A Guide to Modern Carcross
From the time the first prospectors came over the Chilkoot Pass, this place
was known as Caribou Crossing because of the large herds of caribou that
crossed the narrows between Bennett and Tagish Lakes twice a year on their
annual migration. Artifacts of aboriginal people--flaked stone tools
estimated to be 4,500 years old--have been found here.
Following the discovery of Klondike gold in 1896, it became a popular
stopping off place for stampeders in their migration to and from the gold
fields of Dawson City.
For a short time it had the largest sawmill in the territory--owned by Mike
King--who also built boats and scows for the gold rush trade from early 1897.
In late May of 1898, the North-West Mounted Police counted 778 boats under
construction at Lindeman Lake, 850 in Bennett and the surrounding area, and
another 198 at Caribou Crossing and Tagish Lake. It was further estimated
that another 1,200 boats were built in these areas over the next few weeks.
In addition to being a minor boat building centre, Caribou Crossing was
also a station for the Royal Mail and the Dominion Telegraph Line, and it
served as a communications point on the Yukon River.
From the tent towns that sprung up in the area, several prominent hotels
emerged. The Caribou Hotel was built here in 1898, and still enjoys the
distinction of being the oldest operating hotel in the territory. In 1899
Fred Trump, grandfather of American millionaire playboy Donald Trump, and
his partner Ernest Levin, opened a restaurant in a tent at Bennett, which
they called the Arctic. Trump and Levin fed their customers well and,
before the year was out, they replaced their tent with a two-storeyed
building that offered food and sheltered accommodations. When the
White Pass & Yukon Route Railway
(WP&YR) threatened to draw business away from the
old trail, Trump and Levin floated The Arctic to a new site across from the
Bennett depot. When the partners later relocated to Whitehorse, their hotel
In 1901, when the gold rush subsided, Anglican Bishop William Bompas moved his
headquarters here from Forty Mile, and established a school
for Indian children. Two years later he petitioned the Canadian government
to change the name of Caribou Crossing to the abbreviated 'Carcross'. This
was due to frequent mixups in mail delivery with communities in Alaska, B.C.
and other Yukon settlements that had similar names. The post office made
the name change official in 1904.
During construction of the White Pass Railway, tracks were laid north from
Bennett and south from Whitehorse. They met at Carcross, which hosted the
'last spike' ceremony on July 29, 1900, linking Skagway with Whitehorse over
a distance of 110 miles.
The Carcross area is part of Skookum Jim's land. Carcross-Tagish people
remember his deal with the railway, probably the first land claims deal of
its kind in the territory. After gaining fame for his role in the discovery
of gold in the Klondike, Jim gave permission for the railway to build across
his land in exchange for jobs for people in his community.
While railway construction was under way in 1899, gold was discovered in
the Atlin district of northern B.C. and another stampede occurred. As a
result, all would-be miners, goods and services destined for Atlin went
Silver and gold were first discovered in the Windy Arm area of Tagish Lake
in July of 1899, which sparked an intensive mining era in this section of
the Yukon. By 1905, American mining promoter Col. John Howard Conrad had
acquired control of most of the newly-discovered gold-silver-lead deposits.
By 1906 the boomtown of Conrad employed more than 200 miners. It included
stores, churches, hotels, restaurants, baths and laundry, a post office, a
mining recorder's office as well as regular steamboat service from Carcross.
The history of the
Windy Arm mining stampede
Conrad's most ambitious and extravagant undertaking was construction of a
tramline to carry the ore down from his mine on Montana Mountain--then the
longest aerial tram in the world. It rose 3,700 feet, extended for four
miles and cost $75,000 to build at a time when the average miner was earning
$3.50 a day. The sternwheeler Gleaner provided steamer service between Conrad and
Carcross twice a week, and a telephone line linked the mines, Conrad and
Conrad's prosperity, however, went from boom to bust with a drop in the
world price for silver in 1914. The ore bodies were not as extensive as
first thought, consequently the mine closed and the town was abandoned.
In 1911 the Canadian government built a new residential school for Indian
children at Carcross. This was the beginning of a dark and difficult era
for Yukon native people. The Chooutla school often forcibly removed
children from their families and kept them apart for months or years at a time.
The school's academic program was limited to basic writing and arithmetic,
and it promoted loyalty to Christianity and the British Empire. Indian
culture and traditions were considered irrelevant and students were
forbidden to speak their native languages. They also suffered physical,
emotional and sexual abuse. During construction of the Alaska Highway in
1942, two black American soldiers entered the girls' dormitory of Chooutla
School. The two soldiers were later found guilty of having sex with
under-age girls and were fined $24 and $20 each by an American military court.
Cut adrift from their own culture, but not readily accepted by white
society, many children left the school before graduation only to face new
problems in trying to adapt to life back in their home communities. By the
late 1960s the Canadian government had changed its policy of assimilation of
native people into mainstream society and residential schools were phased out.
Johnnie Johns, a Yukon legend, passes on his stories
to the children of Carcross in 1983.
Photo courtesy of the Government of the Yukon.
Construction of a road link between Skagway and Whitehorse began in the
1950s, but was only completed to Skagway in 1978. The South Klondike
Highway roughly follows the trail of the stampeders of 1898 and Carcross is
a popular and picturesque stopping place for motorists. The highway is open
year-round as the result of a maintenance agreement between Canada and the
U.S., with additional funding provided by the Yukon mining industry which
ships ore to Skagway.
Carcross was a major depot for the WP&YR until the railway ceased
operations during the recession of 1982. The legendary White Pass train
made its first appearance at Carcross in 15 years on July 12 this year when
it carried gold rush descendants, dignitaries and others as part of the
re-enactment of the first shipment of Klondike gold from Skagway to Seattle.
Numerous Yukon pioneers are buried here, including Bishop Bompas, Skookum
Jim Mason, Kate Carmack, Tagish Charlie and Polly the Parrot.
For more than 50 years Polly held court at the Caribou Hotel where he
gained international fame for singing opera--and for shocking unsuspecting
hotel guests with colourful profanity. Polly died in 1972 at the age of 126
years--older than the gold rush itself--and his grave boasts one of the
finest bronze markers in the cemetery.
© 1998-2008 Ken Spotswood