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

historyYukon

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Whitehorse and Carcross will be among seven northern communities to have unlimited internet options beginning Dec. 1. (Yukon News file)
Unlimited internet for some available Dec. 1

Whitehorse and Carcross will be among seven northern communities to have unlimited… Continue reading

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before conducting a test with it on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
An inside look at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre

As the active COVID-19 case count grew last week, so too did… Continue reading

Conservation officers search for a black bear in the Riverdale area in Whitehorse on Sept. 17. The Department of Environment intends to purchase 20 semi-automatic AR-10 rifles, despite the inclusion of the weapons in a recently released ban introduced by the federal government, for peace officers, such as conservation officers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Environment Minister defends purchase of AR-10 rifles for conservation officers

The federal list of banned firearms includes an exception for peace officers

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The K-shaped economic recovery and what Yukoners can do about it

It looks like COVID-19 will play the role of Grinch this holiday… Continue reading

Fossil finds at Mt. Stephen. (Photo: Sarah Fuller/Parks Canada)
Extreme hiking, time travel and science converge in the Burgess Shale

Climb high in the alpine and trace your family tree back millions of years – to our ocean ancestors

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Mask fundraiser helps make children’s wishes come true

From Black Press Media + BraveFace – adult, youth and kid masks support Make-A-Wish Foundation

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Karen Wenkebach has been appointed as a judge for the Yukon Supreme Court. (Yukon News file)
New justice appointed

Karen Wenckebach has been appointed as a judge for the Supreme Court… Continue reading

Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, speaks at a council and senior management (CASM) meeting about CASM policy in Whitehorse on June 13, 2019. Constable highlighted research showing many municipalities require a lengthy notice period before a delegate can be added to the agenda of a council meeting. Under the current Whitehorse procedures bylaw, residents wanting to register as delegates are asked to do so by 11 a.m. on the Friday ahead of the council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Changes continue to be contemplated for procedures bylaw

Registration deadline may be altered for delegates

Cody Pederson of the CA Storm walks around LJ’s Sabres player Clay Plume during the ‘A’ division final of the 2019 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament. The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28 in Whitehorse next year, was officially cancelled on Nov. 24 in a press release from organizers. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament cancelled

The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28… Continue reading

Most Read