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Adventure on the sternwheeler Willie Irving, 1899

Yukon River sternwheeler Willie Irving

The Los Angeles Times, Sunday Morning, January 14, 1900

The Los Angeles Times, Sunday Morning, January 14, 1900

A Plucky Woman. Her Thrilling Experiences on a Trip to Dawson.

    SOME two years ago Mrs. W., an energetic California lady, followed her husband and two of her sons to the Klondike. They were fairly successful in their search for gold, but as greater results were promised if machinery was used for digging and thawing, it was decided, at a day's notice, that Mrs. W. should make a trip to the States for the purpose of buying a patent steam thawer and the necessary machinery to run it, and also, incidentally, to lay in a supply of provisions. She left Dawson August 17, 1899, and arrived in Portland, Or., September 1, coming out via Skaguay and the lakes, a distance of nearly two thousand miles, in two weeks. The whole trip was uneventful and pleasant.

    On about September 15, 1899, Mrs. W. started back to Dawson, after a two-weeks' stay in Portland, where she purchased the supplies and machinery, and completed the necessary arrangements for transportation, of the goods. Of her experiences on the return trip she writes to her son in Los Angeles as follows, this letter having been received November 18:

    "On board the Willie Irving at Hootalinqua, N. W. T.,

    Oct. 20, 1899. "My Dearest Willie: You will see by this lettersthat I am now five weeks on the journey; have had quite an experience, and have witnessed some very sad accidents. I had a series of delays from the time of leaving Portland, the steamer being six days behind time; then had to stay eleven days in Skaguay trying to get my freight loaded on cars, as there was a great jam of freight and a scarcity of cars. When I arrived at Bennett I could get no steamer to take freight, so had my goods loaded on scows, that left on the 9th of this month. I took passage on a steam scow to White Horse Rapids, leaving on the 10th.

    "The next day out we were wrecked on Windy Arm, a very rough piece of water in Lake Bennett, where there were a number of scows lost. I did not lose anything - only got a good wetting, and it was awfully cold. There were about thirty-five on our boat and everything was taken off and dried by big campfires. The ladies had to cook for all.

    "People who seem to know say it was a severe storm and we should not have gone into it, as the next day was perfectly calm.

    "That made another delay, and we were six days getting to White Horse, arriving there on Tuesday, the 16th inst. I found two steamers about to leave and took passage on this, the Willie Irving, to Dawson (for $80.) We left Wednesday at 8 p.m. and made down the Fifty Mile River to the head of Lake Lebarge, where we encountered more rough seas and a strong head wind, so we had to 'lay-to' until last night, at about midnight, when we started down the lake, reaching the head of Thirty Mile River about 10 o'clock this morning. Our captain telegraphed to Dawson and we still hope to reach there with the steamer, although we may get no further than Fort Selkirk. If so, we will have a distance of 175 miles to ‘mush' over the ice; but I hope not, as I know papa and the boys are looking anxiously for me. If we can get in by open water we will reach Dawson in about three days - next Monday.

    "Humboldt Gates, a young man who came out from Dawson for machinery on the same steamer with me, left Bennett with three scows, loaded, and had one wrecked going through the White Horse Rapids, losing everything on board. A man named Robinson was drowned the day before we reached there. Another scow was lost the same day, and one man drowned.

    "Everything is looking very wintry, and while we were anchored yesterday waiting for smooth water, it looked quite 'blue,' and a number of the passengers thought seriously of turning back, and I felt somewhat that way myself, but I know it is best that I should be with papa and the boys, and hope and pray that we make something this winter and go out next summer, and have a good, long visit with you.

    "This is likely the last word out by open water and I hope you will get it soon . . . I never want this experience again! Such anxiety as to whether I was going to get through with my freight!"

    After this letter no further word was received until January 1, 1900, when the two following came to hand:

                    "DAWSON (N. W. T.,) Nov. 27, 1899.

    "My Dear Son: Just two weeks ago tonight I arrived in Dawson (November 13,) after a long and quite an eventful trip. Yes, I left here altogether too late to attend to business and get back by open water, the awful blockade of freight at both Skaguay and Bennett delaying matters, so that many scows loaded with goods and machinery are jammed in the ice all along the Yukon River. Our machinery lies in the scow, about sixty miles up the river, and papa and the boys have been up there for nearly a week unloading and getting it safely on the shore. They will freight down all the lighter pieces with the dog teams, and will hire horses for the heavier parts.

    "I found the boys both well and papa feeling very anxious and worried about me. He had started up the river on the ice to meet me and got about eighty miles, where we were lodged in the ice, and from there we had to 'mush' into Dawson on foot. It was quite a long tramp, but we had plenty of company; as there were some four hundred people or more, so they soon made a trail. . . .

    "The days are getting very short, but we have had sunshine twice for a couple of hours, since I got back. . . So far the weather has not been very cold, the thermometer hovering very close to zero all the time since I arrived, but just a month ago they had a cold snap, which closed the river in a hurry. Had the river remained open one day longer we would have all gotten into Dawson. It closed here on the 23d of October, and we first got into the jam just this side of Selkirk, 175 miles from Dawson, on the 22d, and were nearly two weeks working our way down in scows to where we were jammed for good."

    From this letter it will be seen that Mrs. W. was almost two months en route, leaving Portland about the middle of September and arriving at her destination November 13.

                    "DAWSON (N. W. T.,) Dec. 3, 1899.

    "My Dear Boy: . . . I promised you in my last letter to give you all details of my trip down the river.

    "After leaving Skaguay for Bennett I had to remain at Bennett six days, getting my freight cleared from the customhouse and loaded on a scow. Then it was already getting late in the season and the steamers would not guarantee passengers through to Dawson, so I found a place on a scow that was fitted up to take passengers and was to be towed by a small steamer to Dawson. There were seven lady passengers and a number of men. Five scows were in the tow, and we left Bennett late Wednesday night, October 11, traveled all day Thursday without any mishaps, but stopped on Lake Bennett to pick up some wreckage Wednesday afternoon; then proceeded to Caribou Crossing, where we all tied up for the night, it being too dark to go through the narrows.

    "We left there at daylight Friday and sailed into the Windy Arm about 9 a.m., where there was a great storm blowing, and the little steamer, after laboring hard for an hour or more, was compelled to let the scows loose to the mercy of the wind and storm. The consequences were, we were all thrown up onto the rocky beach and the scows filled with water; the men jumped ashore and carried the ladies off, and then worked hard to save the goods and get the boats in such a position that they would not be beaten to pieces on the rocks.

    "We were camped there two days before everything was gotten in order to again proceed. We had no more mishaps until reaching White Horse Rapids Tuesday noon; then the steamer was lost going through the rapids and I began to think I would not reach Dawson in the scow. As two river steamers (the very last of the season) were just leaving I made an effort first to get passage on the Stratton, but the captain said they had refused at least twenty or thirty persons that day; so I saw the captain of the Willie Irving (on board of which I wrote you from Hootalinqua,) got my ticket and went aboard about a mile below White Horse at 8 p.m.

    "The wreck of both these steamers I think you have, no doubt, read accounts of in the San Francisco and Los Angeles papers. The whole account was given in the papers here, but I did not see them. The steamer Stratton sank; the ice jam crowding her down so quickly that the people had no time to save anything, and it was a miracle that none was lost. The Willie Irving might have suffered the same fate, being only about one hundred yards distant, in the same current, but, thank goodness! we were more fortunate, although we were all quite nervous and left the steamer in pretty quick time after we found that the Stratton had gone down. And getting off was a dangerous proposition; although I did not realize the danger at the time. We had to walk and climb over the jammed ice for a good quarter of a mile and then hang fast to a rocky cliff until daylight, as this all happened at midnight. The men built fires with what little brush grew between the rocks, but we could not lie down or even sit; it was so very steep that it was all we could do to hang fast, one person above another. I wish I had pictures of it all!

    "The next morning the steamer seemed quite safely jammed in the ice, and we all got aboard and had a hurried breakfast, as no one was very anxious to stop long on the Willie Irving. The ice jammed for a few minutes at the time, so we were able to get on the land side, which was at Selwin, a police station. There are a number of small cabins at this point and we camped there one week. Each day the river would open a little, so it was not safe to start out over the ice, although a few did and a great many scows came floating down and tied up there, waiting to see if they could proceed farther.

    "At last we all boarded the different scows and made about seventy miles further down toward Dawson, where we were finally jammed in for good (?) and had to 'mush' it about eighty miles. Papa grew very anxious and started out to meet me; he hailed us, just before we were jammed in, from across the river from our scows, and they sent a small boat over for him. He had a hard trip, as the ice was not good for walking yet.

    "The river closed at least ten days earlier this year. Had it kept open two days longer almost every one would have gotten into Dawson all right."             ABBIE FISHER.