History Hunter: The Remarkable story of Hugh Day

The Day brothers were an integral part of the early prospecting in the pre-Klondike Yukon valley.

I came across an interesting news article, posted by Doug Davidge on the Yukon History and Abandoned Places site on Facebook. Titled “Two Children’s Long Trip,” it was published in the New York Times in November of 1896.

According to the article, two year old Joseph and Bernard Day, twins born to Hugh and Mary Day, arrived in Seattle aboard the steamship, Willapa, after a difficult journey out over the Chilkat pass with their father from the interior of the Yukon. Hugh, and his older brother Albert had been prospecting in the interior of the Yukon in and around the Fortymile and Sixtymile districts. But he was no stranger to the harsh conditions of the north, or the remote trails over which he had to travel.

The twins had been born at Joe Ladue’s trading post at the mouth of the Sixtymile River, October 13, 1894. At the time, there was only one other white woman of repute in the area, Emilie Tremblay, who came in with her husband that same year to mine their claim on Miller Creek. Mrs. Day, though strong of spirit, was physically weak, and she sickened and died, June 3, 1896.

Hugh decided to take his two young sons outside to live with their mother’s family in Minneapolis. The Chilkat Trail, at the time used by Jack Dalton to pack supplies into the interior, was a popular route over which to travel out of the Yukon before the stampede to the Klondike. Carrying the infants on his back, he struggled through blizzards over the snow-choked Chilkat summit.

The two young sons weathered the entire trip without ever causing a fuss. But Day, in the newspaper article, said that at one point he would have succumbed to the ice and snow had it not been for the precious cargo that he had shouldered for hundreds of miles.

His journey is remarkable because on November 22nd, Day was back in Juneau, departing with the U.S. mail, destined for Circle City, which he delivered in February of 1897. With him he also brought the exciting news of the new discovery that had occurred the summer before on the Klondike River.

During the 15 years since they had first arrived in the Yukon, Hugh Day had made the trip outside ten times, which was said to be the record for any Klondiker at the time of the gold rush. After delivering the mail to Circle in 1897, he was back in Juneau by early April, carrying 9 kilograms of outbound letters.

He was on the move again in 1898, arriving in Nanaimo in mid-February. A newspaper account stated that it was his twin boys that kept him coming outside.

Hugh Day was born in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec in 1861, a year after his older brother, Albert. Together they prospected in the Stikine district of British Columbia in the early 1880s as young men. They made a substantial pile of money before they sold out and ventured even farther north to the Yukon, where by 1884, the tight control of the mountain passes by the Chilkat Tlingit had been broken.

The brothers came out in the fall of ‘84, presumably to Juneau, because the following spring, they had teamed up with Ike Powers, another hardy prospector, and were preparing to make another trip into the interior. It was in Juneau in the spring of 1885 that they met and encouraged a young American named George Carmack to try his luck in the same fashion. It was Carmack who later filed the discovery claim on Bonanza Creek that started the Klondike gold rush.

For the next ten years, the Day brothers searched for gold throughout the Yukon Valley. In 1893, they prospected along the Stewart River, and returned to Juneau for the winter, where, according to Frank Buteau, another Yukon prospector, they met and married two French-Canadian sisters. They returned with their wives to the Yukon the following summer and established themselves at Joe Ladue’s trading post on the Yukon River at the mouth of the Sixtymile, where they worked in Ladue’s saw mill. It was there that the twins were born. The following year, Hugh and his wife and new family went up the Sixtymile.

Al continued to work at Ladue’s saw mill. He was hurt when parts of the sawblade came loose and imbedded about four centimetres deep in his forehead. Al had to be shipped downriver to the Mounted Police post at the mouth of the Fortymile River, where police surgeon Doctor Wills removed the offending piece of steel with “a pair of pincers, holding a piece of wood from a cigar box on Al’s forehead for a pry.”

The brothers were active in the Klondike during the busy years of the gold rush. The Day Addition covers several city blocks at the south end of Dawson City, although I could not determine how well the brothers profited from this fact. In 1899, they were the majority owners of claim No. 30 Below Discovery on Bonanza Creek, where they employed 24 men year round in three round-the-clock shifts of eight hours each. In addition, they had shares in claims No. 31 Below Discovery on Bonanza, and Claim Number 11 on Bear Creek.

According to another account, they lost this claim through speculation, but it is clear from other documents that they also mined for a number of years on Dominion Creek, before Hugh relocated to Douglas, Alaska, after losing his leg in a mining accident. That was followed by a bad bout of food posining. In Douglas, in 1911, he lost his property in a big fire that consumed the settlement, but he rebuilt, then later moved to Tenakee Springs.

When Hugh Day was 17 years old, he sustained a head injury in a street fight, and the injury caused him problems later in his life. In December of 1916, he was hospitalized and died a few days later, on December 31, of convulsions, presumably linked to his adolescent injury.

He was survived by one son, Joseph. No record has yet been found to indicate what happened to twin brother Bernard. In 1917, Joseph registered for the draft during the First World War when he was working for the Alaska Gastineau Company in Thane, Alaska. Joseph registered again in 1941 when the United States entered the Second World War. At the time he was 47 years old, and employed by Boeing in Seattle. When he died in Seattle in September of 1984, he was a few weeks shy of his 90th birthday.

The Day brothers were an integral part of the early prospecting in the pre-Klondike Yukon valley, but despite setbacks and sad circumstances, they never quit trying. And thank you again Doug Davidge, for digging up the remarkable New York Times account.

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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