The Klondike Gold Rush Steamers: A History of Yukon River Steam Navigation.

The Klondike Gold Rush Steamers: A History of Yukon River Steam Navigation.

Robert D. Turner

Reviewed by Robert G. McCandless

Paddle-driven, stern-wheeled river steamboats evolved on the Ohio River in the 1830s into the form they would keep for the next 100 years, enabling them to serve everywhere in the vast Mississippi River basin and to climb the rivers of the Pacific and Arctic slopes. Steamboats worked the Red River south of Winnipeg and supplied farms, settlements, and coal mines along the North and South Saskatchewan and Assiniboine rivers until the mid 1880s, when the Canadian Pacific Railway made them obsolete. In British Columbia, they operated briefly on the upper Columbia, the upper and lower Fraser, and the Skeena, Peace and Stikine rivers, and for decades on the large lakes in southern BC. Featuring a dead-flat hull like the lid of a shoe box but pointed at one end, river steamboats had a wood-fired boiler in the middle and at the stern a paddlewheel cranked by two horizontal steam cylinders, like legs pedalling a bicycle. They looked ungainly but could navigate fast shallow rivers in ways that today we might dismiss as mere legend.

In The Klondike Gold Rush Steamers, Robert Turner has written a magisterial study of this extinct technology during its apogee on the Yukon River. A welcome addition to Turner’s earlier books on British Columbia’s transportation history, this attractive book describes the steamboat’s role in the history of northern BC, the Yukon Territory, and Alaska. Turner follows Yukon River traffic between the US purchase of Alaska in 1867 and the August 1896 Klondike discovery, which attracted miners to Dawson City in the Yukon basin. Within two months, a steamboat delivered a load of badly-needed supplies at the very end of the Yukon’s short navigable season. That winter, Klondike miners worked the frozen gravels of their claims, and after breakup they caught the first steamboats downriver to coastal Alaska. From there, steamships took them to San Francisco and Seattle, and in July 1897, news of their “ton of gold” caused a sensation. “It is still difficult,” Turner notes, “to piece together the chain of events that led to the chaotic movement of thousands of people over many different routes to the gold camps” (42).

Much of this book is concerned with explaining how American and some Canadian shipyards, during the winter of 1897-8, built dozens of steamboats to deliver freight and passengers to Dawson. Most new boats were built in coastal Alaska to avoid open sea voyages. A few pre-fabricated small steamboats were carried over the notorious Chilkoot Pass from tidewater at Skagway to the Yukon River headwaters at Lake Bennett, BC, and others were built for the Stikine River and an ill-advised alternate all-Canadian route to the Klondike. Turner provides a comprehensive treatment of the shipyards: the boats built, their economics, and their fate, and he describes the key players and financiers. He reveals that Indigenous people supported the steamboat trade by supplying firewood and routinely serving as longshoremen, deckhands, or pilots.

Dawson’s population peaked in 1898-9, after which many steamboats were retired as unprofitable. Freight traffic on the lower river decreased after 1900 when the new White Pass & Yukon Railway from Skagway reached the head of river navigation at Whitehorse. As Klondike gold claims became consolidated, they created a need for heavy machinery and provided some boats with steady work until the Second World War. Yukon River steamboats continued their trade for fifty years, long after they vanished from southern rivers. They had their last hurrah during the Second World War delivering vehicles, fuel, and supplies to for the Alcan Highway and airfields near the lower Yukon. For the most part beached in the 1950s, three became historic sites in the Yukon and Alaska.

This engaging book contains countless excellent photos, many in colour, interspersed with ephemera like shipping schedules, tickets, maps, advertisements, and quotations of contemporaries. Perfectly bound with sewn signatures, it is made to last, and for me at least, to treasure.

The Klondike Gold Rush Steamers: A History of Yukon River Steam Navigation.
Robert D. Turner
Winlaw: Sono Nis Press, 2015. 351 pp. $49.95 cloth

BC Studies no. 194 Summer 2017