In days of yore when the northland was being explored by adventurers coming into the country, waterways were the byways.
There were no roads, only trails through scrub forests. To get from one place to another, rivers were the answer both winter and summer. Boats served when the water was open; when frozen, dog sleds were the mode of travel.
Excitement over news that gold had been found in significant quantities sent tens of thousands of hopefuls rushing to cash in at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Suddenly, the demand for watercraft was overwhelming. Tens of thousands of people from around the world were eager to get to the Klondike. Anything large enough to cross the ocean was pressed into service along the West Coast. Seaworthiness was secondary to making space to hold people and their gear along with supplies to stock trading posts.
Today, large boats still ply the Inside Passage, Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet and the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, delivering supplies. Passengers, though, get around by air, snowmachine or all-terrain vehicles.
A relic of the past, the sternwheeler Nenana, since 1957 has been on display at Fairbanks—a museum showing visitors how their ancestors once traveled. That noble craft recently was declared unsafe and closed to the public. An effort is being made to raise funds to restore the historic steamboat in order to keep its memories alive.
The Nenana was built for and operated by The Alaska Railroad.
Its voyages covered about 850 miles, from Nenana to Marshall, until its final run in 1954. The 237-foot-long vessel’s draft when fully loaded was 44 inches. It could hold 50 passengers and haul 300 tons of cargo. Its speed was 17 miles an hour heading downriver, 10 miles an hour less when bucking the current.
Prior to the Alaska purchase, steamers were operated on the Yukon by Russian American Co. traders. In 1869 their successor, Northern Commercial Co., was operating the steamship Yukon, ten years later they added the St. Michael, and in 1892 the Portus B. Weare. In the year George Carmack’s gold discovery claim was filed, 1897, there were said to be seven riverboats operating on the Yukon. Two years later that number had jumped to 30.
There were two main entry points for those rushing to make their fortunes in the Klondike.
The “poor man’s route” was through the Inside Passage to Dyea or Skagway, while an all-water route took people to St. Michael, at the mouth of the Yukon. From there, steamboats went upstream to Dawson. Those landing at Dyea climbed Chilkoot Pass to get to Lake Lindeman where they built or bought a small boat or booked passage on a steamer.
People along the riverbanks, when needing money to finance their hunt for gold, were able to collect a good day’s wage chopping and splitting wood. The steamers burned around a cord of wood every hour. Each cord took up 128 cubic feet of valuable space, so frequent stops were made to replenish the fuel supply.
One of those Gold Rush riverboats was skippered by Charles W. Binkley, who hiked over the Chilkoot Pass and set up shop at Lake Lindeman, building boats to carry stampeders to Dawson. Later moving to Fairbanks to move passengers and freight in that camp, he taught his son Bill the shipwright’s art as well as the secrets of navigating Alaska’s tricky waters. Years later, Bill Binkley bought the Godspeed, an Episcopalian missionary craft that served Interior villages. She was rechristened as the Discovery and was used to haul tourists rather than theologians. He later built the first specially-designed Discovery, christened as Discovery II, at their shoreline home outside Fairbanks. Today, five of the pioneer’s descendants are licensed riverboat captains. A fifth generation of Binkleys are involved in the thriving business using the latest Discovery incarnation. During the summer they run tours, stopping for demonstrations, entertainment and lunch, all the while boasting about their State and answering questions.
The Binkley patriarch was skilled in boat-building.
Not all those who tried their hand were. Many people lost their lives on the Yukon as they failed to safely navigate the rapids or saw their craft break apart on the rocks.
The Yukon winds 2,000 miles westward from its headwaters in British Columbia to its Bering Sea outlet. Its channels change, hazards are abundant, and water flow varies throughout the season. That season is short. Ice at St. Michael goes out in June, allowing ships to anchor off-shore. The four-month season ends in October. The port at Skagway was open a little longer, but the wind and cold in winter made overland travel unbearable for Stampeders. A railroad was constructed through White Pass to get people and freight to Lake Lindeman, making its first run in 1899. It was later extended to reach Whitehorse and now operates during the summer months, mostly serving tourists.
One unfortunate group of people hoping to become millionaires shipped out of San Francisco aboard the SS Humboldt. William D. Wood, the mayor of Seattle, was in the Golden Gate city when the SS Excelsior docked there on July 17, 1897. Disembarking were miners with heavy sacks of gold—the ones sparking headlines of “A TON OF GOLD.” His Honor the Mayor fired off a telegram resigning his position and arranged to charter the Humboldt. He advertised that he was taking passengers to Dawson, leaving as soon as possible.
In no time, so many hopefuls were lined up that he unloaded a big portion of their belongings in order to cram even more passengers into makeshift steerage quarters. When they arrived at St. Michael two weeks later, the passengers found no connecting steamer waiting to take them upriver. They were told they had to build their own craft if they wanted to continue or else stay on board and return to California. Another shipload of passengers arrived about the same time and each set out to beat the other into the water. All were anxious to reach the end of the rainbow.
It already was late in the season when their boats were finished.
Wood’s crew quickly launched the Seattle No. 1; the other sailed in the May West. They made it only part-way before both boats became iced-in. Stalled in a strange land, unprepared for the cold, the passengers did their best to build shelters. Facing starvation, they demanded that groceries Wood had planned to sell in Dawson not only be made available to them—at Seattle prices.
Their over-winter settlement was named Woodworth in recognition of the Seattle No. 1’s Wood and the May West’s Captain Worth. The stranded and very unhappy population of Woodworth, however, quickly adopted the name “Suckerville.” To escape a lynching, Wood skipped out and made his way back to St. Michael. From there he returned to Seattle where he became a successful real estate developer. Most of his disheartened group, facing food shortages and no chance of staking a claim when they reached Dawson the following summer, headed out over the Pass and went back home, sadder and poorer but wiser.
Another unintended riverbank settlement was given a name which was soon to change—but it had a much brighter future.
E. T. Barnett was a trader who had visions of setting up a store at a spot he thought would be the crossroads for traffic going to various goldfields springing up in tributaries of the Yukon.
In 1902 he arranged passage on the Lavelle Young for himself and his goods, directing the captain to take him to the destination where he expected to make his fortune. His voyage was cut short by low water rather than ice. In the fall, streams feeding the Yukon tend to slack off as their headwaters start to freeze. The Lavelle Young made it only as far as an uninhabited spot at the Chena River.
Making the best of it, Barnett threw together a log building and set up shop on the riverbank. It was there that a prospector from Italy stopped in to purchase supplies. Felix Pedro had found gold on a creek in the Interior and was happy to obtain supplies close at hand. Barnett was happy to sell them to him—and to spread the word that would start a new stampede. In those days, it was easy to set off another rush of men expecting to find gold on the next creek that was rumored to be “the next Eldorado.”
Barnett’s Cache quickly became Fairbanks, overtaking Nome as Alaska’s largest city.
Pedro became known as the patron of the town; his life ended several years later with his small fortune spent. Barnett became known as the town’s wealthy banker who absconded with a suitcase full of his depositors’ money.
Today, riverboats still ply Alaska’s rivers delivering fuel, food and furniture to villages along the way. Alaska Marine Lines, associated with Lynden Transport, brings cargo from Seattle to Southeast and Western Alaska. On the western runs, its barges unload at Bethel. From there, riverboats distribute the shipments to villages along the way.
Almost as long as the Mississippi, the Yukon runs east to west following a more circuitous route. Both waterways have long and colorful histories and continue to serve both recreational and commercial purposes. Their whistles signal impending arrivals and still bring crowds to gawk. No matter how fancy today’s tour boats are, though, they are not quite as beloved as were those of old. Prior to the great influx of people hoping to find streets lined with gold, Capt. Al Mayo’s little steamer “New Racket” brought goods to Alaskan posts along the Yukon. Locals liked the boat’s name—insisting that it came from the clanking of its engine and hissing of steam from its stack. No matter the noise, its whistle was always a welcome sound.