The Yukon’s coming alive again

A river that most people thought of as a has-been is back in business. When it’s through flexing its muscles it will produce twice as much power as the St. Lawrence Seaway and foster a northern city of twenty thousand

GRATTAN GRAY November 15 1954

The Yukon’s coming alive again

A river that most people thought of as a has-been is back in business. When it’s through flexing its muscles it will produce twice as much power as the St. Lawrence Seaway and foster a northern city of twenty thousand

GRATTAN GRAY November 15 1954

The Yukon’s coming alive again

A river that most people thought of as a has-been is back in business. When it’s through flexing its muscles it will produce twice as much power as the St. Lawrence Seaway and foster a northern city of twenty thousand


THE BIGGEST news in the north this year is the story of what is happening on the headwaters of the Yukon River. In that romantic land of jagged mountains, slender green lakes and a legendary gold-rush history another stampede is in the making. It promises to overshadow even the turbulent days of the Klondike. An industrial and mining colossus—FrobisherVentures—plans to harness the Yukon’s waters, turn them back in their tracks, flood the Trail of ’98, and develop enough cheap hydro-electric power to dwarf both Kitimat and the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Work will begin next year in the Yukon and in northern B. C. By 1962 the company expects to spend $270 millions on the first stage of its venture. That’s almost as much as it’s costing to build the Trans-Canada pipeline. By then the north will have a new boom town with a potential population of twenty or thirty thousand. Sixty thousand square miles of new country will be opened up. And smelters and refineries will be producing iron, steel, cobalt, nickel and manganese alloys at the rate of 400,000 tons a year.

This is merely the beginning. The water storage of the upper Yukon is enormous. Next to that of the Great Lakes it is the largest in the Western Hemisphere. This makes the Yukon one of the last great untapped sources of cheap power. Present surveys show that almost five million horsepower can be developed cheaply enough to make it pay. That’s twice as much as the St. Lawrence Seaway will produce.

Frobisher-Ventures expects ultimately to spend $700 millions to produce the first 4.3 million horsepower. To do this it will back up the river with a series of dams and then spill it back over the mountains in a thousand-foot drop through a series of tunnels to generating stations near Taku Inlet on the Pacific Ocean.

The operation is similar to the Aluminum Company’s enormous tunnel through the mountains at Kitimat, B.C. But the Yukon development will be much larger than Kitimat, whose potential is less than two million horsepower.

The over-all plan for the great river stretches off into the mists of the future; it will probably take half a century or more and cost upwards of a billion dollars. Fifty years from now the river will be dammed for three hundred miles and it’s a fair guess that by then as much as ten million horsepower will be in use.

Why this sudden new rush to the Yukon, a country that has been slumbering for half a century? The answer lies in the world’s hunger for

cheap and easily available power. The Yukon has both kinds—cheap power because of its staggering abundance, available power because the tunnels and generating stations need only be about forty-five miles from salt water.

Within a decade, ships from all over the globe will steam up the AlaskaB. C. coastline to reach this Yukon water, just as they did in the days of the Klondike. The freighters will go to Taku Inlet, a long narrow arm of the sea that cuts through the Alaska Panhandle near Juneau, Alaska, and into B. C. Barges will freight the ore

up the shallow water to the town of Taku, just inside the B. C. border, where smelters and refineries will process the metals. Because sea transport is still the cheapest kind, it will pay to ship unprocessed ore from thousands of miles away, refine it and then ship the finished product Outside.

Northwest Power Industries Ltd. and Quebec Metallurgical Industries Ltd., the two companies undertaking the project, are both part of the great interlocking tangle of enterprises that come under the general parentage of Frobisher Ltd. and Ventures Ltd.

These sprawling, world-wide giants U4^ controlled by that brilliant legend of Canadian mining, Thayer Lindsley, the gaunt, 73-year-old geologist who has his finger in so many mining pies. There’s no doubt that Lindsley’s is the imagination behind the whole plan.

Lindsley now has B. C. government approval for the B. C. part of the plan. He and his associates have been asked to put up a two-and-a-half-milliondollar bond which he forfeits if he doesn’t spend $75 millions in four years. He’ll need federal government approval for the Yukon side of the project. This hadn’t been given at this writing, but it’s long been considered a foregone conclusion.

Lindsley’s own network of companies controls enough raw ore to keep the project busy in the first stages of its development. He plans to bring nickelcobalt from New Caledonia, the Philippines and other South Pacific islands. Manganese ores will pour in from South Africa. Zinc and iron will come from the Pacific Coast area—-from Vancouver Island and Alaska. By 1962 the nickel output alone will be nearly one third that of the giant International Nickel Company.

Later on, it is hoped that ore bodies in the Yukon now too costly to develop will be mined.

The series of dams and tunnels and man-made lakes planned for the Yukon will sprawl over some of the most picturesque country in the world. The rising waters will reach almost to the edge of the White Pass railway that follows the old gold-rush trail through the mountains from Skagway, Alaska. A dam will be built at the head of Miles Canyon, where dozens of Klondike stampeders lost their lives. Tagish Lake, an emerald finger of glacial water that saw the sails of twenty thousand homemade boats in 1898, will be bloated in size.

Tunnels to the Ocean

A much later series of dams will back up Laberge, the lake made famous in Robert Service’s ballad The Cremation of Sam McGee. The treacherous Thirty mile River, scene of old-time steamboat wrecks, will probably merge with the lake. Five Finger Rapids, the most spectacular navigation hazard on the river, may vanish. The eventual plans call for a dam just below Fort Selkirk to capture the muddy waters of the great Pelly River.

To most Canadians it’s a huge surprise to learn that the river they’ve always thought of as a slightly outdated and slightly unreal motion-picture set is as real, sinewy and modern as the industrial age itself. But then the Yukon has always been a surprising river. Its headwaters, for example, rise just fifteen miles from the Pacific Ocean. But it takes 2,200 miles of steady flow to reach that ocean. The tunnels through the mountains, of course, will make use of the shortcut.

The river rises in these mountains near the B. C. border, where the tunnels are to be built.Then it sets out on its long tortuous course, describing a gigantic crescent that swings through the whole of the Yukon and Alaska, neatly bisecting both territories and crossing the Arctic Circle twice. Tt ends, finally, in the cold Bering Sea at the tip of Alaska. It is a boatman’s dream. All but fifteen miles, near its source, are navigable. But by the time the power project ís complete all major navigation will be at an end on the Yukon.

Although it is the oldest part of the north from a mining point of view, the Yukon is far younger from an explorer’s standpoint. Seventy years ago it was an almost unknown river flowing jgh a dark land as silent as the __-un, unmapped and all but unexplored. Back in 1789, when Alexander Mackenzie traced the great river that bears his name to its mouth, the Yukon was only a legend on the Indians’ lips. Another century elapsed before the Yukon had its own Mackenzie. He was a U. S. cavalry lieutenant named Frederick Sehwatka, who went down the entire river by raft and skin boat in 1883. He named every feature he saw and most of these names still stand, with one notable exception. The little salmon stream he called the Reindeer is better known today as the Klondike.

The Russians were actually the first white men into the Yukon valley, but they didn’t explore the whole river. In 1832 they came over from Siberia, across the Bering Sea and upriver from the mouth, to trade for furs. There’s no written record that they went farther than six hundred miles upstream, although there is little doubt they did. In 1898 a Klondike prospector named Deephole Thompson, in the course of sinking the shaft that gave him his nickname, made a curious find on the thirty-foot level. Here, in frozen mud, was an ancient Russian flintlock pistol. It had obviously worked its way down from the surface over the years. Undoubtedly the Russians had explored this very valley in the years before other white men rediscovered it.

The Hudson’s Bay Company, which had opened up the rest of Canada from Frobisher Bay to Vancouver Island, left the Yukon to the last. Over the mountains from the Mackenzie in 1843 came a remarkable man named Robert Campbell. At the point where the Polly joins the Yukon he built Fort Selkirk. It did not long survive. The fierce Chilkat Indians came up from the coast and destroyed it.

Campbell then made an incredible journey by foot, canoe, snowshoe and dog team 4,200 miles to the nearest railhead at Crow Wing, Minn. From here he traveled to England to persuade the HBC directors to rebuild the Fort. They decided against it. Soon after the company withdrew from the Yukon valley, leaving it as silent as when Campbell first arrived.

The first hint of the gold-inspired drama that was to come drifted out of the Yukon in the winter of 1885-86, when a dying prospector named Williams arrived at Dyea on the Alaska Panhandle. He had performed a feat then considered impossible. With an Indian boy he had traversed six hundred miles of frozen river in the dead of winter. The man and the boy had suffered dreadful hardships. Their dogs had died of cold and exhaustion. They had cowered in a snow hut at the top of the storm-tossed Chilkoot Pass for ten days, living on dry flour. The boy had had to carry the man down the mountains and drag him by handsled to the trading post at Dyea. Here the prospector died. The handful of men in the vicinity crowded around the corpse. No one had ever walked out of the Yukon in winter. What would bring any man on such a journey?

The Indian boy had the answer. He reached into a sack of beans on the counter and flung a handful on the

floor. » “Gold,” he said. “All same like this!”

This was the first real news of riches along the Yukon. The strike had been made at a place called Fortymile, on the Canadian side of the Yukon-Alaska border. Fortymile was the first of the Yukon gold towns. With about three hundred men, it produced a million dollars in gold in the decade that followed. Living in Fortymile was like living on a desert island. It was visited once a year by a tiny sternwheel steamboat from the Bering Sea. One year the boat didn’t come and two

hundred men had to leave on foot for the Outside. Without supplies they would have starved.

Fortymile was an American island on Canadian soil: Its population was

almost entirely American, and the Americans administered it more or less by default. Its supplies came from the U. S. without benefit of customs, for there wasn’t a customs man on the entire length of the river. It had an American post office selling American stamps and the big holidays were Washington’s Birthday and the Fourth of July.

Yet it was in no sense a blood-andthunder town. None of the Yukon towns ever were. Many of the miners were educated men with a taste for literature. Fortymile boasted debating societies and Shakespeare clubs and an Anglican church presided over by Bishop William Bompas, one of the most famous of the northern missionaries who slept anywhere—in a hole in the snow or a corner of a boat or cabin— but spent his evenings reading the Bible in English, Hebrew, Creek and Syriac.

In 1894, nine years after the Fortymile discovery, an even richer strike was made some three hundred miles down-river. A new town, Circle City, Alaska, sprang up on a curve in the river at the head of the great Yukon flats. These flats are the bottom of a prehistoric lake and the river snakes its way across them, shallow as a lily pond and often several miles wide.

Circle City boasted it was the largest log town in the world. Certainly it was one of the strangest. It had no taxes, no courthouse, no jail, no post office, no churches, schools or hotels. It had no sheriff, police, mayor or

council. It had no dentist, doctor, lawyer or priest. There wasn’t a lock in town nor a piece of dressed lumber. Everything was made of logs, including George Snow’s Opera House which produced such epics as Rip Van Winkle and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The miners were the law in Circle as they were throughout all Alaska and most of the Yukon (until the Mounties arrived on the Canadian side in 1894). A miners’ meeting in Circle once acquitted a man of murder on grounds of self-defense. The verdict was sent to Washington, and upheld, thus giving

these unique meetings a certain legal status, in Alaska at least.

The great gold rush of 1898 changed the Yukon River almost overnight. From a lonely waterway flowing through a silent, unpeopled country it became the main highway down which thousands of boats plunged recklessly. The word Yukon became an international word. Jack London, Rex Beach and James Oliver Curwood all came down the river during the stampede and made fortunes writing about it. So of course did Robert W. Service, ten years later.

By the summer of ’98, the entire river from the Bering Sea to Miles Canyon was alive with stern-wheeled river boats of every shape and size. This was its golden age. There must have been close to a hundred of them, ranging all the way from the tiny fifteen-ton A. J. Goddard to the three great 1,130-ton sister ships, Hannah, Sarah and Susie, all flat-bottomed with less than a four-foot draft.

Most of the steamboats reached Dawson from the lower river. They were usually built in Seattle, shipped to the mouth of the river and proceeded under their own steam 1,600 miles to the Klondike. But a few small vessels were trundled in pieces over the mountains. The little A. J. Goddard was the first to reach Dawson from the upper river. Capt. Goddard and his wife packed the boat in sections over the Chilkoot Pass, assembled her on Lake Bennett and ran her through Miles Canyon and Whitehorse Rapids. Her passenger list on this maiden trip included the famous singing-and-dancing Oatley sisters, soon to be the rage of Dawson, and Coatless Curly Munro, a notorious Yukon character who never wore a coat, winter or summer, but often sported four suits of underwear. So great was Goddard’s feat that when he returned he was carried through the streets of Skagway on men’s shoulders and tendered a civic reception. The little boat later sank in Lake Laberge. with all on board.

The Yukon today is a vast graveyard of these old steamboats. You can still see many of them along the riverbank or rotting on the ways at Carcross, Whitehorse and Dawson and at St. Michael near the mouth of the river on the Bering Sea.

The most notorious boat of all, the old Yukoner, can still be seen in faded splendor, high and dry on the bank at Whitehorse. Some idea of the flavor of the times can be gained by a brief glance at the highlights of her heyday.

Her first captain was John Irving, one of the best-known steamboat men in the Northwest. He was a man of fixed eccentricities. In the lounge he always had an enormous picture of a bulldog. A huge golden eagle was fastened in front of the pilothouse. A gigantic Negro body servant never left his side.

He had a unique method of docking his boat. His system was to charge the bank or dock at full speed ahead, his whistle blaring. AUthe last possible instant he rang for full speed astern and the vessel would shudder to a stop in the nick of time, while passengers dragged themselves to the saloon bar to calm their frayed nerves. Occasionally Irving would miscalculate slightly. He once almost tore another ship apart in the Bering Sea by charging it in a moment of exuberance, and all but wrecked the dock at St. Michael, the port near the mouth of the river, after another charge.

On her maiden voyage in the summer of 1898 the Yukoner puffed up the river for Dawson City, crowded with dancehall girls, musicians and gamblers, and loaded to the Plimsoll line with cham pagne. Every time the boat stopped to take on wood, Irving would call the musicians out on deck to play and the girls to dance while he charged the bank. Then the woodchoppers would be invited on board for champagne cocktails.

Irving undoubtedly felt that it was impossible to top this voyage. He sold the boat on his return to St. Michael and departed with his bulldog painting, his gold eagle and his huge body servant.

The purchaser was a former U. S. marshal from Helena, Montana, who had struck it rich on Bonanza. His name was Pat Galvin and in his black suit, black hat and black tie with starched shirt and high stiff collar he

looked like a movie villain. Looks were deceiving for he was a hospitable man. He never entered a barroom without treating everybody and pressing small nuggets on all strangers present. Just to make sure no one was missed, Galvin would send messengers out onto the street to round up strays. One such foray cost him $1,100, a sum he considered chickenfeed.

After Galvin bought the Yukoner, he proceeded to give away all the cash he had on his person by lining up everybody aboard and presenting a twenty-dollar gold piece to each man. As a result he left on the trip without money to buy fuel or hire men.

This second voyage of the Yukoner wasn’t as happy as the first, but it made history. Galvin left the ship early for it was obvious she wouldn’t reach Dawson before freeze-up. She froze in solid at Minook Creek, along with several other stern-wheelers. Indeed in that hectic winter boats were imprisoned in the ice for the whole length of the Yukon. Their passengers subsisted on the ship’s stores and quickly soaked up the ship’s stock of whisky.

They’re Still Mining the Klondike

After eight months’ confinement, the passengers and crew of the Yukoner got cranky, mutinied against the captain and took over the vessel. This was the first and only mutiny ever recorded on the river. The court proceedings that followed when the ship reached Dawson were complicated by the fact that the mutiny had taken place in U. S. territory. Finally, the charges were dropped. After a few desultory trips the Yukoner was abandoned. As for Pat Galvin, he ended up broke, to no one’s surprise.

After the Nome and Fairbanks rushes in 1900 and 1906 the Yukon slipped slowly back into the doldrums. The towns began to shrink in size until even the biggest, Dawson City, dropped to 450 people. (It had once boasted between thirty and forty thousand.) Only Whitehorse, at the head of navigation and the end of steel, has thrived. It has a population of 2,500 today and, with an enormous power development in the planning stage, its future looks rosy.

River Travel Must End

There is now only one steamboat left on the Yukon. Like the modem town of Whitehorse, she is more a symbol of a prosperous future than a relic of a golden past. She is the S.S. Klondike, operated by Canadian Pacific Airlines as a luxury tourist boat.

The Klondike would make Pat Galvin and John Irving turn green with envy. CPA spent $100,000 refurbishing her with a promenade deck and a night club. As the boat chugs down the historic old waterway passengers fish for grayling with willow rods, stake claims, pan gold and re-cremate Sam McGee in a mock ceremony.

This venture on the river, sparked by CPA president Grant McConachie, a former Yukon bush pilot, is the first real large-scale attempt to develop the immense tourist resources of the Canadian north. If it’s successful, similar ventures will probably start up elsewhere and a whole new natural resource, in its own way as valuable as water power, will be tapped.

But whether the S.S. Klondike can continue to ply the Yukon River for many decades depends on the dams to be built between Whitehorse and Dawson. For sooner or later all water navigation will probably have to end.

The money Thayer Lindsley and his associates plan to spend eventually will make even the Klondike Kings look like small-timers, but most of them, if they were alive today, would applaud this enormous outlay—especially Pat Galvin. A tenderfoot was once heard to mutter something about needless expense in his presence, whereupon Galvin delivered himself of a brief impromptu address on the subject. With a billion-dollar project in the offing it might easily serve as a Yukon slogan.

“Expense! Expense!” Galvin shouted. “I am disgusted with you. Don’t show your ignorance by using that cheap Outside word. We don’t use it here. Never repeat it in my presence again. You must learn the ways of the Yukon. That word is not understood in the north. If you have money, spend it; that’s what it’s for, and that’s the way we do business.” ^