“As the ship drew closer, a murmur arose from the crowd. A long line of men in miners’ hats was clustered at the deck railing; and now, as individual features began to emerge from the blur, it was seen that these were men aged beyond their years, gaunt and unshaven, their faces leathered by the sun but with eyes that glittered feverishly, picture-book prospectors, in fact. An outlandish scene followed. Down the gangplank they staggered, wrestling with luggage that seemed extraordinarily heavy-old leather grips bursting at the hinges, packing cases about to break apart, bulging valises, blanket rolls barely secured by straps and so heavy that it required two men to hoist each one to the dock.
It dawned on the spellbound onlookers that this was not common baggage: that these suitcases, canvas sacks, old cartons and boxes were not stuffed with socks and shirts but with gold. In that moment of comprehension, the Klondike stampede began, not quietly or gradually , but instantaneously and with explosive force.”
This is the scene described in Pierre Burton’s book “The Klondike Quest. A photographic essay 1897-1899.” Tens of thousands set off to make their fortunes. On reaching Skagway it became clear what kind of a journey lay ahead of them.
“The trail that led out of Skagway toward the White Pass was deceptive. It looked so easy at the outset-a pleasant wagon road winding between tall pines, an easy jaunt on horseback to the rainbow’s end. Then came Devil’s Hill, and the horror began. The road was no longer a road , only a narrow path, scarcely two feet wide, that twisted and corkscrewed for forty five miles through an appalling series of mountain barriers, each more dismaying than the last. Here were rivulets of liquid mud, coursing down the mountainside. Here were sinkholes that could swallow a horse, pack and all; and razor sharp rocks that tore at the feet; and vast fields of boulders, ten feet high, through which the pack animals groped and stumbled.”
The plight of the pack animals, mostly horses and a few oxen was pitiable indeed. The conditions were deplorable and it was as one stampeder described it ” an accursed trail.” Writer Jack London described what happened to the men on the trail:” Their hearts turned to stone-those which did not break- and they became beasts, the men on the Dead Horse Trail.” And the pack horses?
Some died of starvation, some of fever from untreated wounds, some of exhaustion, some drowned in mud holes. some fell from the trail cliff edge and to the waters below, some were beaten to death. I have been to the Yukon and there I heard that it is believed that some horses committed suicide by throwing themselves off the cliff.
When winter set in the conditions changed but did not get any easier.
“With thousands of feet hammering the snow into white granite and with more snow falling daily, the trail assumed a shape of its own, rising inch by inch, hard as concrete, …….there was not level place to stop and rest and those unlucky ones who slipped off the trail might wait for half day before finding a gap in the line into which they could squeeze. Gasping as they dragged their sledges, groaning under the weight of their packs, cursing their dogs and pack animals, they staggered forward, their muffled voices rising in concert through the thin air to mingle into an all-encompassing moan, which, like some spectral organ note, penetrated the mists below and rose in a low wail to the topmost peaks of the White Pass. “
It is said that as many as three thousand horses died on this “accursed trail.” I have chosen to spare you the ghastly descriptions recorded in Pierre Burton’s book of their deaths and I am also not going to show the photos of the pitiable ends these poor horses came to.
So why am I writing this post? I am writing it to pay tribute to these working horses. They bore the packs, they tried their best, weary and exhausted, they went on as long as they could. Only a very few were shot out of compassion. Men had indeed turned to beasts and the beasts of burden paid the price.
*All photos and excerpts are taken from Pierre Burton’s book ‘The Klondike Quest’.*