Lives were lost, goods ruined and boats were reduced to splinters. Passing through the choppy waters at White Horse Rapids was a perilous endeavour during the Klondike Gold Rush era.
Whereas some men saw the rapids as a problem, Norman Macaulay saw them as an opportunity.
In the autumn of 1897, Macaulay, only 28 years old at the time, set up a roadhouse and saloon near the rapids.
Over just three weeks during the winter, he constructed a wooden track on the river’s east bank and then, with a crew of 18 men and a few horses, Macaulay cut eight kilometers of trail through the woods and set track for a tramway.
A horse pulled wooden tram carts along the track, and two horses could be used to navigate the steep inclines.
In the spring of 1898, as thousands of stampeders passed through Canyon City on their way to the Klondike, Macaulay’s vision and entrepreneurship paid off.
His Canyon and White Horse Rapids Tramway Company transported freight and boats around the rapids for three cents a pound and $25 a boat.
At the peak of its operation, Macaulay’s men and 23 horses were working around the clock, moving between 70 and 90 tonnes of freight a day, according to a Yukon government history of Canyon
City: From Trail to Tramway.
Canyon City was one of the busiest places in the territory as hundreds of people made the trek through the White Horse Rapids each day.
“The tramway around White Horse rapids is reported to be running as slick as a whistle,” the Dyea Trail reported on June 11, 1898.
“The cars run down to the water’s edge and into a slip, the boat glides onto the car and away they go swiftly and easily. It is said the tramway is doing a large business.”
Though Macaulay offered a safe alternative to the risky rapids not everyone could afford to pay the price.
When Sam Steele, of the North-West Mounted Police, came to Canyon City in June 1898, he found that nearly 200 boats had been wrecked, 52 outfits of supplies had been lost and five men had drowned.
Steele quickly posted an edict that only experienced pilots, registered with the NWMP, could navigate vessels through the rapids.
The charges for piloting were $150 for steamers, $25 for a barge or scow, and $20 a small boat. Those who could not afford the charge were piloted for free by Const. Edward Dixon and others.
Macaulay’s tramway was so successful that he planned to build a railway. In 1899, he was bought out by the White Pass and Yukon Route Company for $185,000.
In June 1900, the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway was completed to Whitehorse. The tramway was no longer needed and, within a few years, Canyon City became a ghost town.
NWMP journal records indicate that the Canyon City detachment was still active until at least October 1901.
These records also say that the tramline may still have been used to transfer freight around the canyon and rapids well after the railway reached Whitehorse.
There is evidence that at least one family returned to Canyon City after the gold rush. In 1906 the Whitehorse Star reported that an elderly native woman, Mrs. John, died at her home at Canyon City.
This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.