Greed and grand visions on the Dalton Trail

They don't make men like Jack Dalton anymore. Tough, resourceful, a born leader. And mean as a wolverine. People who got on his wrong side tended to end up dead.

They don’t make men like Jack Dalton anymore. Tough, resourceful, a born leader. And mean as a wolverine.

People who got on his wrong side tended to end up dead, beaten senseless or deciding they preferred a different route to the Klondike than Dalton’s eponymous trail.

Michael Gates’ new history of Dalton and his trail takes us back to the Yukon’s early years. It was an age of heroes and fools, greed and grand visions and very different from today’s age of the bureaucrat.

Jack Dalton had a vision of opening up a route to the Yukon interior. He seized control of the ancient trade route from the Chilkats, then built roadhouses and bridges and collected tolls on no more authority than the gun on his hip.

He probably never heard the word stakeholder in his life, and I wouldn’t have wanted to be the YESAB official who showed him the process flowchart to build a new road in the Yukon.

Dalton and his trail are in the historical shade compared to the Chilkoot Trail or White Pass. The White Pass sees hundreds of thousands of train visitors every year and the Chilkoot Trail has a government department doing the kind of trail and bridge work Dalton did on his trail.

But, as Gates describes in his briskly paced and enjoyable book, the story of the Dalton Trail is also the story of the Yukon.

We start when the Chilkats controlled the route and an elaborate trade network stretching deep into the Yukon watershed. Then we have the arrival of Dalton and English explorer Edward Glave on one of those classic 19th-century newspaper-funded expeditions seeking to fill in all the blank bits on the map.

With the assistance of Chilkats, who probably regretted it later, Glave and Dalton make it across the pass long enough to get a dunking in Kluane Lake and startle the Southern Tutchone who see them riding some kind of tame moose without antlers.

Then the gold rush hits, and suddenly the North is full of entrepreneurs, suckers and con men. Dalton’s big idea is to make his trail the main avenue into the Yukon. His schemes include stage coaches, mail runs, cattle drives, railroads and more.

He is so fixated on this, that he is actually in the Klondike when gold is found but returns to Haines instead of staking a claim.

The Dalton Trail has a lot of advantages. It’s not as steep as the Chilkoot, and hits the Yukon River downstream of the big, stormy lakes and White Horse rapids.

But it is 294 long miles from the coast to Five Finger Rapid, and most stampeders end up choosing the Chilkoot or, later, the White Pass railroad. Dalton isn’t fazed by this for long, and soon figures out that his route is ideal for getting cattle to Dawson.

Thus begins the era of the Yukon cattle drive, with thousands of cattle headed over the trail from Haines to Fort Selkirk. It took about two and a half months for your cattle to get to the Yukon River, and then you had to slaughter them.

You might get nine cents a pound for your meat Outside, but in gold-crazed and hungry Dawson you might get $1.50. On the other hand, your cow might also sink into a swamp, get eaten by wolves or sink on a home-made raft headed to Dawson.

Finally, we have the decline of the trail. The Canadian police dutifully do their duty as the number of travellers and cows on the trail dwindle. The bush reclaims parts of the trail and bridges and roadhouses slowly return to nature.

Gates does a nice job highlighting the ghost-like nature of the Dalton Trail today.

In between the chapters of history, he includes brief personal reminiscences of his own historical research along the trail, looking for old camps, cabins and locales. Gates connects past and present by pairing gold rush photos with his own shots taken from the same vantage point.

Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail tells the story of an important and too-long neglected part of the Yukon’s history. And it leavens its history with enough ripping yarns from the pioneer days to keep the narrative moving.

It is available at Mac’s and the MacBride Museum bookstore and should have a place on every Yukon bookshelf.

The book launch is at the Old Fire Hall on Tuesday, May 22, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail: Exploring the Route of the Klondike Cattle Drives, Michael Gates, Lost Moose, 303 pages, $24.95

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.