The Klondike Trail

A sturgeon-nosed boat on the Athabasca River.

This is one of the sturgeon nosed boats used on the Athabasca River after 1835. This image, na-1338-20 is used with the permission of Glenbow Archives.

The Klondike trail is very interesting to me, but not because it led gold-miners into the goldfields on the Yukon River. This was an old trail, used for the first time in fall, 1851, and it must have been explored that summer by Robert Campbell and, perhaps, James Green Stewart. It was a necessary exploration, as the trail was intended to replace the old river road that led the HBC men up the Liard River to Frances Lake, and which caused them so much trouble. The event (or events) that caused these HBC men to look for a new trail into Fort Selkirk is told in this post: 

So lets search the Fort Selkirk journals for a little background. Robert Campbell was in charge of Fort Selkirk, and James Green Stewart was his clerk. Campbell and Stewart together established Fort Selkirk in 1848. Campbell was usually at the post, but Stewart was often absent on business. At the other posts in the district (Fort Halkett and Frances Lake on the Liard River, and Pelly Banks on the Lewes [upper Yukon] River) the men often starved: at Fort Selkirk the HBC men always found enough provisions to get them through the winter, though provisioning was a constant chore. However, because of the difficulty of reliably delivering provisions up the Liard River to the Frances Lake post, and then across the 120-mile-long lake-and-land portage to Pelly Banks — and then downriver to Fort Selkirk — Campbell explored for a new trail to Fort Simpson in 1851. This is the trail that later became one of three Klondike Trails. (Those of us who live in BC are more familiar with the trail that led over the mountains via the Chilkoot Pass; but this was not the only trail. There was also an overland trail from Athabasca Landing, on the Athabasca River west of the HBC post of Fort Assiniboine.) It’s an amazingly long journey — hundreds of miles — but also an amazingly safe journey considering the mountain ranges they had to cross.

So the Klondike Trail began at Edmonton. Here is what the Gairdner & Harrison Prospector’s Guide Map and Pamphlet to the Omineca, Cassier, Liard, Klondyke and Yukon Gold Fields, via the Edmonton Route, had to say of this route. This pamphlet was written in 1897 and published in Edmonton, and its authors were George W. Gairdner and A. G. Harrison. It begins, romantically, with this:

When the Loucheaux chief Sanatte and his braves roamed through the wilds of the Yukon country, they little thought that the sand they crushed beneath their feet, and the lumps of yellow metal they found on the bars, and which they would have gladly exchanged for the commonest glass beads, would be the cause of an invasion such as has taken place there within the last few months.

This Yukon country, bounded on the north by the Porcupine River, on the south by British Columbia, on the east by the main chain of the Rocky Mountains and on the west by the American boundary [Alaska/Yukon], contains an area of 180,000 square miles. The river from which the district takes its name rises in the Rocky Mountains in latitude 62 degrees and longitude 130 degrees, and flowing north and west for a distance of 500 miles under the names of the Pelly and Yukon, crosses the American boundary in latitude 64 degrees 30 min. 

The principal tributaries are the Stewart, White, Lewes, and McMillan Rivers and Forty-mile, Klondyke and Sixty-miles Creek. [The Lewes River is the eastern part of today’s Yukon River]. Near the source of the Pelly or Yukon rise:

  1. The Liard or Mountain River, which flowing south for 150 miles cuts through the Rocky Mountains, and describ[ing] a semi-circle, enters the Mackenzie at Fort Simpson, after a course of 600 miles.

It was the Liard River which caused the HBC men so many problems in 1849. I went up the Alaska Highway many years ago, in the 1970’s, and I still remember the Liard. At that time it caused problems, as its high waters  washed the bridge out almost every summer, trapping people on one side or the other of the river until a new bridge could be built. I still don’t know if the highways department has managed to build a bridge that survives the summer freshets on the Liard River!

2. The Lewes, a branch of the Yukon, rises in latitude 60, and after a course of 300 miles, joins the Yukon at the site of old Fort Selkirk.

This is why Fort Selkirk journals were called, “Journal of Occurrences at the Forks of the Lewes and Pelly Rivers.” It also appears that James Green Stewart called the Pelly Banks post Fort Selkirk. This confusion of names caused some frustration to James Anderson A, who was in charge at Fort Simpson in the 1850’s. Because Anderson had difficulty understanding which post they were talking about in their correspondence, he ordered Campbell to call the Fort at the Forks by its proper name: Fort Selkirk. So, let’s continue:

3. The Frances, which rising in latitude 62, flows through the lake of the same name [Frances Lake], and joins the Liard after a course of 150 miles at Sylvester’s Lower Post.

So the Frances River north of Frances Lake must have formed a part of the lake-and-river portage that led the HBC men to the land portage, which would finally take them to Pelly Banks. The entire portage was 120 miles long: how much of it was river and lake, and how much was packing the goods over the height of land that separated Frances Lake from the Pelly Banks post, I do not know.

Besides these there are also the Dease, a tributary of the Liard; the Stikine; and the Peace, with its tributaries the Omenica, the Parsnip and the Findlay, which at some part of their course tap the rich gold fields in or near the Yukon District.

The Rocky Mountains, which separate British Columbia from the North-West Territories, run north as far as the Arctic Ocean, and form the boundary between the gold bearing and non-gold bearing regions. 

So if you were going into the Klondike goldfields, you had to cross the Rocky Mountains somewhere. The same problem existed for the HBC men who must find a safe way out of their fur-trapping area. The Liard River may have been the most direct route, but that dangerous river no longer worked for them. The new route was convoluted and covered many miles, but the rivers were safe, and the journey was made with little danger. The Prospector’s Guide continues:

In order to enter the Yukon the prospector must take one of the several routes in sight; and the experience of those who have already gone by the west coast, sufficiently demonstrates that in spite of any new discoveries, the perpetual winters and the difficulties and dangers of the Chilkoot and other passes, proves that a better way must be found to enter the gold regions…

As all roads lead to Rome, so all the roads on the east of the Rockies lead through Edmonton.

Leaving the main line of the C.P.R. at Calgary, the traveler proceeds by the C. & E. Railway 190 miles, and arrives at South Edmonton, which is at present the end of the track. Crossing the North Saskatchewan, over which a combined railway and traffic bridge will be built this season, he arrives at Edmonton and finds himself at the junction of all the best routes leading to the Mecca of his desire — the Yukon gold fields.

We shall now proceed to describe the different routes to be taken: 1st, almost all by water; 2nd, partly by water and partly by land; and 3rd, the several land routes which have all the same terminus (Sylvester’s Post). By closely examining the accompanying map and strictly following the directions given in this pamphlet, the prospector will have no difficulty in choosing a trail for himself.

I didn’t follow the land routes north, so if you want them you will have to find a copy of this pamphlet for yourself. I also saw no map in the copy that I accessed: it is likely that the map was separate, kept folded in a pocket at the back of the pamphlet, and easily lost or damaged.

And first, the place we start from:

Edmonton, the capital of Northern Alberta, with the small population of 1,500 souls, is not the insignificant village one might suppose from the number of its inhabitants. There are four fine churches, a magnificent public school, a first-class hospital, a tiny convent school, a brick fire hall, two banks, three hotels, and stores containing not only the necessaries of life, but also luxuries not to be found elsewhere in the Territories. It is also the centre of the largest fur trade, perhaps, in the world, and the market for a district 60 miles in diameter, rich in grain and the products of mixed farming. Coal mines are under the town; gold is found on the bars within the municipality and our citizens can safely say that no town in America has greater prospects of becoming an immense city than this same town of Edmonton.

Leaving Edmonton then, we shall describe the 1st route, nearly all by water; or the Athabasca-Mackenzie-Porcupine route.

WATER ROUTE. From Edmonton to Athabasca Landing (usually called The Landing) teams freight supplies to that point, 90 miles, for 75 cents per 100 lbs. The road is good and there is no difficulty in the way. 

The route to Athabasca Landing was a different route than that followed by the HBC men who were heading north to Fort Assiniboine: I learned this from a book titled Historic Trails of Alberta, by Mark Anderako [Edmonton: Lone Pine Publishing, 1985]. He says that the Athabasca Landing Trail from Edmonton was cut in 1877, and later became the Klondike gold rush trail. If you want to learn more, then here is your source. I found this book in the Uvic Library, but it will be in other libraries as well. As I was not interested in the Klondike trail at the time I accessed this book, I did not copy out any of the information on that trail.

At The Landing, boats can be built. There are experienced builders who can build any style of boat used on northern rivers. These boats cost from $100 to $300; and perhaps the best of all shapes is the “York,” something like a whale boat and able to carry about five tons.

The image above is not of a York Boat, but of the sturgeon-nosed boats or barges they used on the Athabasca River after 1835, between Lesser Slave Lake, Fort Assiniboine, and Jasper’s House. These boats changed a lot over the years. In 1848 Thomas Lowe praised the boats that now existed on this river, saying they were better built than they had been in the past. They may have continued to change, and I suspect that they did. But it seems that sturgeon-nosed boats, which were easier to build, were pretty standard on this river. (However, I don’t know what kind of boats the HBC men used downriver at Fort Simpson and elsewhere. They may have had better boat-builders who were able to build the York Boats — or maybe not. They may never had felt the need to build York Boats at Fort Simpson.) For the most part, these rivers were easier to travel than the North Saskatchewan was, as long as the boats were not flat-bottomed, but had a keel of some sort, as the York Boats did. 

At any rate, here begins the next stage of the journey north to Fort Simpson and beyond. It is interesting that the writer must remind the gold miners to head downriver, not up. But it makes sense, too: it sounds too simple to be true.

Supposing we have our boat, and our supplies on board, with a crew of six or seven men, we push out at The Landing and start DOWN stream for the Yukon. Leaving The Landing we proceed down the Athabasca 167 miles to the Grand Rapids. This part of the navigation is accomplished without difficulty, as the Hudson’s Bay Company’s steamer runs up and down at all stages of the water.

The Grand Rapids of the Athabasca River is well east of Fort Assiniboine, and also well east of Lesser Slave Lake. Governor Simpson, in the “Two Canoes” series on this site, did not travel over this rapid, as he came down the Clearwater River into the Athabasca at about the present day location of Fort McMurray (which you will see mentioned in the next post in this series). John Work’s 1823 Journal also does not mention the Grand Rapids, but he traveled to the Athabasca River via Beaver River and Lac la Biche, avoiding the Clearwater River entirely. The Grand Rapids of the Athabasca is south of the mouth of the Clearwater, and north of the river that flows out of Lac la Biche into the Athabasca. All of a sudden I understand why John Work and Peter Skene Ogden took the route they did — the Grand Rapids is a very fierce set of rapids with a long portage, as you will see in the next post!

Anyway, I will continue this post in the future, and have lots of information to add to the descriptions that were included in the Gairdner & Harrison Prospector’s Guide. This will be a fun series to write, and will be a challenge for me. When I write the next post in the series, it will be found here: 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson. 2018. All rights reserved.