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Steamboat on the Chilkat River, 1901

Northern Ships and Shipping

Dateline: February 1, 2021.

The Province, Vancouver, British Columbia - Monday, February 11, 1901.

    The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is again to the fore as a boomer. It has been heard from before in this regard as the general public well know to their cost. This time the paper is handling the Porcupine district, tributary to the Chilkat river. In an article in last Friday's issue it is stated that John F. Maloney, Jack Dalton and E. B. Hanley, who are claim owners in the Porcupine district, have decided to establish a steamer upon the Chilkat, plying between Pyramid harbor and Bear creek, the latter point being in Canadian territory where recently rich alluvial gravel has been found. It is stated that the contract for the construction of a steamer will be let to a Seattle firm at once. The following paragraph, purporting to be an interview with Mr. Maloney, may prove of interest to those who have been in the district and who are acquainted with the conditions existing there:

    "Our steamer will be the first to run on the Chilkat river, and we are somewhat apprehensive of trouble with the Indians, who are a warlike tribe and have already given the prospectors and miners considerable trouble. Many a dead man has been found on the trail whose death could never be explained, but was unquestionably the work of the Chilkats. All the traffic on the river in summer is now in canoes, worked by these Indians, and the prospect of a steamboat which will deprive them of that trade is expected to prove another source of irritation and trouble. We, however, expect to get the United States government to afford us the necessary protection from its military station at Skagway."

    The first statement if carried out will be true, that is, in the first part and probably in the second. No steamer has up to the present time navigated the Chilkat and it is not likely that one ever will successfully. The bed of the river is mostly formed of quicksand and the current, at the season of high water, runs at the rate of from five to eight miles per hour. The channels of the Chilkat, for there are many, are never in the same place for more than one day and in many instances the channels are not more than four feet wide.

    In the summer of 1899, just at the time when the Porcupine excitement was at its height, an old stern-wheeler lying on the flats at Skagway was purchased by a couple of Swedes who announced that they would run her on the Chilkat from Pyramid harbor to the Indian village of Klukwan. They took her down Lynn canal to Pyramid harbor and after getting aboard a good load of wood, a small amount of freight and some few passengers, made for the mouth of the Chilkat one fine morning. The steamer was an old flat bottom and she drew with her cargo some 18 inches of water. The Chilkats were just then enjoying their fishing season and were camped along the river in convenient locations close to the channels. But this is digressing. The old stern-wheeler got just fairly outside the mouth of the Chilkat when she ran against a bar despite the fact that the chief Swede was out on the bow piloting, being possessed of a long pole with which he was feeling for the channel.

    Once fairly stuck the Swede ordered the passengers to take the small boat and get out and rustle for the true channel. In a sorry moment two of them volunteered. The boat was launched and a strong man took the oars while the other steered. For half a day that boat wandered among the labyrinth of channels, sometimes in the water and sometimes high and dry, but never more than 200 yards away from the river steamer. They wanted to get further away but the current was so strong and the bars so many that they were unable to do so, and finally after many attempts gave up the exploring trip and refused to go out again despite the wailings of the Swede captain.

    It was the next night that the Chilkats, in a humorous vein, decided to have some fun with the Swede outfit. About half a dozen of the younger ones got together and donned their war paint, which was quite terrifying to one not in the know, but the writer happened to be on good terms with the Indians and stood in on the joke. Summoning some very ferocious countenances the Indians paddled out to the Swede boat and mounting the fo'k'sle commanded the captain to appear and hear the mandate of the most ferocious tribe of Chilkats, whose grandfathers had fished in the stream long before the coming of the white man. The captain heard what they had to say through a window and did not lose any time in declaring that it was "all off with the big Swede."

    The Indians had gravely informed him that if he persisted in his attempts to ascend the river they would be obliged, though much against their will, to burn his craft as its navigation up the stream would interfere with their fishing operations. Well just so soon as that Swede could shake the sand bars he struck for Skagway with his sternwheeler, and startling were the newspaper reports of the attack of the Indians, who had shortly before made some trouble over the running of a trail along the Chilkat. The Chilkats knew perfectly well that the Swedes would be unable to navigate the river with the steamer on account of its draught and the numerous sand bars, but they thought the opportunity excellent to have some enjoyment.

    It is true that many a dead man has been found on the trails, but their deaths might with more probability be laid to the door of the many rascally whites the district was infested with a year and a half ago and probably is yet, than blamed upon the Indians who are inclined to be peaceful so long as not molested or tricked out of their belongings.

    The traffic on the Chilkat is in the hands of the Indians for the very good reason that their canoes are the only craft capable of navigating the treacherous stream and even they are oftentimes piled up on the bars. Altogether the scheme of placing a steamer on the river is impracticable and nonsensical in the extreme.

    It is reported that Jack Dalton is to arrive in Seattle from the east shortly, and that construction of the new steamer will be pushed so as to have her ready by the time the ice breaks up on the Chilkat, generally about the middle of May. It is hardly likely that Jack Dalton or Hanley will put their money into such a scheme, knowing as they do the unfavorable conditions of navigation on the Chilkat, and the Seattle story may safely be put down as a pipe dream generated by the cheapest brand. Jack Dalton was in the district at the time when the first attempt was made to navigate the Chilkat by steamer and is fully acquainted with the facts. If it should so happen that a vessel is built she will have to draw less than 10 inches of water and be fitted with powerful dredging apparatus to boot.