Skip to content

The Fortymile was a dangerous river

Many miners died trying to traverse dangerous currents
This derelict cabin on the Fortymile River reveals the long history of mining in the area. (Michael Gates/Submitted)

The drone of the motorboat was muffled by the roar of the rapids as we negotiated the Cleghorn Riffle on the Fortymile River. This innocuous sounding name is deceptive, for this piece of the river is churned into metre-high waves by the boulder-strewn channel.

Larry Taylor, our veteran Alaskan guide and resident of the Fortymile, put Bill Berry and me ashore to circumvent this stretch of the river while he navigated the white-capped water with John Gould. The pamphlet provided by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management hadn’t prepared us for the turbulence here, nor had it placed the riffle accurately on the map. Woe to the unsuspecting canoeist who would come around the bend in the river to confront this unfriendly water.

It was August 1998 and as a Gold Rush centennial project, Bill, John and I secured Larry’s expertise to take us on a journey retracing the steps of the early Fortymile prospectors. We had great confidence in Larry’s intimate knowledge of the Fortymile River, which spans the Yukon-Alaska boundary down to the Yukon River northwest of Dawson City.

Bill, a retired California banker, was retracing the route of his ancestor Clarence J. Berry, who laboured up the Fortymile River to Franklin Gulch before the Klondike Gold Rush. I was curious to travel the route that I had described in my book Gold at Fortymile Creek. John, a historian from Dawson City, was there because of his love of history and his voluminous knowledge of early gold-mining.

While never yielding the spectacular gold production of the Klondike River basin, the Fortymile was one of the richest gold-bearing creeks discovered before the Klondike Gold Rush. The prospectors had given colourful names to every sandbar and tributary: Troublesome Point, Dogtown, Bonanza Bar, Wildcat Riffles, Deadman’s Riffles and the Cleghorn. Every name had a story.

The adventure we were on was the most profound for Bill. His great-uncle Clarence first learned how to mine for gold on Franklin Gulch prior to the Klondike. To make ends meet, Clarence was reduced to tending bar in Bill McPhee’s saloon in the jumbled cluster of log buildings where the Fortymile River meets the Yukon.

McPhee grubstaked Berry when the discovery of gold in the Klondike was first announced, and Berry struck it rich on Eldorado Creek. Clarence repeated his luck at Fairbanks a few years later, and then trebled his good fortune when he invested in California oil.

The early prospectors travelled the Fortymile by tracking or lining their goods upstream in boats. This demanding technique required at least two men, one to drag the supply-laden craft upstream with a rope while the other kept the stern out in the current with a long pole. The work was tedious and exhausting, taking many days to haul supplies from the trading posts at the town of Forty Mile to Franklin Gulch, about 140 kilometres upriver.

The old-timers struggled for days against the current, often immersed in frigid water to their hips bivouacking on the banks of the river and enduring inclement weather and hordes of mosquitoes.

They lived and laboured in extreme isolation: a round trip exchange of correspondence to the Outside could take up to eighteen months. Miners were so starved for news from civilization that the newspaper wrapping in a parcel from Outside was literally worth its weight in gold to the inmates of the Fortymile River.

In contrast, we were making the same trip in a few hours in a motorboat. Each night we were transported back to the Taylors’ tidy and comfortable camp at O’Brien Creek, a tributary of the Fortymile, for a delicious home-cooked meal prepared by Larry’s wife, June. The latest news was available by satellite link.

The prospecting and mining work was all done by hand in the early days. Three miners hand sawed 50,000 board feet of lumber for a flume to divert water a kilometre and a half from Franklin Gulch to their claim on Troublesome Point. Another partnership did the same, earning seventy-five dollars per day for their efforts, an excellent return on their investment for that time.

It was on the Fortymile that the hardy miners first perfected the technique of drift mining, which enabled them to thaw and dig down to bedrock through frozen ground in the winter. It was a dramatic improvement over remaining idle all winter while awaiting summer’s return.

In 2003, I took a second trip down the Fortymile in large inflatables with a team of cultural resource specialists from the American Bureau of Land Management. It had been a hot, dry summer. This time the water was so low in the upper portion of our journey that I could wade across the main channel in rubber boots. We dragged our craft over numerous shallows and floated slowly along.

At The Falls, where the river drops almost three metres in a short distance, we floated through gently. What a different experience from my previous journey when Larry Taylor navigated it at full throttle.

We never did negotiate the most dangerous portion of all: the deadly Canyon Rapids on the Canadian side of the border. Until the prospectors learned the harsh lesson of the Fortymile, this canyon took many lives. The year following the first discovery of gold was particularly deadly. The first to drown was a prospector named Tom Jones, who was stranded on a boulder in the canyon only six metres from shore and tried to swim, thinking that he could reach it safely. He was caught in the deadly undertow and sucked below the frothing currents.

The death toll quickly mounted and the names Lamont, Saffron, Johnson, Holmes and Wells were added to the deadly list, but most tragic was the account of a Gwich’in man who, it was said, cut his own throat after capsizing in the canyon and mistakenly thinking that his entire family had perished.

The Fortymile flows gently past a cabin at Long Bar. If you come ashore there, you will find a small memorial. Two couples, one of whom lived in that cabin, tried to make it through the canyon during high spring runoff around 1980. One member of each couple lost their life, and the lovely log cabin at Long Bar, now abandoned, became a symbol of a spoiled dream, and a solemn reminder that you never take the river for granted

This column is adapted from the book History Hunting in the Yukon, which is available in fine stores throughout the Yukon. Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book about the Yukon during World War I is titled From the Klondike to Berlin.