ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

A Trip to Dawson in Mid-Winter

Arctic & Northern History

Dateline: November 26, 2019.

San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine, November 27, 1910

San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine - November 27, 1910


    A TRIP to Dawson, Yukon Territory, in midwinter is one that not only charms the eye, but the element of danger encountered is an added attraction and tends to keep one constantly on the alert for adventures. The country in and adjacent to Dawson has been known to the world at large as the "Klondike," that name being derived from a river which skirts the city and empties into the Yukon. At the present time Dawson has 3500 inhabitants, while during the mining excitement over 30,000 people resided in that section, and the number of empty buildings stand as relics of the past.

    Our party, consisting of seven members, six of which were former Stanford students and one from the University of California, was employed by the Guggenheim Mining Syndicate to make surveys for the hydraulic and dredge mining operations to be pursued on the Klondike and tributary streams in the vicinity of Dawson. We departed from San Francisco on an evening in February and took the train bound for Seattle. Besides our handbags we carried three transits and two levels for surveying purposes, so we were well laden with baggage. We were all somewhat excited, as at last we had actually started on the journey to the Frozen North, to a land far different from any we had heretofore encountered. As most of the boys had traveled over the Shasta route, as well to Seattle, this portion of the trip ha no particular significance except as a link in the chain of travel that was to come. After a lapse of forty-eight hours we arrived in Seattle. As the next steamer did not sail for three days, we had ample time to secure our equipment, consisting of heavy makinaw coat, woolen under-apparel and socks, waterproof and felt shoes, heavy woollen mittens and silk-lined gloves, also a fur cap. While waiting for the date of sailing, some of the pioneers of the Far North told many harrowing tales of the hardships to be encountered on the trail, which were not conducive to a peaceful mind.

    At last all were aboard the steamer, and in the evening we steamed out of Puget sound bound for Skagway. After a run of some six hours we passed Dixon's entrance, the beginning of the so-called inland passage. This passage is not more than one-half mile wide at the most, and in places one can almost step from the boat to the shore. The mountains, covered with snow, rise up on each side to considerable height, and here we got our first glimpse of the snow. A number of islands, densely wooded, some one mile in length, were passed and they formed an added attraction to the scenery. The water was as smooth as glass.

    Our first stop was at Ketchikan, the ship being covered with sleet and the temperature 20 degrees below zero. A large salmon cannery and the fish hatchery are located here. Also some quartz mines are being developed some ten miles from the port. Here we also had our first view of a totem pole, which is said to be the largest and finest in Alaska.


    The next landing was at Sitka, the capital of Alaska. Another day on the water brought us to Douglas island, the home of the famous Treadwell quartz mine, with its 1500 stamps dropping, continually. As considerable freight was discharged here we had an excellent opportunity to examine this property. The "glory hole," from which some ore was even then being removed, was of special interest to us. At this time the hole was some 1100 feet deep, and on each side of the rim a train of ore cars was conveying ore from the hole to the mill. This method of extraction is known as "quarrying," and the rock was mined and milled for $1 a ton.

    After a sea trip of four days we landed in Skagway, the end of the "inland passage," and the terminus of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad. Skagway is a port of considerable importance for here all freight for the Interior and Dawson is landed, and this is the city which "Soapy Smith" and his gang, during the Klondike excitement, terrorized, and where many crimes were committed. The huge Muir glacier in the distance is one of the sights. In fact, we passed a number of these ice packs, especially when within 100 miles of our port.

    The White Pass and Yukon Railroad, connecting Skagway and White Horse, a distance of 110 miles, paid for itself in the first two years of operation. It is of the narrow-gauge type, with a cog engine, as the grades are very heavy. A portion of the road is built upon glaciers.

    We left Skagway at 9:30 in the morning, on our first train trip in the land of great expectations. The train consisted of two day coaches and an express car, with a header engine as well as a pusher. The first two miles follows the base of the Porcupine mountains, with "A B" mountain on the left. This mountain is so named because nature has formed two distinct letters, A and B, on its north side, and these letters can be seen for miles. An organization, known as the Arctic Brotherhood, the name being taken from these letters, has been formed and to join this body one must be a "sourdough," a title given to one who has spent a winter in Alaska and seen the ice go out. A "cheechocker" is a newcomer, so we were called "cheechockers."

    The horseshoe bend gives one the first good view of Skagway from an elevation, for, upon looking through the gap in the mountains at Inspiration point, the ocean, the summit of A B mountain and the valley below make a picture that is most impressive. After a climb of one hour the summit of the first range is reached, and upon passing through the tunnel the road follows the summit for some three miles, when the steel cantilever bridge is crossed and then one begins the descent to Glacier station. At this point we saw the famous Lauton glacier. After leaving the summit of the mountains you pass into the Dominion of Canada and are inspected by the Canadian authorities. Here you see the English and United States flags within a few feet of each other.

    At noon we made a stop for lunch at Bennett, a station on Lake Bennett, and the point where the pioneers built their boats, and thus conveyed their supplies to White Horse. From here we got a view of the lakes, and as the railroad follows the contour of the shore for a number of miles, a good idea of the extent of these bodies of water is gained. The next in importance is Middle Lake, near Frazier station, a smaller body of water, but one that is the haunt of the sportsmen during the duck season. It is noted throughout the Northwest as an excellent hunting place.

    At 4:30 o'clock in the afternoon we arrived at White Horse, the terminus of the railroad and the beginning of either the winter or summer route to Dawson. At this time of the year there were many river boats, similar to those used on the Mississippi, packed in the ice, as they were tied up for the winter. White Horse ts a city of some 1500 people, the majority of whom depend on the railroad and the steamboat companies for a livelihood. A little quartz mining has been attempted in this vicinity, but with poor results due not only to barren streaks in the ore body, but also to the great amount of faulting that has occurred.


    After a rest of three hours our party, which had been increased by three members, departed from White Horse in a three-seated sleigh drawn by four horses. We were anxious to make the first station, a distance of fifteen miles, as by so doing we could save a day's time in reaching our destination. It was 38 degrees below, so that in a few minutes we were chilled to the bone. Finally, after a smooth ride of three hours, we reached our stopping place for the night, and a warm fire and hot coffee soon made us all more cheerful.

    Every fifteen miles a change of horses is made at a rough log cabin, known as a station, and in order to keep from freezing we took a hot cup of coffee and a bite to eat, for the small sum of $1. Four to five stations a day are made, depending on the driver. Five stations was our usual run. The trail for the sleigh is kept in good condition, and the smoothness in riding is surprising.

    We were ordered by the driver to be prepared to leave the next morning at 5:30 o'clock, and as the heat inside the cabin was intense, we were delighted when our breakfast was served. When we started it was 42 degrees below, and the first few miles of riding was torture, yet after a time one he comes so cold that his ears or nose may be frozen without it belng realized. A number of us went through this experience.

    The forest at the foot of the summit was a delightful scene, as the snow, not being heavy enough to cover all of the trees, made various figures, and with the sun just piercing the foliage, formed a picture of fairyland. Here we had our first glimpse in the frozen north of a lynx. The boys immediately got a six-shooter and endeavored to shoot the animal, but without result. One of our number even rested his gun against a tree and yet missed his mark. We were then surprised to see another lynx appear, and these two animals, after calmly surveying our outfit, leisurely walked back into the forest. The rest of us certainly joshed the would-be sportsmen as to their marksmanship.

    The Summit, so called on account of its being the highest point on the trail, was reached after an up-hill climb of one hour. From here we could look up and down the Yukon river for miles. We were to travel for two days on this river.

    At last we arrived in Dawson, the city of which we had heard and read so much, the place where men who had been poor for years were now able to throw nuggets over the gambling table, and when their pockets were empty to go back to their claims and dig more from the pay streak. It was here that Anderson, a Swede, threw away $2,000,000 on women and gambling, which he had taken from the bench above the Klondike river, and he is now working in a lumber yard in Tacoma for $3 per day. Benches are really the second pay streak, and are at a higher elevation than the creeks. They were said to be richer than the original discovery, known as "El Dorado," and will still yield good returns where plenty of water is available.

    The main streams adjacent to Dawson are the Klondike, El Dorado and Bear. Small creeks are known in this country as "pups.” The first, or original discovery, was made on El Dorado creek, and the claims were designated as either above or below discovery: for instance, ten below, means claim No. 10 below discovery and vice versa.


    The pay dirt is thawed out by means of steam points. Sometimes a huge fire is built and allowed to burn for twenty-four hours. By the former method from two to four feet can be thawed out so as to be worked, while with the latter two feet is the maximum. Both tunnels and shafts are used: the former on the hillsides and the latter on the creeks. The dirt is taken out during winter and piled on the banks of the stream, where it is washed during the summer, the method of working being the old-style sluice box.

    It is claimed that the values found in the creeks were really washed from benches, the formation of which is quartz porphyry.

    The next day after our arrival we spent in, learning to walk with snow shoes, called "mushing," and in adjusting the surveying instruments. Our work consisted in making surveys for a ditch and power line, the former to be used for hydraulic purposes and the latter to furnish power to operate the dredges, which were to be installed on the Klondike and tributary streams. Camps called "caches" every twenty miles were established for our use. We were divided into three parties as the line of the ditch would make a distance of some fifty miles. The country back of Dawson being mountainous, our supplies were hauled up the Yukon river by dog teams. A dog team consists of eight or twelve dogs attached to two sleighs; the first being called a "header" and the second a "runner." The sleds were guided by means of a gee pole fastened to the header. A trail about three feet wide is made by snow-shoeing and over this the sleds must travel, and as soon as it freezes over it is then good for the entire winter. A good dog team can carry from 300 to 700 pounds over a rough country, and our only communication with the outside world was through these teams.

    The ditch line was to carry 5000 miners' inches of water and to receive its supply from Twelve-Mile river, a tributary of the Yukon. For three months we had to use snowshoes in making the survey, and many times all of us have fallen into twelve feet of snow, due either to a defective snowshoe or else a tree. One soon becomes an expert, yet when near an instrument one must remember that he is on snowshoes. Short, wide shoes are known as "pumpkin-seeds."

    The snow began to thaw the first of May and the breakup of the ice on the Yukon river occurred on May 4th. The date of the going out of the ice is a great event, as bets are made as to the day, and even the hour, and a large prize is given to the winner. The prize that year was over $1000, the cost of a guess being $1. When the ice makes a distance of one foot the breakup is said to occur.

    During the summer months, June, July and August, the time of perpetual day, we ran a day and night surveying party to locate the line, the winter work being preliminary, as the snow on the level was over twelve feet deep.

    During the thaw it was my good fortune to have an opportunity to estimate the value of some placer property, known as Bunker Hill. In estimating the value of these claims the old-fashioned California rocker and pan were used. A box of known cubical contents being used, the yardage was easily obtained, so that upon weighing the gold the value per cubic yard was estimated. A number of large Giants will be installed on this property.


    The mining laws of the Dominion of Canada are very rigid; all debris must be kept out of the streams, so the silt from the sluices is run over large piles of small trees known as "cribs."

    The power line was forty-two miles long, the power-house also being located near Twelve-mile river. The placers on Twelve-mile were very shallow, but some of the dredging land is paying and two dredges were operating while we were in that vicinity. The dredging operations will be confined principally to the Klondike river, although many of the smaller "pups" will pay well. The dredger on Bear creek has been in operation for some years, the ground being easily worked and good pay. This ground does not come under the Guggenheim grant, and the Bear Creek Company was the pioneer dredging company in the Yukon territory.

    The day of the small miner is over in the Klondike, but on a large scale handsome returns will be realized. The scarcity of water has always been a problem, but this has been solved by the Yukon Goldfield Company at an enormous cost, and the returns should be great. Quartz mining has not been although the Canadian Government is aiding those who are searching for the hard rock.

    During the summer the wild berries grow abundantly, especially salmon, black and the blue varieties, and also 110 kinds of wild flowers.

    We came out of Dawson by boat, and it did seem strange to be sailing down the same stream that we had sleighed upon during the winter. The Yukon the summer is about six feet deep and from a quarter to half a mile in width, with a velocity of some six miles an hour. The rapids at Devil's Slide, midway between Dawson and White pass, through which the steamer must pass, are very swift and treacherous, so that most of the steamers use a guide line attached to the shore. The captain of our steamer dispensed with the guide line, and for a few minutes the boat could make no headway, but after crowding on full steam she passed safely through the churning rapids. As the Yukon river flows north, it takes the boats twice as long to go from Dawson to White pass as it does to go with the current.

    The examination by the Canadian inspectors on our return was most rigid, as there is a duty of 1 per cent on all gold dust taken from Canadian claims on to United States soil. A young man with whom I became acquainted, in order to avoid the duty, had put $300 worth of gold dust in a poke in his socks. After several hours he regretted his smuggling, as his feet were covered with blisters.

    Dawson has one of the finest police services of any known city, due to the splendid training and efficiency of the Canadian Northwest Mounted Police.

    Any portion of Alaska is well worth attention, as it is a land of great possibilities. Our statesmen were wiser than they knew when they acquired this territory. Its gold production up to date is $140,000,000.

The image below shows the entire page as published.
A Trip To Dawson Mid-Winter: San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine - November 27, 1910