History Hunter: The old Dawson ferry and the man who built it

Over the years, I have seen many photographs where it was hard to establish the date when they were taken. This is particularly so with Dawson City, where photos taken much later are often ascribed to being taken during the gold rush. So, I have learned to narrow the age of such photographs by details captured in the images.

Prominent buildings have well documented dates of construction, and demolition. If they are present in a photograph, it had to be taken after a certain date; if they are gone, then that too becomes a good time marker. Such is the case with the cable ferry that carried passengers across the Yukon River for more than 4 decades.

In 1900, the best year ever for mining in the Klondike, a small steamer was ferrying passengers across the Yukon to West Dawson, and couldn’t keep up with the demand. It was reported to be clearing $200 per day (that’s $5,000 per day in 2019 dollars).

Seeing an opportunity, John P. Hubrick brought in the supplies and equipment to construct a cable ferry in 1901, and received approval to build one on the Dawson waterfront.

A steel cable was attached to a deadman sunk five metres below Third Avenue; it rose to a steel saddle atop the ferry tower straddling Front Street just south of Queen Street (and standing 38 metres above the ground), then spanned the Yukon River, to a point where it was anchored in the rock bluff on the west side of the Yukon. The construction of the tower was complete by the beginning of 1902. At the time of construction, it was noted as the tallest man-made structure in the Yukon.

From the ferry landing on the west side of the river, a road was cut into the rock leading toward West Dawson. Today, you can still see the remains of this road angling up the rocky face across from the Old Bank of Commerce on the waterfront.

Hubrick never made money from his ferry, and for two years he tried to interest the government in purchasing the ferry for $14,000 for the public good. Then in September 1904, a major fire in the heart of Dawson damaged the cable where it was anchored on Third Avenue, and it would have cost $4,000 to replace the cable. He lowered his asking price to the government to $8,000, but they still wouldn’t buy it.

Hubrick sold the ferry for between seven and eight thousand dollars to D.A. Matheson, who immediately sold it to the government for $13,400. The Dawson Daily News called foul in an editorial published December 13th, 1904, implying graft on the part of the Congdon administration.

The ferry continued to operate as a public service for the next forty years, and was only dismantled after the ferry tower was damaged in the spring flood of 1944. For two years, Ed Whitehouse continued to operate the ferry barge by pushing it back and forth across the river with the power boat Drake, assisted by Phil Collins, and later by Frank Burkhard, for the next two years. In the spring of 1947, the government moved the ferry landing to the north end of town, where it is located today.

Hubrick’s story is also worthy of note. Drawn north in 1897 by the gold rush, he accumulated $5,000 working at Dyea, then lost it all speculating. He arrived in Dawson broke, but made enough to travel outside in 1899 carrying a heavy poke of gold dust and $250 in nuggets. Returning shortly after that with his wife, their scow capsized near the Big Salmon River, and they lost everything.

But Hubrick persevered, partnering with heavyweight boxer Frank Slavin, and working claim 34 Above Discovery on Sulphur Creek, one of the richest claims on the creek. By 1901, he was said to be worth $100,000. He made a quick trip outside in May of that year to purchase the equipment for the above-mentioned ferry.

A year after selling the ferry, we find him operating a roadhouse at 54 Below Discovery on Hunker Creek. In 1905, George Pringle, the guardian of morals in the Klondike filed charged that Hubrick was “printing and exhibiting cards tending to corrupt the public morals” at his roadhouse.

Two years later, in 1907, Hubrick was in the newspapers again, this time for purchasing one of the first automobiles in the Klondike, a bright red, seven-passenger 40 Horsepower Pope-Toledo that was quickly nicknamed “The Red Devil.”

Hubrick quickly put the Pope-Toledo into service providing scheduled service between Dawson City and Granville, with stops at Grand Forks and Bear Creek coming and going. That didn’t last long, though. In November of 1907, he is recorded leaving Dawson for The Dalles, Oregon. He left behind unpaid bills, and his driver, Carl Lillesternia, immediately seized the Red Devil for unpaid wages of $240.

Hubrick’s name, if it is indeed the same J.P. Hubrick, and now a United States Marshall in Alaska, reappears in 1909. This Hubrick was involved in a manhunt, searching for a witness to murders committed in Alaska. His name surfaces two years after that, but this time on the other side of the law. He is reported as doing a 1 to14-year stretch in prison in Washington state for stealing coal from the Northern Pacific.

He must have behaved himself, if we believe the reports, because in 1916, he is back in Alaska, in McCarthy, this time prospecting for copper on the upper Chitina River. By 1917, he is presenting himself as a big game hunting guide. In early 1918, he was taking a photography course from the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester New York.

By late 1919, he had plans of an expedition to make a documentary film the following year, using the latest Edison moving picture equipment, of the natural history in the White River region of the Yukon, with a crew of six men and a dozen horses. I didn’t find any reports of the outcome of this expedition, but he was planning to be in the Yukon to lead hunting parties into the Pelly and Macmillan Rivers in the fall of 1920.

Hubrick continued to live in McCarthy Alaska for the remainder of his years. He died January 22, 1930 aged 72, after an extended illness, leaving his widow, Emma, and three daughters. Much of his photo collection was destroyed in a fire not long after his death, so little survives of his photographic work from his later years.

He lived a varied life, full of experiences: buffalo hunter, cowboy, conductor for the Union Pacific, steamboat captain on the Columbia River, Klondike roadhouse keeper, prospector and miner, ferry operator, big game guide, and wildlife photographer. If you are to believe all the reports, he was also a lawman and a convict.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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