Montague Roadhouse Historic Site, Yukon
by Murray Lundberg
Montague Roadhouse Historic Site Rest Area
This Historic Site and Rest Area is located at Km 322.4 of the North Klondike Highway. The roadhouse has been stabilized, and some minor restoration work done.
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The Overland Trail
The territorial government contracted White Pass & Yukon Route (WP&YR) to build a 530-km winter road from Whitehorse to Dawson in 1902. The Overland Trail replaced the Canadian Development Company (CDC) Trail which followed the frozen Yukon River.
WP&YR was awarded the winter mail delivery contract and set up a series of roadhouses every 30-40 kilometres along the Overland Trail. The roadhouses stops had barns, corrals and stables that independent travellers could use. WP&YR used as many as 275 horses in a season on the stage line. Oat fields at some of the roadhouses reduced the need to freight in horse feed.
Horse-drawn stages travelled from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and took from five to seven days to complete the trip. In the early days there was almost daily service but in later years the WP&YR stages ran three times per week. Passengers paid up to $125 one-way fare with extra charges for meals and accommodation.
Greenfield and Pickering won the Royal Mail contract in 1921 and ran a weekly service with four-horse outfits and sixteen roadhouses including Montague. T.C. Richards' Klondike Airways took over in 1929 and switched to caterpillar tractors and then a half-track truck. Travellers used their own vehicles or preferred an expensive flight to a long cold trip. Richards lost the contract to air carriers in the 1940s and the road was virtually abandoned.
You are looking at the last of three Montague Roadhouses. The first Montague Roadhouse operated on the Canadian Development Company (CDC) winter trail between 1901 and 1902. An overland short-cut from Lake Laberge to Carmacks passed the Chico, Montague and Carmacks roadhouses.
WP&YR built the second Montague Roadhouse on the Overland Trail in 1902 and F. J. Holland bought and operated this roadhouse between 1904 and 1907 when it was sold to a Mrs. Nyles. It burned in 1909 when it was owned by J.P. Hawkinson. The second Montague Roadhouse was the largest of the three Montagues built. A dining room and kitchen were located to the right of the lobby and bar below a bunk room for single men and a room for the stableman. The married quarters were to the left below living quarters for the owner’s family. The interior walls were covered with cloth to lighten the rooms and prevent moss and chinking from falling in. The bunk room cloth occasionally caught on fire but the benefits seemed to outweigh the risk.
Mike Cyr built the current roadhouse about three kilometres northwest of the previous Montague roadhouses. Cyr stayed on as the hostler, living at the site year-round and looked after the pastured horses during the summer. He left when the mail contractor started using track-equipped vehicles in 1929.
Montague Roadhouse operated until the 1940s. The smaller building still on the site was used to store frozen meat. The stables were bulldozed in 1951 during the construction of the Klondike Highway. The roadhouse roof was removed and installed on the Carmacks Roadhouse.
William Donnenworth was a driver on the Overland Trail from 1900 to 1920 and also worked as a purser on the WP&YR sternwheelers Nisutlin and Canadian. He often transported gold over the Overland Trail in 225-kg boxes with no fear of robbery. He slept in the roadhouses and left the gold under the seats in the stage. "Hobo Bill" left the Yukon in 1921.
Charlie "Dummy" Coghlan was a popular stage driver for the WP&YR Royal Mail Service starting in the early 1900s. He was also a master on the sternwheelers Casca, Canadian, Whitehorse and both Klondikes. Coghlan worked for Pickering and Greenfield in 1925, travelling three to five non-stop days on the tractor trains between Whitehorse and Dawson. He had a large wood lot at Lower Laberge where he cut firewood for the river boats and he lived there until the 1930s.
Many of the early drivers were WP&YR employees who worked on the boats in the summer and the Overland Trail in the winter. The horse-drawn stage drivers were called skinners.
The skinners wore fur coats tied with a long red sash and soft buckskin gloves with black silk or wool glove liners. One traveller remembered that passengers were expected to carry enough over-proof rum to keep the drivers happy with hot drinks in the long evenings.
It took a lot of skill to handle a heavy stage, especially when a spring glaciated across the road on a side hill and the alternative route was a thirty-metre drop. If the horses went through the ice at river crossings, choke lines were placed around their necks to prevent their struggles and they were floated downriver and hauled out on solid ice.