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History hunters from down under visit the Klondike

Following in the footsteps of Gold Rush-era relatives
Annette Turner, left, Gavin Turner, centre, and Yvonne Evans, shown here with some of Arthur Sheffield’s Klondike photos, visited the Yukon recently to retrace the steps of Arthur, their grandfather, and Harry, their great uncle, who visited the territory a hundred years ago. (Michael Gates/Yukon News)

I received a telephone call last winter from Annette Turner in Australia. In short order, contact had also been established with her sister, Yvonne Evans, and we exchanged the occasional message as the plans for their trip to the Yukon took shape. Yvonne’s pursuit of information about their grandfather was both thoughtful and informed.

I finally got to meet with them and Annette’s husband, Gavin, when they passed through Whitehorse in August. I meet plenty of visitors to the Yukon each year, each one a joyful encounter. But less often, I meet folks who are especially prepared for their visit, and who seem to get so much more from the experience.

Annette and Yvonne were interested in retracing the steps of their grandfather, Arthur Sheffield, who, with his brother Harry, visited the Yukon a century ago.

Arthur Sheffield was born in England March 3 1878; his older brother, Harry, was born in Ireland nine years earlier. At age 14, older brother Harry traveled to Cooktown, North Queensland, Australia, with his father, who raised horses there.

Arthur didn’t see Harry again for 14 years, and when he did, it wasn’t in Australia, it was in Revelstoke, British Columbia in 1897. They worked in the Calgary area for a few months, then traveled to Vancouver searching for work, which they eventually secured in a sawmill in Port Moody from February to May 1899.

The two young men must have been filled with a sense of adventure; in late May 1899, they boarded the Humboldt, and sailed north to Skagway. They walked over the White Pass Trail to Bennett where Harry worked on the building of the railroad, while Arthur secured casual work, including a job with a clearing gang from Cariboo Crossing (now Carcross) to Whitehorse. In the fall of 1899, they bought a cabin at Bennett from Reverend Sinclair and spent the winter there.

In the spring of 1900, they had a four-ton scow constructed and gambled on making a profit by transporting three and a half tonnes of oats they had acquired to Dawson City.

In Dawson, they met Ben Downing and traveled with him by dog sled to Circle, Alaska, where they spent the winter constructing a roadhouse at Sixteen Mile. In the spring of 1901, they trekked back to Dawson over the ice for 26 days, and spent the following summer working. In the fall, they exited the Yukon.

They left Vancouver aboard the Aorangi, on October 18, 1901, sailing for Australia. Harry subsequently drowned in the Laura River, Queensland in 1906, but Arthur lived another 70 years before dying at 92.

The purpose of the sisters’ trip was to visit Canada, and retrace the footsteps of their ancestors to the Yukon and Alberta. Yvonne prepared for the journey by contacting as many museums, archives and individuals (like me) as she could. Their itinerary was carefully planned to allow for them to explore many of the places along the way.

During their time in Skagway, they visited the museum, followed by a train trip to Bennett, where, during a five hour lay-over, they reconnoitered the area with the assistance of a Parks Canada warden. In addition to the diaries that Arthur had written, they brought with them original photographs, some taken by the iconic camera man E.A. Hegg.

With help from the warden, they were able to find the locations where several of the photos were taken, but they were unsuccessful in locating the place where the Sheffield brothers’ cabin once stood.

In Whitehorse, they received assistance at the Yukon Archives and also took a boat ride through Miles Canyon and up the Yukon River to Marsh Lake. They flew to Dawson City, where they embarked upon a whirlwind of activity that included a personal guided tour up Bonanza Creek, a river trip to Forty Mile, a visit to the Dawson City Museum, a stop at the mining recorder’s office and a walking tour through the streets of Dawson.

Unfortunately, the historical footprint for the Sheffield brothers, who never stayed in any single place long enough to become established, was very faint, yet our Australian visitors were able to see many of the places referred to in Arthur’s diaries. They also received much help in establishing the context of their forebears’ journey from the various institutions that they visited along the way.

The photographs were much admired by those who saw them. Each person who viewed the photographs contributed their own unique observations about the stories the images portrayed. These stories helped to fill in the context for the places where they were taken.

I was intrigued by a photo of boats tied up at the mouth of the Stewart River. One of the boats belonged to E.A. Hegg and was named Snapshot. I was able to describe details from another photo, taken of a mining operation on a claim in the goldfields.

Upon their return to Whitehorse at the end of their Yukon journey, we met and talked about their experiences. Though they hadn’t been able to fill in all the gaps in the story of the Sheffield brothers, they learned much about the country through which the brothers had traveled.

Yvonne said they came away with a sense of the Yukon, having visited the places and travelled the distances: “There is something really special about walking on the same ground. It fires your imagination as you try to picture what it was like at the time,” she said. “There was a connection at an emotional level when you are actually walking the ground.”

Reading the poems of Robert Service while they were touring the north seemed to capture the nature of those who challenged the Yukon a century ago.

But I believe that they also got a fuller sense of what is special about the North. Gavin was impressed by the number of people they met who came to the Yukon for a short visit and never left. “The place seems to have a magnetic force field that draws you in. The more you learn,” he said, “the more you get drawn in. There is something special about this part of the world.”

If they were half as excited by their quest for their family history as I was just listening to the stories they shared about their visit, then these history hunters surely had a good time.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere.