By Gerry Clare, 1998
On July 17, 1897 the steamer Portland docked in Seattle and unloaded two tons of Yukon gold. Suddenly the rumors of fabulous placer deposits on the Klondike River were confirmed and within days the rush was on.
One of the most famous pictures in Canadian history shows an endless line of heavily laden men slowly and painfully making their way up the Chilkoot Pass in the winter of 1897, heading for the Yukon and the goldfields of the Klondike. Actually, the picture shows the American side of the pass, inland from Skagway and Dyea, but it is the lingering image of the mad rush to the creeks of the Klondike.
There were other ways to get to Dawson City, some easier and more comfortable than hauling a ton of supplies up the Chilkoot Trail as required by Sam Steele and the North West Mounted Police, camped at the summit on the boundary between Canada and the United States. But some of the alternatives were even worse than the Chilkoot – after all, it was a relatively short trail and the police were there to maintain order. Among the hardest of the trails attempted were the overland trails through trackless wilderness known only to a few fur trappers and Indian hunters.
In a remarkably swift response to the news of a gold rush, the federal government, acting through the North West Mounted Police, set out to establish an all-Canadian route from Edmonton to the Yukon. It was obvious from a brief glance at any map of northwestern Canada that the Rocky Mountain Trench offered a perfect overland route to the Yukon. All a miner had to do was to get to Fort St John, enter the Trench and follow the Finlay and other rivers north then cross to the Liard system and use the convenient waterways flowing in the desired direction. There was even a Hudson Bay Post, Fort Grahame, part way along the route for easy re-supplying. What else could anyone ask for? The merchants of Edmonton enthusiastically promoted their railhead city as the gateway to the north well equipped with businesses familiar with the semi-wilderness around them and eager to sell complete kits to the equally eager Klondikers. For as little as $250 (half a year’s wages for most), a miner could be supplied with all the groceries, hardware and clothing he could possibly need for the trip, including ground ginger, caulking irons and two suits of heavy woolen underwear.
Appalled by the flood of ill-equipped and inexperienced people heading overland for the Yukon, Commissioner L.W. Herchmer sent a memo to Inspector J.D. Moodie on August 27, 1897, ordering him to locate a good wagon road or trail from Edmonton to the headwaters of the Pelly River. From that point, water transportation could quickly and safely carry the hopeful miners into the Klondike system and on north to fame and fortune at Dawson City. According to the memo, Moodie was to find the “best road to take for parties going into the Yukon via that route … map out the route and carefully mark the portions over which a wagon trail can be made without expense, and the portions that require corduroying, grading or ditching….”
The main object of Moodie’s expedition was to get parties with wagons as far as possible, then with horses or oxen beyond that. Sites for caches of supplies were to be established as well. Moodie was required to “supply such reliable information that a party leaving Edmonton will know exactly what they must expect at all points en route.”
Herchmer told Moodie that, in his opinion, the best route was from Fort St John, up the Peace River to the Halfway, then up the Halfway to Frances Lake and into the Trench by way of the then nameless Laurier Pass. From there, the Commissioner was sure it was possible to strike the junction of the Liard and Dease Rivers although the preferred target was to be Pelly Banks on the Klondike River. The route selected by Moodie was to ” be by land and practicable, where possible, for wagons and always for pack horses.”
To carry out this ambitious task, Moodie was told that he would have four men under his command in addition to “any Indian or Indians you may from time to time find it expedient to engage, who have local knowledge.” He was given 100 pounds of pemmican, for emergency use only, and reminded that ” with good men, plenty of provisions and fair luck [he] should be able to get to the Kondike during the winter. The surveyor accompanying the expedition was to carefully note everything along the way and to be particularly careful to identify places suitable for settlement, hay production and potential farmland along the way north.
Moodie left Edmonton on September 4 and followed the well-established routes north and west, arriving at Fort St John on November 1 by way of Peace River Landing and Dunvegan.
As is often the case by November, winter was already setting in on the Upper Peace and Moodie’s expedition was in danger of having to stay over. He sent for the best guide in the territory, Napoleon Thomas [Tomas], who was at his place just northwest of present day Dawson Creek. Moodie offered Thomas $75 a month with a $15 a month bonus if they got back in less than five months. The Inspector undoubtedly thought he was making a very generous offer for the guide’s services. Thomas was a trapper and usually averaged over $100 a month during the five month season, and he was being asked to take a smaller wage as well as undertaking a dangerous mission for the NWMP. He told Moodie that he would come only if his children would be properly taken care of while he was away from home.
By the 18th of November, Moodie had given Napoleon Thomas medicine for his sick children and the guide had agreed to go north with the Mounties. While waiting for Thomas to make arrangements for his family, Moodie had sent for teams of dogs and was having sleds built and moccasins made. Several of the weakened or injured horses were used to feed the dogs.
The party left Fort St John and moved slowly north and west, taking the best horses with them as well as the dog teams. Along the way they were often unsure of their route and men and animals all suffered in the heavy snow and generally wretched conditions. Eventually they killed seven of the horses to feed the dogs and sent the remaining horses back to Fort St John. On January 18, exhausted and hungry, they reached Fort Grahame, roughly 200 miles from Fort St John but still almost 400 miles from their destination on the Pelly River.
Several parties of Klondikers had already arrived at Fort Grahame from the south and were making life very difficult for the three hundred or so Sekanni who wintered in the area. The newcomers took a terrible toll on the game animals the Indians depended on. Even at the best of times this was an inhospitable area and the miners’ total disregard for the Indians and their rights had brought the situation a dangerous level of tension. The Sekanni were ready to fight for their survival and Moodie had arrived at just the right moment to prevent an armed confrontation at the fort.
The next spring an open conflict sprang up between the Beaver Indians near Fort St. John and the Klondikers waiting to follow Moodie’s trail. The Klondikers, mostly Americans, pastured their horses on the natural meadows prized by the Indians and made their contempt for the Beaver well known. This attitude and a few incidents of Indian horses being stolen, dogs shot, food caches robbed and bear traps being destroyed and trouble was bound to happen. It came in a bloodless way, though.
More than seventy prospectors had hauled their loaded carts and wagons to the top of the nine hundred-foot high riverbank at Fort St John. When they left them unguarded, the Beaver pushed them over the edge – pieces of broken wagons littered the slopes for years after!
Whether that incident had anything to do with it or not is debatable, but later in 1898 the federal government signed a treaty – Treaty Eight – with the native people of Northeastern British Columbia.
Moodie spent an uncomfortable winter at Fort Grahame and before spring both the little Hudson Bay post and Moodie’s men were dangerously short of supplies. On April 1, Moodie and one constable left Fort Grahame and headed south to Stuart Lake, 160 miles away, for supplies. Finding that the Stuart Lake post had been cleaned out by gold-seekers flooding north, they pushed on another 120 miles to Quesnel where they were finally able to find the supplies they needed. By July they were back at Fort Grahame and the expedition was on its way north again.
Struggling through melting snow, mud, swollen streams and windfall and pestered by mosquitoes, black flies and no-see-ums, they pushed north all through the summer and fall of 1898. Racing winter again, they finally reached Fort Selkirk on the Yukon River on October 4 – one year and seven months after they left Edmonton.
Returning to Edmonton, Moodie reported that the trail he and his men had pioneered should never be used and no effort should be put into its development. It was just too long and too difficult a route even compared to the ordeals of the Chilkoot Trail from Skagway. But, in the strange way governments do things sometimes, an attempt was made to build a road — but not until 1905. This was long after the first rush to the Klondike had ended and much of the population of Dawson City had left to search for gold further north at Nome. Police Superintendent Constantine, Inspector Richard, 6 non-commissioned officers, 22 constables and 60 horses set off from Fort St John to build a proper road to the Yukon, complete with rest shacks every 30 miles or so.
The Police Road did not follow much of Moodie’s route. By 1907, it had connected with the old Yukon Telegraph Trail about 100 miles north of Hazelton or 270 miles west of Fort St John. Not one mile of northerly progress had been made in those two years! The provincial government was not interested in paying for an upgrade to the terrible Telegraph Trail since it was going nowhere and nobody needed it or used it any longer.
The trails to the Yukon gold fields exist only on old maps now. None of them have ever been developed, although parts of the Alaska Highway follow W.P. Taylor’s relatively direct-line trail from Fort St John to Fort Nelson used by a few Klondikers after 1898. It is a hundred years since Klondikers passed through the Peace and while they left little if anything behind, they certainly brought some excitement and notoriety to Fort St. John.
Bowes, Gordon E. Peace River Chronicles. Vancouver: Prescott, 1963.
Calverley, Dorthea H. “History is Where You Stand”, The Calverley Collection (unpublished) Dawson Creek, B.C.
Canada. Sessional Paper 15 (1898). Report of North West Mounted Police for 1898. Part II, pages 3-82 [Inspector J.D. Moodie’s diary].
MacGregor, James G. The Klondike Rush through Edmonton. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970.
MacGregor, James G. The Land of Twelve-Foot Davis. Edmonton: Institute of Applied Art, 1952.
Patterson, R.M. Finlay’s River. Toronto: Macmillan, 1968.
[This article appeared in the April 1998 issue of Unchagah Magazine]