When beef was more valuable than gold

The early tales of the Wild West were filled with cattle drives and adventure. The Yukon had its own cattle adventures too.

The early tales of the Wild West were filled with cattle drives and adventure. The Yukon had its own cattle adventures too.

Before the gold rush, a Juneau butcher named Willis Thorp got the bright idea that there might be a market for beef in the tiny gold camps of Forty Mile and Circle City. In 1896 he assembled a herd of cattle, and with help from his family, took them over the mountains north of Haines, Alaska, and through the interior of the Yukon to the Yukon River. He never made it to Forty Mile or Circle.

Gold had just been discovered, and everybody was stampeding to the mouth of the Klondike River. Thorp sold his beef there at a good price, and left the following summer.

A small amount of his beef made it to Circle that winter and so great was the demand that it sold for $105 a kilogram ($48 a pound). Outside, where beef was selling for 10 to 12 cents a kilogram, newspaper accounts of this remarkable price raised plenty of interest; the following spring, more herds were headed north to the Yukon.

In 1897, two dozen enterprising cattlemen moved livestock north to the Klondike. When word of the Klondike broke Outside in mid-July, these cattlemen were already on the trail in the interior of the Yukon. The beef shipped to Dawson City by these entrepreneurs brought prices between two and four dollars a kilo and helped stave off famine in a rapidly growing town where, in the winter of 1897/98, gold was more plentiful than food.

The following summer, the number of livestock imported to the Yukon doubled. Cattlemen from as far away as Prince Edward Island and New Mexico set off for the Klondike coming via several different routes. A small number of herds, stimulated by Prairie political hype, attempted to reach the Klondike market via Edmonton by following a route that paralleled the route of today’s Alaska Highway. One outfit that started from Wyoming via the Edmonton route with 75 horses reached its destination the following year – with one horse and 2 mules. None of the cattle drives reached the Yukon.

At least half a dozen herds were headed north from Ashcroft, British Columbia, over the Telegraph Trail to Teslin Lake. By this challenging route, only one of the herds successfully reached its destination. One herd was even taken in via the Copper River from Valdez, but its eventual fate is not known.

By far the best routes to bring cattle into the Yukon were from points along the Lynn Canal. The best route was over the Dalton Trail from Pyramid Harbour. This route avoided the hazards of the lakes and canyons of the Upper Yukon River. Once over the Chilkat Pass, cattle gained weight as they ate their way along 480 kilometres of fairly level terrain. It was late August or September before these parties reached the Yukon River below Five Finger Rapid.

The cattlemen took advantage of the cool autumn weather. In late September and early October, when the temperatures were hovering around the freezing point, they slaughtered their herds beside the Yukon River and loaded the beef onto scows or rafts hastily assembled at their riverside abattoirs, hoping to reach the Dawson market before the river froze solid.

Those who brought livestock via the White Pass had their own set of problems. After unloading their animals at Skagway, they herded them up the White Pass Trail toward Bennett. There, they built scows carefully partitioned to keep the cattle from shifting their weight and capsizing the vessel. With any luck, they were able to secure one of the small fleet of boats to tow them through the lakes and rivers as far as Miles Canyon.

The White Pass had one advantage over the Dalton Trail: because of the heavy use of the trail, it was passable in the winter. Livestock were taken to Bennett, or even farther, during the cold winter months, and then slaughtered. The Waechter brothers brought in a herd that was slaughtered at Bennett in 1897, and the meat was moved ahead over the winter, giving them a head start in the spring. With the warmer spring weather, the beef had to be salted to prevent it from spoiling. When the Waechters arrived in Dawson in the spring of 1898, the beef commanded almost four dollars a kilogram.

As much as 2,500 tonnes of beef, as well as sheep and hogs, were brought to the Klondike during the height of the gold rush. Assuming an average price of $1.50 per kilogram for the meat sold to the restaurants and hungry miners of Dawson, the Klondike beef industry was worth $3.75 million dollars in 1898. Given that the total amount of gold recovered in the Klondike that year is estimated to have been between $8 million and $10 million, it is easy to see that supplying beef to the hungry miners could be more lucrative than gold mining!

The completion of the White Pass and Yukon Route in 1900 changed the nature of the cattle industry. Hauling cattle by train to Whitehorse displaced the Dalton Trail route, which was last used in 1906. Some cattlemen still refused to patronize the train over the White Pass trail, but in 1903, the White Pass and Yukon Route had crews destroy bridges on the old mountain trail, which forced the cattlemen into using the train.

Arriving in Whitehorse, cattlemen could herd their livestock north via the overland road. After the turn of the century, some brought herds all the way to Dawson over the frozen trail during the winter. White Pass also supplied convenient transportation with its fleet of river boats, which could push cattle barges down the Yukon River to the Klondike.

Several of the cattlemen who were prominent during the gold rush continued to operate their meat businesses in later years, including the Waechter brothers, Chris Bartsch, and Charlie Thebo. But Pat Burns of Calgary appears to have topped them all. He had branch stores at various times in Dawson City, Mayo, Whitehorse (all in the Yukon), Atlin, Pine City, and Bennett (all in British Columbia). The Burns building still stands on Main Street Whitehorse to the present day. The building used by Burns in Mayo was only demolished within the last two years.

In 1921, T.C. Richards, then the manager of the Burns Company business in Whitehorse, took a herd of cattle overland from Fort Selkirk to Mayo. This is the most recent cattle drive that I have been able to find to date.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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