Tom William’s golden death march

Howard Franklin and Henry Madison discovered coarse gold on what became known as Franklin's Bar, on the Fortymile River, in the fall of 1886. What followed was one of the epic journeys in the history of the quest for gold in the Yukon.

Howard Franklin and Henry Madison discovered coarse gold on what became known as Franklin’s Bar, on the Fortymile River, in the fall of 1886.

What followed was one of the epic journeys in the history of the quest for gold in the Yukon.

At Fort Nelson, at the mouth of the Stewart River, the trader Arthur Harper realized that when news of the strike on the Fortymile River reached the Outside, there would be a stampede of substantial proportions. Harper’s partner Jack McQuesten was out in San Francisco making arrangements for next year’s shipment of goods. Not knowing about this new event, McQuesten could not possibly order enough supplies to deal with the anticipated stampede.

Harper wrote a letter to McQuesten describing the new discovery, and advised him to increase his order of supplies. Tom Williams, one of the miners wintering at Fort Nelson, volunteered to carry the message to the head of navigation at Dyea, where it could be forwarded to McQuesten in time to increase his order of supplies.

No prospector had ever before attempted to leave the Yukon during the winter. Departing for the coast on December 1 with a dog team and a young native man named Bob to help him, Williams had no idea what hardships were ahead. Even if he had known, so determined was he to reach Dyea, he would not have turned back.

The journey he faced was formidable: a trek to the coast in the dark of winter, a distance of several hundred kilometres, with no trail to follow.

The trip started easily enough. The weather that winter was the mildest in years, and at first, Tom and Bob covered up to 40 kilometres every day. After a week, it rained, and the distances covered each day diminished.

Traveling along the river, they encountered heavy pack ice, massive blocks frozen into contorted shapes, creating a grossly irregular surface over which, by heavy physical effort, they could force the dogs and the sled full of supplies.

At the end of the second week, after passing Rink rapids, the sled broke, and they had to stop to repair it. The following day, they traveled on ice covered with water. This was hard on the dogs’ feet, and it slowed them down even more.

The warm weather weakened the ice. On the 17th of December, Bob went through into water over his head. The same thing happened the next day, and the day after that. On the l9th the floe ice in the open leads in the Yukon jammed, causing the water to rise; they received yet another dunking.

Encountering more open water, the two men, now pushing an exhausted team, had to portage three kilometres through riverbank brush to reach more solid river ice. On the 22nd, they traveled only 14 kilometres.

It was in this section of the Yukon River where the two determined men encountered some bar miners, who were wintering over along the upper Yukon. They were able to replenish their supplies while passing on the word of the new discovery, and collecting more letters to take outside.

They pressed on, encountering open water and more warm weather, which slowed them down and forced them to travel along the shelf of ice which shouldered the watercourse. Then the weather turned bitterly cold as they forged ahead to the coastal mountain barrier.

They arrived at Lake Laberge on New Year’s Eve, without celebration. Over the smooth Lake ice, they made better time, but so obsessed were they with their goal, that they refused to rest. By this time, they were feeding their dogs from their rapidly dwindling supply of flour.

Both men and dogs were reaching total exhaustion as they moved up the Whitehorse rapids, now ringed with fairy frost from the spray of the swiftly moving water, past Miles Canyon, and along the string of lakes at the headwaters of the Yukon.

They advanced over the smooth lake ice, making excellent mileage every day until they reached Bennett Lake where they encountered a band of wandering Indians, whom they could not persuade to accompany them over the Chilkoot Summit.

Ignoring the warnings about the treacherous coastal pass, Williams and his young companion continued, and encountered a violent blizzard. Fighting a strong headwind, they struggled for another 32 kilometres. But then the weather became so bad that they could not move at all.

They made another 16 kilometres through heavy snow and camped in the middle of Lake Lindeman, without fuel or shelter from the storm.

The hardship continued. They abandoned their sled and began packing supplies on their backs. One dog was so exhausted that it could not continue, so they abandoned it. They made eight kilometres in two days, and camped on the second day in the perpetual mountain storm. Finally, exhausted and out of food, they reached Stone House, below the Chilkoot summit. Somewhere along the trail, they had lost the last of their dogs, and the precious mail they were taking to the coast.

For five days, they were trapped in a snow shelter at the foot of the coastal palisade, without fire or food other than a little dry flour. Williams was sick and feverish with pneumonia when they emerged from their shelter on the sixth day.

Leaving everything behind them, they struck out through the snow for Dyea. After only a short distance, Williams collapsed, and young Bob struggled on heroically, through half a metre of snow, into a blinding blizzard, with Williams on his back. They made only 19 kilometres in five days, when they encountered a wandering band of Chilkats, who took them directly to Healy and Wilson’s post at salt water.

The trip was too difficult an ordeal for Williams. He died within two hours, but not before he told the astonished party in the store of the new discovery of gold. The details were contained in the letters that he had carried with him from the Yukon River. Wilson, the trader, sent out a party to find the pouch of mail, but they were driven back by the raging storm. A few days later, J.J. Healy, Wilson’s partner, returned from Juneau. Young Bob, and the electrifying news of the new strike were quickly transported to Juneau.

Everyone in the coastal outpost was curious about news that would cause a man to undertake such a dangerous journey. Young Bob, picking up a handful of beans remarked: “Gold all same like this.” That was the beginning of the first stampede to the Yukon in search of gold.

Healy led an expedition into the pass to find the bundle of letters, which contained the news of the strike, and even a map. There, beneath the snowy peaks, they found the mail bag, still being faithfully guarded by the last of Williams’ dogs, dead and frozen.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer

based in Whitehorse.

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