History Hunter: From gold rush to COVID-19, mail has been an essential service

At Tagish in 1898, the Mounted Police laid the mail out on the beach for stampeders to search for letters from home. (Courtesy/Gates collection)At Tagish in 1898, the Mounted Police laid the mail out on the beach for stampeders to search for letters from home. (Courtesy/Gates collection)
The Dawson post office was overwhelmed by the volume of mail in the early days of the gold rush. Men stood in line for hours in hope that there were letters waiting for them inside. (Courtesy/Gates collection)The Dawson post office was overwhelmed by the volume of mail in the early days of the gold rush. Men stood in line for hours in hope that there were letters waiting for them inside. (Courtesy/Gates collection)

During the early days of the pandemic, when we were in total lock-down, mail delivery continued unchecked and became a vital link to the outside world. We looked forward each morning to the sound of the lid of the mail box on our front door step being lifted to deposit new letters and packages.

It has been like that for more than 170 years. The early fur traders, and the prospectors who followed, all looked forward to receiving letters from loved ones far away. In 1847, Alexander Hunter Murray, who traded furs for the Hudson’s Bay Company, established a post named Fort Yukon where the Porcupine River enters the Yukon.

Mail came in with the trading goods shipped over a long and circuitous route from eastern Canada, and often took several months to reach Fort Yukon. For example, on December 20th of the following year, Murray received a letter from Scotland that had been posted February 16th, ten months earlier!

After America purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, mail was delivered through the trading companies that displaced the HBC. This mail was carried by ship to St. Michael, at the mouth of the Yukon River, then up the Yukon by sternwheel riverboats. Except for the occasional piece of mail that had been entrusted to a departing friend, there was no regular mail sent over the newly-opened Chilkoot Trail route to the interior for many years.

Travel over the Chilkoot was a deadly venture once winter set in. Gold was discovered on the Fortymile River in 1886. In December, Tom Williams, a prospector at Arthur Harper’s trading post at the mouth of the Stewart River, was entrusted with an important packet of letters announcing the news. At much peril, Williams carried the mail south up the frozen Yukon River until he reached the deadly, blizzard-shrouded Chilkoot Pass.

Williams was caught in storms near the summit, cached his letters and barely made it to the trading post at Dyea, Alaska, before he died from his ordeal. The packet of letters was quickly retrieved from Chilkoot snows with the startling news of the new gold strike, and a small rush to the Fortymile occurred the following spring.

During this period, no one knew exactly where the boundary was located between American and British colonial territory. Consequently, the American postal service established a post office at Mitchell, Alaska in December of 1889. There is no record of exactly where this postal outlet was, but it was, in fact, the gold rush town of Fortymile. Jack McQuesten, the trader for the Alaska Commercial Company, was appointed postmaster.

Regardless of its establishment, this post office was a tenuous link to the outside world. The fact that this nebulous post office was located on British (Canadian) soil, was well known locally because Canadian government surveyor, William Ogilvie, located the boundary line the winter of 1887/88.

In August of 1892, Charlotte Bompas, wife of Anglican missionary William Bompas, wrote to loved ones back in Britain.: “In vain I look and long for tidings from my dear ones. One realizes now our immense distance from civilization. Not only is there no government mail, but this is the first year that any stamps have been in the country, and there has been such a rush for them by the miners, that they are all sold already, so we have to trust to a happy chance of someone stamping and forwarding our letters from St. Michael.”

When the North West Mounted Police post was established at Forty Mile in 1895, efforts were made to establish regular mail service. Government mail sent to Inspector Constantine, the commanding officer, in December 1895, was left beside the trail on the Chilkoot Pass and was not recovered from a metre of snow until the following July. Inspector Constantine contracted William Moore of Skagway to deliver three mail shipments during the summer of 1896. Moore delivered the first mail on June 18th, his son delivered the second, July 27th, and Moore, again, the final one on September 11th.

Moore’s son, Ben, kept a diary of his mail trip to Forty Mile that summer. The round trip from Juneau took 51 days. Moore had to overcome all the challenges familiar to those who know the Klondike story: crossing the Chilkoot Pass; traveling by boat through the upper lakes of the Yukon, battling the waves before heavy winds; circumventing Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapid, and enduring the voracious mosquitoes that could drive a man mad.

Ben Moore covered long distances, without stopping, snatching a couple of hours of sleep here and there. The passage from the head of Lindeman Lake to Miles Canyon was accomplished in 31 ½ hours. If going downstream was challenging, poling back upriver on the return trip required a tough constitution and grim determination. Returning from Forty Mile, Moore reached the Chilkoot short of supplies. To reduce weight, he cast aside clothing, tent, and everything that was not essential, and continued with only the mail sack and a small amount of food.

When the Klondike gold rush occurred starting in 1897, the volume of mail skyrocketed. The postal service was completely overwhelmed. Early photos from the gold rush attest to this fact. A crowd of stampeders, for instance, is seen rummaging through stacks of letters laid out on the beach at Tagish. Each searcher in the throng was desperately hoping to find a message from loved ones back home. The same thing occurred in Dawson City, where long line-ups of men waited for hours for their turn at the wicket, in hope of finding mail addressed to them.

The government eventually established a stable and dependable mail service, delivering mail regardless of the form it came in. Most messages were sent through the post as letters, but there were unusual variations, including some on wooden shingles, and in one case, the leather sole of a shoe! Within a few years, the Yukon riverboats carried the mail in the summer, and the stage line brought the postal shipments during the winter. Hardy individuals were contracted to carry mail by dog team in the winter, most notably dog mushers Ben Downing and the legendary Percy DeWolfe, the “Iron Man of the North.”

Air mail service to Dawson City began in late 1927. Pilot Andy Cruickshank dropped the first air mail packet unceremoniously from the Ryan Air Brougham B-1 aircraft above Dawson City. He wasn’t certain that the ice on the freshly frozen Yukon River was thick enough to support a plane landing on it.

If we take the mails service today for granted, and complain that something was delivered a day later than expected, think for a moment about the advances that have taken place over the past century and a half!

Michael Gates is the Yukon’s first Story Laureate. He is the of six books of Yukon history. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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