The break-up of river ice on the Yukon and Fortymile Rivers in May of 1896 was the first time such an event on the Yukon was well documented. (Yukon Archives/D’Arcy Edward Strickland fonds)

History Hunter: When was the first recorded river break-up?

Well, it’s that time of year again. The Yukon is exposed to dramatic cycles of change every year, from the extreme cold of winter, to the temperate, if short summers. The most significant harbinger of change is the break-up of the Yukon River, which heralds the arrival of spring. It can be violent and dramatic.

The people of Dawson City have been watching this annual display ever since the town was founded after the discovery of the Klondike. Residents take to walking along the waterfront, observing ice conditions and discussing when they think that the ice will unlock, announcing the arrival of spring.

It was the destructive flood in Dawson in 1979 that prompted the construction of the dike that protects the town from flooding today.

I witnessed many Yukon River break-ups during the quarter century that I lived in Dawson City, but one in the late 1980s stands out as a testimony to the natural power of our mighty river.

That year, the massive cakes of ice jammed on the bar below the ferry landing, holding back the Yukon. The water level rose rapidly, coming dangerously close to the top of the protective dike that surrounds Dawson. I joined many others at the north end of town, on an elevated plateau where the display of nature’s power could be witnessed in safety.

As the river rose behind the ice jam, it became ever more insistent on finding a way past. The difference in height between the dammed water, and the river level below may have been ten metres. The pressure of the river flowing downstream was so intense, that the water was forced over the mass of cakes in a torrent that for a short time produced a deafening rumble.

It was frightening to watch, and to hear – a Niagara Falls on a smaller scale. A repeat of the flood of ’79 was on everybody’s mind. Then the dam broke, and the river returned to its normal spring level.

I checked the records for the break-up of the Yukon River at Dawson City, which date back to 1896. The date and time of the first recorded break-up: May 19, at 2:35 p.m.. In the spring of 1896, however, Dawson City didn’t exist.

Gold wasn’t discovered on Bonanza Creek until August of that year, and the city that resulted did not start to take form until the winter of 1896/97, so it raises the question: who was there on the banks of the Yukon River in the spring of 1896, at the mouth of the Klondike River, to record precisely when the river broke up?

I did find descriptions of the break-up that happened that spring in the mining camp at the mouth of the Fortymile River, some 80 kilometres below the mouth of the Klondike.

By the beginning of May, all eyes in Forty Mile looked toward the river in anticipation of the break-up. Being gamblers at heart, the men started numerous pools, betting on the day, hour, and minute that the ice would let go. Everyone stayed up late, watching the ice and talking about the imminent opening of the river. A watchman was appointed to rouse the citizens when the river broke, because this is when the danger of flooding is the greatest.

Break-up came later than usual, and the wait became monotonous. The watchman sounded the alarm once, because he felt the need of company, so everyone retired, and continued their wait. On May 14, the Fortymile River broke loose and dumped its ice onto the stagnant ice that covered the Yukon. Finally, on May 17, the cry went up: the river was moving! Huge frozen masses ground together and gyrated crazily in the parade moving downstream.

Then the ice jammed a few miles below Fortymile and the water level rose almost six metres in an hour and a half, reaching the sugar bins in the Alaska Commercial Company store. Everyone prepared to evacuate town. Forty Mile is enclosed at the back by a slough that turns into a moat when the water level is high, so a crude, shaky bridge had been constructed by the locals to cross the gap. That bridge was washed away.

One man, thinking that the end had come, jumped into his boat and paddled up the Fortymile River. Another was forced to climb up onto the roof of his cabin, where he completed the shave that was interrupted by the sudden rise.

The Anglican mission, which was located on an island in front of town, was prone to flooding; when the water finally rushed in, the missionary party was forced up into the loft of the two-storey mission building, to await the safe drop of water level. The jam broke a couple of days later, and the water ran high for a few days before receding, leaving a line of icebergs, uprooted trees and debris in its wake.

Life returned to normal very quickly in Forty Mile. On May 25, 1896, an order was given for the detachment of Mounted Police at Forty Mile to parade at noon, and fire a “feu de joie” in commemoration of the Queen’s birthday. But I found no record of who were the winners of the ice pool that year.

With the opening of the Yukon River came a small armada of boats from upstream, carrying parties of varying sizes; a hint of what was to come two years later, in 1898. One scow carried two bay-coloured horses; other scows arrived cut in half, the result of fractured partnerships.

From downstream came word of the gold discoveries near Circle, Alaska. There was a rush of miners to the new gold fields. That, and the fact that many of the local miners spent their time on their creek claims rather than in town, meant that the town of Fortymile was very quiet. It became quieter still when a few weeks later, gold was found on Rabbit Creek (quickly renamed Bonanza) that caused a stampede to the site of the new discovery.

And so started the tradition of marking the break-up of the Yukon River in front of Dawson City each spring. But I return to my question: who was there to record the precise date and time that the river broke up the spring of 1896? If anyone has the answer to that question, I’d like to know.

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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