Inexperienced prospectors gambled their lives on the Yukon River for a frenzied chance to strike gold in the late 1800s.
Prospectors placed their faith in boats that were slapped together with whatever they could find, and set out on the roiling, frothing Yukon.
“There were boats that had been screwed together and boats that had been glued together, boats that looked like packing boxes and boats that looked like coffins, and might well be,” wrote photographer, Eric Hegg who traveled along the Yukon River in 1898.
Hegg was on one of the 7,000 boats that attempted the treacherous pass through Miles Canyon and the White Horse Rapids en route to Dawson City that year.
Not all boaters were as successful as Hegg and his crew though. Many died shooting rapids they were unskilled and unprepared for.
A plaque, recently erected near the fish hatcheries site in Riverdale, commemorates the lives of those who drowned during the Gold Rush.
It’s estimated that 50 to 100 people were on boats that sunk or smashed during the first days of the 1898 rush.
Few of these people received proper burials; the remains of boats and belongings that washed up on shore often were the only evidence of their death.
None of those watery graves are visible now and there isn’t even a record of the names of people who died, said local historian Helene Dobrowolsky, who researched the topic extensively.
When victims were given a burial it was likely done by fellow stampeders, First Nations people in the area or the Mounted Police, said Dobrowolsky.
According to Irene Adamson, a Ta’an Kwach’an elder, aboriginal people were hired by the police to retrieve bodies from the river and then bury them in a mass grave, said Dobrowolsky who interviewed Adamson during her research.
The bodies were probably buried at some distance from camping areas, without coffins, perhaps only a simple wooden cross or a pile of rocks to mark the location, and a prayer, said Dobrowolsky.
“Even when graves were dug, the river redirected itself a few times since then and would have easily washed them away,” she added.
Instead of shooting the rapids, prospectors could have hoofed their supplies down portage trails created by First Nations people, but with so much to carry with them many opted to take the risk instead.
Back then, the water level ripping through the Canyon was higher than it is now, and it was more dangerous, said Dobrowolsky.
“It was quite a roller-coaster ride. Skilled boatsmen were needed to go through them.”
“The rapids are about a half-mile long and the only dangerous point is at the very foot where there is a reef of rock … the waters boil considerable at this reef and the waves run from two to five feet high,” wrote Hegg.
Not much further down from these rapids was a bay, where smashed boats and supplies often drifted. There, a plaque commemorating “those lost in the Rush” was recently installed.
The idea for a memorial marker was brought forward by Ta’an Kwach’an and Kwanlin Dun elders who felt the dead deserved to be recognized.
The elders learned about these deaths through stories passed onto them by older family members who were around during the Klondike Gold Rush.
In 1898, the Northwest Mounted Police arrived in Whitehorse, set up a small outpost and drew up rules for the rapids.
Superintendent Samuel Steele ordered that no women were to try the river, all boats needed to be inspected before they attempted the rapids and only experienced boatsmen could make the run.
This didn’t mean that some bold prospectors didn’t try their luck regardless; a written account by Martha Louise Black who later became Canada’s second female MP, wrote about her hair-raising experience running the rapids with her brothers.
“There was said to be a $100 fine levied on the owner of any boat taking and woman through the canyon and the White Horse Rapids below. But rather than walk that five-mile portage alone, I chose to go by our boat, which was to be piloted by Captain Spencer, an experienced navigator,” she wrote.
“We sped through the canyon. There was a breathtaking interval before we sped into the seething cauldron of the White Horse Rapids, where so many venturesome souls had lost their lives and outfits. Halfway through our steering an oar broke with a crack, like that of a pistol shot, above the roaring waters. For a tense moment the boat whirled half her length about in the current. Captain Spencer quickly seized another oar, call coolly, “Never mind boys! Let her go stern to.” A second’s hesitation and our lives would have been lost.”
Even though there were still some who ignored the rules, the number of people who drowned dropped significantly once the police began supervising the area.
More than 100 years later, the plaque stands as a reminder of an often overlooked part of gold rush history, said Dobrowolsky.
It’s also a reminder that the Yukon River, although less dangerous than it was back then, is still claiming people’s lives.
Contact Vivian Belik at