

A B.C. architect made his mark in Yukon history – and didn’t design a single Yukon building.

Francis Mawson Rattenbury made his mark in British Columbia architecture: the provincial legislature; the Empress Hotel, the CPR steamship terminal, and the Crystal Garden swimming pool are all a stone’s throw from Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

For a short time, Rattenbury became involved in the Klondike Gold Rush, and left an imprint that continued throughout the period of the great stampede. The story is well told in a new book that my wife gave me as a Valentine’s Day gift.

Gold Rush Steamboats: Francis Rattenbury’s Yukon Venture was written and published by John L. Motherwell, of Victoria, B.C. in 2012.

A self-taught architect, born in Leeds, England on October 11, 1867, Rattenbury was just 27 years old when he was commissioned in 1893 to design the new Parliament Building for the provincial government, only a year after arriving in Canada. When it was officially opened in the spring of 1898, the enterprising architect was already on to other things.

Rattenbury’s first encounter with the Klondike occurred in 1897, when, in partnership with Pat Burns of Calgary, they had transported a load of cattle north to the Dalton Trail. The shipment left Vancouver only days before the first big news of the Klondike broke on the front pages of newspapers in San Francisco and Seattle.

Completely engulfed by the entrepreneurial spirit, Rattenbury commissioned William Jenkin Stephens of Victoria on January 20, 1898, to design and cut the timbers for three small steamboats. These were to be shipped to the Yukon, where they would be assembled and put into operation as soon as possible.

Rattenbury went to England to secure financing and within a short time, the Bennett Lake and Klondyke Navigation Company (BLKN) was formed.

He hired William Olive to act as his northern manager. By the time the contract with Stephens was signed, Olive was already in Skagway with the advance shipment of equipment. The remainder followed in due course, and was hauled over the White Pass and down Bennett Lake. A mile north of the mouth of the Wheaton River, Olive and his party found a nicely sloped curve of beach with deep water offshore that served as the shipyard.

Under the supervision of foreman Otto Partridge, Olive’s crew constructed three identical sternwheel steamboats 21.5 metres long and nearly five metres across the beam. They had a registered tonnage of 64 and a capacity to carry 75 persons, although they often carried many more than the allowable limit.

The three vessels were named the Ora, the Flora and the Nora, in honour of Rattenbury’s new bride, Florence Eleanor. The first of these, the Ora, was launched June 10, 1898, followed quickly by the other two. The Ora steamed safely through Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids piloted by Mounted Police Constable Edgar Dixon on June 22.

Until the completion of the White Pass and Yukon Route to Whitehorse, the Ora and Flora navigated between Dawson City and the Whitehorse Rapid, where, using Macaulay’s tram line, goods and passengers were transferred to or from the Nora, which plied the waters above the canyon.

During the next five seasons, this small fleet of sternwheelers was kept busy hauling freight and passengers on the Yukon. They had a record for safety and reliability, and, because they drew such a small draft, only 46 centimetres of water, they navigated safely through sections of the Yukon where other larger vessels were regularly trapped on river bars.

Credit for their safety record also goes to the highly experienced men who captained the three little boats. Their skill in reading the ever-changing waters of the Yukon and navigating the rapids and turns on the river kept them out of danger.

The discovery of gold at Atlin enhanced the business for the Nora, which steamed between Bennett, Taku Landing and Canyon City, while the other two handled the longer stretch to Dawson City.

At first, the BLKN made a good return on its investment. The BKLN boats were regularly the first to arrive in Dawson in the spring, the last to leave in the fall, and the fastest to make the trip between Dawson City and Whitehorse.

By 1900, the dynamics had changed. The completion of the railroad to Whitehorse eliminated the need for transportation between Bennett and Canyon City. Other competitors introduced larger, more comfortable riverboats for the journey to and from Dawson. Eventually, the White Pass and Yukon Route went into the river boat business, squeezing out the competition.

By June of 1902, the little fleet of steamboats had sailed their last voyage. Stripped of their housework and machinery, they were used for barging. The Flora and the Ora were converted to support a dredge for mining the Fortymile River. It was a rather ignominious end to their remarkable story. By that time, Rattenbury had long left the BLKM and moved on to other projects.

After a streak of successful ventures, poor investments and changing styles in architecture diminished his fortunes. Rattenbury returned to England in 1930, where he was murdered in a love triangle in 1935.

The author first came to the Yukon in 1949, and a lifetime interest in its history followed. It was a chance conversation with Bill MacBride in 1955 that first introduced him to the story of the BLKN.

Motherwell’s excellent book provides a detailed account of the fortunes of the BLKM from its birth to its demise. Along the way it provides plenty of detail about early gold rush transportation along the Yukon. It is coloured with details of events that were unfolding during the stampede, and highlights the personalities and achievements of many of those, in addition to Rattenbury, who became involved in the BLKN.

Gold Rush Steamboats contains dozens of well-chosen and well-sized photographs of the people, the boats and the events associated with the story. There are five maps illustrating the details described in the story, as well as two pages of line drawing of the design of the fleet. Hundreds of footnotes accompany the text if you want to go back to the original sources. The index will help you find the people and places referred to in the story.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and will refer to it often.

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 msgates@northwestel.net

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