George Black completed the first automobile trip between Dawson City and Whitehorse in December of 1912. It took three days. The Yukon automobile wasn’t yet ready for the Yukon roads; the return trip took a week, and Black had to complete the final leg of the journey in a horse-drawn sled. (Submitted/The Firth Family collection)

Hard travel over the Yukon’s winter trails

The overland trip to Dawson City today is a cakewalk compared to a century ago

Michael Gates | History Hunter

When I first moved to Dawson City, it took me seven and a half hours to navigate the pothole-filled gravel road that connected Whitehorse with the Klondike capital. I always carried two spare tires, and often needed them.

Ten years later, the road had been paved and it took five and a half hours, though I once made it in four hours when my daughter was born. I can’t remember when I last had a flat tire.

The dream of an automobile road that connected the two cities was a long time in coming. Joe Boyle, the Klondike mining millionaire attempted the trip from Dawson to Whitehorse with his wife Elma in a heavily laden 20-horsepower automobile in December of 1912, but he had to give up and transfer to the regular stage coach. White Pass Superintendent Herbert Wheeler sent an auto from Whitehorse to meet them at the Takhini River crossing.

Commissioner George Black bettered his arch-rival Boyle when he attempted the same trip. Accompanied by Chester A. Thomas, the assistant manager for the Yukon Gold Corporation and driver George Potter, Black left Dawson City at 3:20 a.m. on the same day the Boyle arrived in Whitehorse, and arrived in Whitehorse three and a half days later. The last leg from Carmacks to Whitehorse took them a mere 12 hours. The total running time for the trip: 35 ½ hours.

Fulfilling an election promise, the government had relocated the overland road to pass through the active mining on Black Hills and Scroggie Creeks. Despite wet weather during the summer of 1912, the road was completed. Black’s trip was made to dispel criticism about the condition of the road, and to demonstrate the viability of travel by automobile. But it was not without its perils.

The 60-horsepower Locomobile ran out of gas short of Wheeler’s Roadhouse, just south of the Stewart River, and had to be pulled by horses for the last five kilometres. This should come as no surprise as the automobile consumed gasoline at the rate of one litre for every 1.7 kilometres traveled. The trip almost ruined the automobile: “The big machine was considerably ‘racked’ when it reached here (Whitehorse),” reported the Star, “the tires being worn down to canvas and nearly everything loose that was not riveted.”

Mechanics worked on the vehicle over the weekend, and by the time Black was ready to return to Dawson City, it was once again in fairly good condition. They departed Whitehorse the morning of Dec. 23 and reached Carmacks in the evening. It took them another nine hours to reach Yukon Crossing, at 6 a.m. on the 24th.

Exhausted by the 24 hours of continuous travel from Whitehorse, the party laid over for rest, then proceeded to Pelly, from which they departed the evening of Christmas Day. Nothing in the newspaper coverage suggests how the men celebrated Christmas, or where they were at the time.

They continued their northward journey until a malfunction in the carburetor caused them to abandon the automobile at Wheeler’s roadhouse, from where they concluded their journey to Dawson upon the White Pass stage. They arrived back in Dawson just in time for the commissioner to award the prizes for best costumes at the New Year’s Eve masquerade ball.

Thirteen years later, George Black had been the Yukon’s representative in parliament for four years when he was called back to Ottawa after a federal election was held on Oct. 29 1925.

To be back in Ottawa in time for Parliament to open on December 10, George Black, and his wife Martha had to close down their Dawson home and depart on a moment’s notice. The winter schedule of sailings from the coast left little time for the Blacks to prepare for their journey.

George Black’s dream of a highway connecting the Yukon to the south never happened. Instead, if anything, the conditions for travel had worsened. The trip from Dawson City to Whitehorse took them eight days. They left Dawson at 11 p.m. Nov. 14, in a Ford, in order to overtake the horse-drawn overland mail stage.

With the temperature hovering at -17C, they travelled heavily garbed in their woolies and fur coats in the open air sled. Eventually, they reached the Stewart River: “The Stewart was not safe for the stage,” reported Martha Black later, “so we walked across, the ice giving an occasional alarming crack, the last 30 feet or so on duck boards, as the ice was very thin. The horses were led across singly and the mail, our bags and some express was brought on hand sleds.”

From Stewart River, they travelled slowly overland for two days, until they reached the Pelly River, which was still open with little ice. They crossed uneventfully by canoe. From this point, they lurched across the landscape for another two days on a sleigh drawn by a caterpillar tractor, until they reached the Yukon River opposite Yukon Crossing, at 2 a.m. in the morning.

Here, the freight was loaded into a boat, atop of which Martha Black was placed, while the men towed the boat upstream for half a kilometre before they jumped aboard and rowed and paddled frantically for the opposite shore as the current carried them downstream.

After a warm meal and one hour’s rest, they continued on their journey in one of two primitive Ford trucks (the second was a spare, in case the first one broke down). When they reached the Takhini River, their final river crossing before arriving in Whitehorse, the ice was not thick enough to cross, so an open channel had been broken in the ice, through which a boat containing the Blacks was towed to the other side.

From Takhini Crossing, they were conveyed the final distance in the relative comfort of a four-passenger Ford, arriving at 3 a.m. on Dec. 21. The Blacks caught the steamship in Skagway and arrived in Ottawa in time for the opening of Parliament, but not until they had taken the most arduous journey of any member of Parliament in the country.

The next time you plan any winter travel in the Yukon, think about the travel conditions of a century ago — and thank your lucky stars.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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