The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of humanity that washed over it the spring of 1898. On their way to the Klondike, people crowded the boardwalks and jostled on the wharves, saloons, eating houses and gambling parlours to escape the constant cold drizzle that beset the town in winter. One of those to witness the chaotic scene was English illustrator and war correspondent Charles Edwin Fripp.
Fripp did not stay long in Wrangell. He, like many others, departed for the Stikine River, and the All-Canadian overland route to the Klondike via Telegraph Creek and Teslin Lake.
Fripp was one of a horde of journalists who were dispatched from England, the United States and Canada to the north to feed the tremendous appetite for news about the goldfields. Most noted among the others was E. Tappan Adney, writing for Harper’s Weekly. E.A. Hegg, the photographer, was also there to document the events with his camera.
Charles Fripp was born in England on Sept. 4, 1854, into a family of noted artists. His father, George Arthur Fripp, was a well-known landscape painter. His uncle Alfred and brother Thomas were also dedicated landscape artists. Fripp was educated in London and Nuremburg , and studied at the Royal Academy in Munich.
British newspapers were eager to chronicle colonial expansion of the British Empire using artists like Fripp to illustrate their pages. Hired by The Daily Graphic in 1875, he traveled widely covering events around the world, including the Xhosa War (1878), the Zulu War (1879), and the Chinese-Japanese War (1894-95).
During a train trip he made across Canada in 1889 en route to Japan, he made sketches of scenes along the railroad, as well as Indigenous and settler life across the western provinces and hunting scenes in British Columbia. He returned to British Columbia in 1893 and settled there with his brother, who sometimes accompanied him on painting trips.
In early March of 1898, Fripp was dispatched to the Klondike by The Daily Graphic to report on the gold rush and illustrate what he saw along the way. He arrived at Wrangell, Alaska, on March 7.
The trip up the Stikine River was hampered by warm conditions that turned the icy trail to mush, but by traveling during the colder hours early in the day, his party reached Telegraph Creek by March 31. The government report, The Klondike Official Guide, stated: “it is hoped in a few months we will have a good road, if not a railway, giving communication with the head of Teslin Lake.” Alas, the wagon road was nothing but a dream.
If Fripp thought the hard part of the trip was over when he reached Telegraph Creek, he was mistaken; it had only just begun. Instead of a route that would soon be a wagon road, he found that “It was a mere track in the snow … winding about through scrub and timber, up and down hills, over snow drifts, swamps and lakes. This track … was so far from being a road that sleighs had to be unloaded and goods packed on men’s backs.” Rain and melting snow created a quagmire that added to the general misery of the travelers.
After 10 weeks on this trail, Fripp and his traveling party reached Teslin Lake on June 17. They purchased a boat there and the remainder of the journey to Dawson was smooth sailing. They arrived in the gold rush capital on July 3, just in time to witness the deafening discharge of firearms at midnight announcing the Fourth of July.
Fripp’s artistic work and his letters to The Daily Graphic did not have the lasting impact of Tappan Adney’s writing or E.A. Hegg’s iconic photographs. His work is hidden in the pages of an extinct British magazine and in the archives of Canadian museums on opposite sides of the country. Yet his artwork provides one of the few graphic glimpses of the Teslin Trail.
Whereas the camera captured the precise details from the moment the shutter clicked, Fripp’s art interpreted the detail and the feeling of what he saw, and that’s what makes his contribution so interesting.
The illustrations of his Klondike trip published by The Daily Graphic were weighted in favour of the deep snow and terrible conditions on the Stikine River and the Teslin Trail: men and beasts struggling through a snow-laden landscape; dead horses and men beating their sled dogs in frustration.
Others scenes are depicted with sensitivity and humor. He captured the image of one man whose temper had frayed beyond its limit; Fripp showed the moment this man chased his partner around their tent waving an axe, while a third man followed in an attempt to calm the situation.
More of his sketches captured the trip down the Teslin River and the Yukon to Dawson City, and the voracious mosquitos encountered while camping on this leg of the journey.
Several more illustrations showed the stump-filled streets of Dawson City in the growing boomtown. Special attention was given to what people were wearing. The raw character of this growing city was depicted by the sketches he produced during his brief visit.
Like many who had reached their destination, arriving seemed to be enough of an achievement. By the time Fripp got to Dawson, the gold rush was a tarnished dream, and no longer front-page news. He took passage on the small steamer W. K. Mervin, down the Yukon to St. Michael at its mouth, and then back to his home at Mission, B.C..
Fripp continued his journalistic art for a few years before marrying and settling down in England. He died in Montreal, en route home to England after a visit to Canada in 1906.
Michael Gates is the author of six books of Yukon history. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Mine,” is now available in Yukon Stores. Michael is the Yukon’s Story Laureate.