Swift Water Trails
Stirring adventures of a steamship engineer who helped transport an army of gold seekers along the perilous rivers of the glamorous and tragic Klondike
CHARLES R. WEDDLETON
ABOUT the age of seventeen I began my career on the sea by steamboating off the rough coast of Nova Scotia. After a number of years of shopwork and coasting from Newfoundland to Boston I became enthused with the idea of reaching the Klondike; hence I became one of the first to engineer a boat on the swift waters there.
Arriving in Vancouver in April, 1898, I made for the C. P. R. shops. They had just started to build four boats for the Stikine River. Captain Troup, port captain of inland waters, had full charge, so I hit him for a job. He told me it would be some time before the boats would be ready, but asked a few questions. One was, “Have you ever engineered on swift water?” I replied that I had not, so he told me I would not do.
I replied, “I am an engineer, not a pilot.”
The argument went on hot and heavy until I told him I had come all the way from Nova Scotia, my money was nearly gone, and a job I had to have. So he told me to report in the morning at the machine shop.
I arrived early, and the foreman put me to work truing up car wheels. From that I went to bench work until the time came for installing the engines in river boats. To my surprise, the foreman told me to install the starboard engine in a boat called Hamlin.
These boats had port and starboard engines.
I finished my work away ahead of the port crew, so Mr. Jefcot, port engineer, gave me six men and sent me to another boat called the Duchesnay to plumb the boiler and secure it, then install the machinery.
Just before the work was finished Mr.
Jefcot came in and read from a paper,
“Weddleton, appointed chief engineer of S. S. Duchesnay.” That is how I got my
start in the service of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
In a short time we were ready to start on a 900-mile trip up the coast to Alaska.
Firing Up With Bacon
LEAVING Vancouver at 7 p.m., with the wind blowing -> from the northeast, the weather looked bad to me. With a swift water pilot and an English captain who had no say, out we went for a sixty-mile run to Victoria. Wind right after us, blowing hard. At ten o’clock it was a fortymile breeze.
A poor place for a river boat 160 feet long, hung on iron rods. It was about three feet from the water to the main deck, where the engines were. The sea would flush the deck to my ankles in the engine room. The boilers were set down in a hole, so the firemen had to stand in a three-foot pit to fire them. They were showered with water several times
and, getting frightened, were ready to give up. I explained to them that the trip depended on their sticking to their posts, so they hung to them. By chance, we put in between Victoria and the mainland, where we had 100 miles of inland water—the length of Vancouver Island—and all went well for a while.
Then we steamed forty miles on Queen Charlotte Sound. Halfway across, a gale struck dead ahead. We plunged on, with the lifeboats ready in case we had to use them, as it appeared that we would. The ship’s planking came up over the spikeheads and the water poured in. The forward watertight compartment filled, and she was down by the head. Still we gained, and got into harbor. We stopped overnight, fixed up and left next morning.
All went well until after we left Fort Simpson, now called Prince Rupert, about 500 miles from Vancouver. Leaving there, we had to cross Dixon Entrance, thirty miles wide. Ten miles out another gale struck, so back to the harbor we went and stayed until the next morning, when the gale was over. This time we were successful.
From Dixon Entrance it was a long stretch of inland water to our destination, Fort Wrangel, Alaska. We were in port long enough to load a cargo of baled hay to take up the Stikine River. The 150-mile run was accomplished in good time. We made regular trips until late in the summer, carrying outfits for building the railroad. Then the gateway was opened through Skagway over the White Pass mountains, and our summer’s work was for naught. About fifteen boats ran on the river; our company, the C. P. R., owning four. Thousands of dollars were lost that year.
The boats were laid up at Wrangel, and the ice was forming when word came from Glenora, at the headwaters of the Stikine River, that half a dozen Mounties, ninety miners and forty mules had to get down. Captain Armstrong, who had a small boat called the Mona, engaged me to make the trip. The days were short and we had to lay up nights, which made the trip much longer.
Some distance up the river we struck a sunken log, which pierced our side right abreast the engine room so that the water rushed in. I sang out through the speaking tube to beach her quick. By the time she
touched bottom the decks were awash, and when fifteen feet from shore the fires were out and the firebox was half full of
All hands went to work, and the log was hauled out. We then placed a rope under the boat and up the port side. Attaching a stout tarpaulin to the rope, we hauled it tightly down over the hole.
I made a fire on top of the water in the furnace, got steam after a while, and had the eight syphons working. We pumped the boat dry, then built a cofferdam inside over the hole, caulked it, removed the canvas, and we were ready to start once more.
We had to chop wood on the river side for the furnace, and this took time, as we had to make at least six stops. It was poor stuff to burn at best, being mostly cottonwood.
The captain would come down when he saw she was not making good speed and throw a slab of bacon into the firebox. He did this several times with the best of results, bacon being a splendid though costly fuel to bring up steam.
After a long, hard trip, we arrived at Glenora.
We got our passengers and mules aboard in short order, and started on the return trip with a seveneight-knot current to help us along.
It takes lots of manoeuvring to go down a rocky, snaggy river. All went well, however, until we got half way down, when, drifting around a bend, our big stem paddle wheel brought up against a snag which broke off three quarters of it.
Down the river we drifted, until finally we struck the river bank, upsetting things a bit. We rebounded before we had a chance to make fast, but when we struck the bank again, a Mountie jumped ashore with a line, got a turn around a tree, and, with careful checking, we held the boat.
Then came the job of building a wheel. I had arms and paddles enough in stock to build threequarters of a wheel.
All this took time, and as ice was hourly expected it was an anxious period. However, we got away soon and arrived at Fort Wrangel without any more mishaps. We received great praise for that trip.
Then I went back to Vancouver to start all over again.
IN A week’s time I secured a job as chief engineer of a boat called City of Tepe lia, on Harrison Lake.
During my idle week at Vancouver I worried as to whether I could procure another job or be compelled to go home.
The boys at the hotel told me to visit “Raymond, the Boy Medium,” who would be able to predict my immediate future. I called on Raymond, and he told me many facts, among them my grandmother’s Christian name.
He said that I would leave Sunday morning on a train for a point 100 miles from Vancouver, where I would join a boat as an engineer. I had not disclosed my profession. He also told me I would be there only a short time, when I would ship with a Seattle company and go North.
On Saturday morning a man put his head in the doorway of our hotel and sang out, “Are there any engineers here?” and I jumped up, saying, “Yes.” He told me to get ready to leave Sunday morning for Harrison Lake, and I did. Things turned out just as Raymond predicted.
This lake is 100 miles from Vancouver and is famous for its hot springs, to which hundreds of people go to be cured of rheumatism.
Remaining here until February, 1899, I was then offered a position by S. S. Bailey of Seattle. We left Seattle the last of February on the steamer,
Darigo for Skagway, 1,000 miles distant, carrying material costing $60,000, to build a river boat 120 feet long, including a boiler in four pieces, the heaviest piece weighing three tons. There were four calls to make on the fouror five-day trip north. On Sunday night, after being out three days, we ran into thick snow. Getting off her course about ten miles, the Darigo struck a ledge 200 yards off Midway Island, a small, bald island lying thirty miles off the coast. She struck
with such force that I was instantly thrown from my bunk.
The tide was well up when we struck, and as the boat started to fill, the captain gave her up for a total loss. The lifeboats were lowered after the captain found by soundings that the water was very deep at her stem. Not knowing how much ledge was under the bow, it was feared she would slip into deep water. The captain and crew, with twentyfive passengers, then went ashore on the snow-covered island, leaving the chief engineer, purser and one passenger, together with the eleven in our party, on board. The pilot went to his room when the steamer struck and I never saw him afterward.
The following night a steamer was signalled and those
on the island were taken aboard for Seattle. The next night we wished we had gone, too, as quite a storm came up. However, the steamer remained fast. At low water we found we could get down to a dry ledge and patch the holes in her wooden bottom until the tide drove us away.
The donkey boiler was on the main deck and that saved the day. We would start the pumps when the tide flowed in. The water still gained until after the third day of patching,
and then the pumps kept her free. We had to wait for a passing steamer to give us a pull. We had dropped our anchor, also run a line to a kedge anchor, in case the boat slid off. We found she would have to be lightened, so tons of snow were shovelled off the top deck. On the second deck were tons of beef and whole hogs, and these also were thrown overboard. The quarters of beef sank, while the hogs floated away.
At noon on Saturday a steamer sighted us and came to our aid. We got a line to her and she pulled us off, towing us thirty-five miles northeast to Juneau.
We had a clear salvage case, but after talking it over we decided not to press the case as our employer, Mr. Bailey, wanted to get to the head waters of the Yukon as soon as possible, and delay for court proceedings meant the loss of a season’s work.
Loading the lumber and machinery on large scows, we were towed 100 miles through the Lynn Canal, which is from three to five miles wide. The west side of the canal has glaciers for miles. These are a pretty sight, but cause great menace to travel, as bergs break off and float down the
Milk As a Life Saver
REACHING Skagway, our outfit was loaded • on a train that ran fourteen miles to the top of White Pass Summit, nearly 3,000 feet above sea level. This railroad is shelved into the side of the mountain, crosses deep ravines and goes through tunnels, and is called the best piece of railroad engineering on the continent. It was constructed mostly through solid rock.
At the Summit everything was loaded on mule teams. Here began a real tug, for, as I said before, one of the pieces weighed three tons. At last we were off for Lake Bennett, a trip of fifty miles. This took considerable time as some very narrow escapes occurred, caused by the sleds sliding dangerously near the edges of ravines. In due time we reached our destination, with the weather twenty degrees below zero.
Bennett is situated at the head of navigation of one of the greatest rivers of the North—the Yukon, which flows for 2,100 miles through the richest gold fields known to man—and enjoys the advantage of being the terminus of the only railroad that is ever likely to be built from tidewater across the great mountain barriers that parallel the coast.
After eating dinner at the Summit, where the Mounted Police had their headquarters, we continued by dog team. About four o’clock it became plain to all that I had met a “germ,” and it was decided that I had better stay at the Half Way House until the next morning. At that time, being no better, I jumped the first sled, arrived at Bennett and went to the Klondike Log Cabin Hotel, and lay in a bunk, seriously ill, for more than two weeks. Ice formed between the logs at the back of my bunk, caused by the heat drawing the dampness, as the cracks were only filled with the long moss of the country.
I took quinine and whisky to break the grippe, but showed no improvement, so the doctor was called. He made seven calls at six dollars a call, and his prescription was whisky and quinine. My throat became raw from drinking so much liquor and I became unconscious, remaining in that condition for two days. The boys were so sure I would not recover that they were looking for boards for my casket when I asked for a drink of cow’s milk. One of them remembered seeing a cow forty miles back on the trail. A Mounted Police officer and my good friend George Haley, offered to go for some. Securing a fast dog team, Haley made the trip, bringing all he could buy—one quart—for which he paid a dollar. I sipped a little, and how good it felt to my parched throat! I began to improve. Haley went for another quart, and I can truly say that the milk saved my life. By the time the hull of the boat was sufficiently constructed for me to do anything, I was able to attend to my duties.
I had taken two firemen in with me. The second engineer
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“backed out” just as we were leaving Seattle, but in those days you could get almost any kind of a mechanic, so I found pipefitters and boilermakers and the work went on.
The ice broke up in the lake the first of June, and the Bailey was launched at 2 a.m. We made a trial trip, and everything proving satisfactory, we loaded up for a 100-mile trip to Miles Canyon.
About a month after the boat was launched Mr. Bailey sold her to a man named Kersey for $125,000. Mr. Bailey cleared $65,000 in the transaction and left for home. In twenty-nine days the new owner told me the boat had paid for herself, and for my last week’s work he paid me $300 extra. We made regular trips until the ice stopped us.
At the time the Bailey was built, six other palatial lake and river steamers were in course of construction, namely, Australian, Ruth, William Ogilvie, Clifford Sifton, The Gleaner, and Scotia. Two steamers were also repaired, and one hundred scows and barges were built that spring. One firm continued to turn out scows of thirtyto forty-ton capacity at the rate of two per day for months.
With the season over, I decided to return to Nova Scotia until spring. I was to leave S :agway for Seattle on the Islander one n ght, but, falling in with friends, decided t ) stay over until the next day as there would be another boat then. The Islander struck an iceberg in the Lynn Canal and went down with a loss of seventy-two lives. Alex Fraser, our mate on the Bailey, was on board but got ashore on two oars. He lost everything but his money. There were six tons of gold, or three million dollars, on the Islander that night, and it is still in the
I returned home on the Canadian Northern over the Cascade Mountains. The scenery was wonderful. Leaving home in April, 1900, I travelled through the United States by rail to Portland, then on to Seattle. Wonderful country to pass through on this route, too.
An Unsung Hero
'T'HIS time I entered the employ of The Dominion Steamboat Company. Colonel J. S. Williams, of Paris, Texas, was the principal owner of the steamer Clifford Sifton which was launched in 1899. Her engines were not satisfactory, so I installed new ones, an 1 for a short time ran on Lake Bennett u .til the railroad was finished and did away with the boats on the upper part of the river.
This meant that the boats to stay in service had to go below the canyon to White Horse, and the Clifford Sifton was the first boat to go through Miles Canyon and White Horse Rapids. The distance was five miles, vater running twenty miles an hour. It took us twenty minutes to make the run, at the same time backing full speed astern under 200 pounds steam pressure.
The Sifton was 145 feet in length, twentyfive feet longer than any other boat which has passed down those turbulent waters.
She struck two rocks in the upper canyon, but the only damage was that part of her fantail was carried away. This did not retard her progress, but when entering the lower river the discovery was made that the tiller ropes had stretched three or four feet and balled upon the wheel. If such had happened on the river, it would undoubtedly have ended her career.
Soon after entering the second canyon two men fell into the river, on perceiving which Colonel Williams, who had $50,000 at stake, shouted, “Save the men; the boat will take care of itself.” One of the men had no trouble in getting out without aid. The other was seized in the iron grip of the mate who soon had him on board, none the worse for his involuntary bath.
Shortly after the boat entered the second canyon, rocks were struck on the starboard
side and bow and it surely looked as if she were going to destruction, but she swung clear. At the White Horse Rapids her bow cleared the shore by inches. If she had swung her stem to the other shore she would have broken in two.
The rest of the season we ran between White Horse and Dawson, a 500-mile trip with a current running six to ten miles an hour. We would go down in a day and a half, but the trip back took three and a half
During the season of 1900, while on the Sifton, we hauled a good many scows off the sandbars and sent them on their ways rejoicing.
While taking on wood at the bank part way down the river one day, a scow grounded right across the river from us. Our mate, a man weighing 215 pounds, coiled a length of rope that he thought would reach the scow into our lifeboat, also a long heaving line attached to the big line, and took two men to row him upstream against the strong current to where he could shoot the line across. He did it, but had to let go of it to keep the lifeboat from capsizing, as she came near doing. Heavy as the mate was, he went ten feet into the air, hit the water and went
I was the only man to see this happen and I sang out, “Man overboard!” All hands rushed to the riverside, looking for him. The men left in the lifeboat looked for their mate in vain and then rowed ashore. I was the only man to stay on the ship. I was watching the line and saw a small splash at the end of it. The thought struck me that the mate might be caught on the line, so I attached the line to the steam capstan and heaved it in. Presently I saw the mate bobbing on the water.
By this time several had returned to the boat, so we pulled him in. He had a half hitch around his foot, which I removed. We worked over him for a long time, but he had given his life to help others. We took his l)ody to Dawson, had it embalmed and shipped to Victoria for burial.
Another time we stuck on a sand bar and had to put all our cargo ashore, 100 yards distant. To do this we got lines to the shore and, by hauling on the stern one, brought her side to the current and she shot ashore, where the boys unloaded her. After getting her lightened, we worked her over the bar and took her right to where we landed the freight and reloaded her, losing several
Navigating a swift river is a riverman’s job. A sea captain would be as much good as a ten-year-old girl.
After this season’s work I again came out, as I had free transportation. Finding nothing to do on the Coast that winter, I made another trip back to Nova Scotia, remaining until spring, when I returned.
An Exciting Boat Race
THIS year I shipped with the Yukon Navigation Company, which had twelve boats, three built that winter. I was the one who installed the engines. I was appointed chief engineer of the Selkirk, a boat 175 feet over all, with a speed of eighteen miles an hour. She was fitted with electric lights, steam stearing gear, also a powerful searchlight which was very convenient as we had some dark nights the last of the season. She carried 250 passengers and 250 tons of freight. The one-way fare was $75 while freight was $60 a ton. In the fall, when every fellow wanted to get his freight in. offers as high as $125 a ton were made. We sometimes paid $12 a cord for cord wood. In 1901 our company had 25,000 cords along the river, and used 20,000 cords that year. This wood was contracted for and cost much less than $12 a cord.
It was the Selkirk that won a race from Dawson to White Horse, 500 miles, doing it in two days and sixteen hours against a six-to-ten-knot current, thereby winning a sixty-dollar cup.
We consumed 126 cords of wood on the round trip. The second boat, called the White Horse, did it in two days and nineteen hours, burning 186 cords of wood. The third boat, the Dawson, took two days, twenty hours, burning 210 cords of wood. The three boats were of the same dimensions in hull. The Dawson had a seventeen-inch diameter cylinder with a six foot stroke. The other two boats had sixteen-inch cylinders with six foot strokes. All carried the same steam pressure—200 pounds to the square inch. It was the difference in fuel consumption that took the company’s eye. I was called the high-pressure boy. My brother-in-law was engineer on the White Horse, so that added to the competition. Forty boats ran on the river that season.
We had to make twenty-eight stops, each way, to deliver mail bags and wood up. The boys would throw on from twelve to fourteen cords of wood in twenty minutes.
While they were doing that, I would grab my twenty-two calibre rifle and go about ten yards into the woods, returning in fifteen minutes witn six or seven partridges or as many hares or rabbits. Duck or geese never got by me without losing at least one of the flock.
Lake Labarge, where we had our speed trials, is thirty-five miles long. I have sent a boat across in an hour and fifty minutes, and always went over inside of two hours.
The lake was noted for its large trout and whitefish. I have known us to be asked at the foot of the lake to take on half a ton of fish for Dawson. They are caught in large mesh nets, and because of that all the fish were large. When we took our first shipment I said to one of the fishermen, “What are cod doing away up here?” He laughed and said they were trout. I measured one of them and it was thirty-seven inches long ! The whitefish were very thick and shorter. We always had plenty of fish to eat. I have caught more in a short time in Newfoundland. In fifteen minutes one could catch twenty trout there, some weighing as much as four pounds, but they were minnows compared with Lake Labarge trout.
Hanged By a Nugget
A /TEN from all over the world were -*-^1arriving by every boat at Dawson, so it was a pretty lively spot before the Mounties arrived. A man’s life was not worth much if the other fellow wanted his gold. There were three prospectors who cleaned up a few thousand dollars. Navigation had closed, so they decided to mush out over the ice 500 miles to White Horse.
Knowing that they canned gold, a bad man started off ahead of them. Halfway up the river he waited for the prospectors to come along on the other side of the river, and shot from ambush, killing all three. Taking their gold, he went on up the river, stopping at Tagish Police headquarters long enough to freshen up a bit and tell his little story, then pushed on.
Shortly after he left Tagish, the Police received word to be on the lookout for a certain man. He had a day’s start on the Police, but they caught him. The best evidence against him was a gold nugget which had a small nugget inside it so that it rattled when shaken. This was the property of one of the men he had killed. He was taken back to Dawson, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged. I saw him through the bars. He was a hard looking character and at his execution he lived up to his looks.
Lots of others were shot for their money, but the Police improved conditions greatly and deserve great credit for their work.
The first roulette table in Dawson lost the owner $24,000 the first night. The machine was not working right, but the owner could not stop it as every player carried a gun.
Skagway also had its share of excitement, especially when Soapy Smith and his gang were there.
I was quite fortunate in everything except in finding gold. I had a try at grubstaking a partner at different times, when a rush was on for new findings. By the time the claim was staked and recorded it would cost me fifty dollars and my partner would own half the claim. None of the claims contained pay dirt.
In the fall of 1901 our boat was the last to leave Dawson. On arrival at White Horse I left for the outside, and worked on the Coast that winter. In the spring of 1902 I left for home, as the company had to cut down on their shipping because business had fallen off with the exhaustion of the diggings.
I have seen $3,000,000 worth of fine gold and nuggets shipped out on our boat at one shipment. It was put up in strong boxes, each box weighing 400 pounds and worth $8,000. Mounted Police were sent to guard them except when only a box or two were shipped. Then they were put in my care in the engine room, where the second engineer or I were always on watch.
Altogether, I enjoyed four years in the Klondike, with big pay and much enjoyment thrown in. The End