Meat the Klondike

For the cattle drivers who followed the thousands of hungry miners, adventurers and entrepreneurs pouring into the Klondike at the turn of the 20th century, cattle drives were a means to an end, and the end was profit.

For the cattle drivers who followed the thousands of hungry miners, adventurers and entrepreneurs pouring into the Klondike at the turn of the 20th century, cattle drives were a means to an end, and the end was profit.

Yukon historian (and News columnist) Michael Gates’ book “Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail” is a wonderful source of stories and accounts of these dangerous, exhausting and sometimes unsuccessful drives. By Gates’s count there were more than 100 cattle drives into the Yukon using four different routes. He has done a rough calculation and reckons that in 1898 about one-third of the gold recovered by miners was spent on beef.

Willis Thorp, a butcher from Juneau, Alaska, was the first person to drive cattle from the coast into the interior in 1896, lured by the potential market among the growing mining communities at Forty Mile and Circle, Alaska. He started with 40 to 60 steer at Haines Mission, swam the cattle up the Chilkat River, and was chased off the trail by Jack Dalton near Klukwan village. Thorp and his party of 10 men cut their own trail over the mountains to Kusawa Lake, then travelled overland on a track to the Yukon River, landing just below Five Finger Rapids with all but four steer intact. They travelled down the Yukon River to the mouth of the Klondike, and stopped there. Hundreds of miners had set up camp; the first trickle of what would soon become a flood. Thorp sold most of his meat at Dawson for $16,000, and took the rest to Forty Mile.

One ten-pound piece of meat made it up to Circle, Alaska, where it was displayed in a window at the trading post and then auctioned off as a fundraiser for a new hospital. The meat brought in bids as high as $35 per pound, the story was published in papers throughout Canada and the United States, and the cattle stampede to the Yukon was on.

The Klondike cattle drives originated from as far south as New Mexico and as far east as P.E.I., arriving by rail or sea at the coast then over the Dalton Trail or the White Pass.

As Gates notes, timing was everything. Cattle drivers had to start their journey in spring after the snow had melted. They would graze the animals along the way, and either slaughter the animals when the weather was cool enough to preserve the meat or arrive in Dawson with live animals. No route was safe from hazards: mosquitos, swamps, quicksand, poisonous feed or none at all, river crossings, spring blizzards and fall whiteouts, lack of food for horses and men, disease, lameness and death.

Norman Lee’s diaries, published in the small volume “The Klondike Cattle Drive” (1960), are a fine account of the misfortunes and occasional triumphs encountered on the trail. After an often heartbreaking, four-month journey, during which he seems to have kept his sense of humour, Lee arrived at Teslin Lake where he slaughtered and butchered his cattle and loaded them on to scows headed for Dawson. Halfway down the lake a squall erupted, the scows broke apart and nearly all the beef was lost. Lee made his way slowly back to the Chilcotin empty-handed.

Some drives were very successful, including those led by Ed Fearon of Saskatchewan in 1887, Pat Burns of Calgary (whom Gates describes as a “cattle baron”), E. Pearson, the Tuxford Brothers from Saskatchewan, Jack Dalton himself and by H.L. Miller, who brought first cattle, then pigs and then turkeys to Dawson.

Drivers following the Dalton Trail (550 kilometres from Pyramid Harbor to Fort Selkirk) would arrive at the Yukon River north of Five Finger Rapids, build scows and rafts and send their cattle down to Dawson. Or they would butcher at Slaughterhouse Slough, a makeshift slaughtering yard near Fort Selkirk, and hope the weather would stay cold, but not so cold the river froze up. More than one driver lost his meat to the freeze-up.

Once in Dawson, meat was sold to butcher shops, to restaurants and to individuals, at prices ranging from 75 cents to $2.50 a pound, depending on how saturated the market was. In 1898-99 there was also a lucrative trade in selling wild game — Tappan Adney, a reporter for Harper’s Magazine and a great chronicler of the Gold Rush, describes a hunt he went on with Chief Isaac and his people, the “Tro-chu-tin” (Tr’ondek Hwech’in) during which the party harvested 32 moose, selling some of the meat to miners for $1.25 to $1.50 per pound.

Once the White Pass & Yukon Route railway was established in 1900, live animals or meat could be transported by rail and river, and the cattle drives to the Klondike fell off and so did the trade in game. There was little incentive, too, for farmers in the growing agricultural industry to raise livestock for any table but their own. Jack Dalton drove his last herd of 200 cattle in 1906, transporting it from Skagway by rail, to Dawson by scow, from there to Circle, Alaska and from there to Fairbanks. Similarly, cattle destined for Dawson would travel by rail to Whitehorse and scow to Dawson, and the local papers would report on their progress.

In what Gates calls an interesting postscript to the story of cattle drives into the Yukon, T.C. Richards, who managed the P. Burns and Co. butcher store in Whitehorse, successfully drove a herd of cattle to Mayo and then to the mining camps at Keno in the early 1920s. It was a tough haul. The wranglers were two weeks on the trail from Fort Selkirk to Mayo, four head were lost in a snowstorm, there was no feed, and the cattle broke into the wranglers’ supplies and ate everything but their tea. The wranglers survived on rabbits and tea for the remainder of the journey. Richards did manage to sell a quantity of meat to the United Keno Hill Mining Company, so the venture was not a complete disaster.

Southern beef, pork and turkey arrive in the Yukon today via the Alaska Highway, but Yukon farmers are developing a healthy market for locally grown meat. In 2011, the last census year for which there is data, 13 farms reported that there were 213 cattle and calves in the Yukon. Data from this year’s census has yet to be published, but will likely show an increase in those numbers. Yukon’s cattle sector is growing steadily thanks to an expansion of Yukon-based abattoir facilities and retail opportunities. At a time like this, it is amazing to look back at the risky efforts of the wranglers who first brought cattle into the territory during the Klondike Gold Rush era.

This article is part of a series commissioned by the Yukon Agricultural Association and funded by Growing Forward 2, an initiative of the governments of Canada and Yukon.

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