What Remains of Canyon City?
· 10 min. read
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There has never been a boom like the Klondike Gold Rush. Seemingly overnight, the wild, untamed Klondike was swarmed with tens of thousands of gold seekers. This hoard of people is referred to as “stampeders”, and that name is accurate. Wherever this hoard went, towns, cities, and communities grew, trees were chopped down, the soil was dug up and infrastructure was built. Then, as quickly as they roared in, they left again, leaving a skeleton of what once was.
Chief Isaac of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in near modern-day Dawson City saw the stampeders descending onto their Indigenous land and remarked that the mass of them was like a swarm of mosquitoes. He knew to get his people out of the area immediately and evacuated the entire area that would later be known as The Klondike ? a bastardization of the word “Tr’ondëk”.
Although Dawson City still exists (albeit a much smaller size than during the gold rush), the same cannot be said for Canyon City. Prior to the creation of the White Pass and Yukon Railway in 1900, one of the most common routes was to travel up the Yukon River, through what is now Whitehorse, and onto Dawson City. But, before they arrived at Whitehorse, there were two obstacles in their path: the Whitehorse Rapids and Miles Canyon.
Prior to the arrival of stampeders, North-West Mounted Police Inspector Samuel Steele arrived in Canyon City in February of 1898. What he found were 7,000 people living on the shores of the river, awaiting the spring breakup of the ice. This settlement was about a kilometer south of Miles Canyon and was the launching point to plan a journey into the Klondike. Many stampeders gathered here to get supplies, plan their journey, and prepare for the challenges that lay ahead.
Once the ice broke, many stampeders attempted the maelstrom of water with their own custom boats. Unfortunately, this led to a large bottleneck in Canyon City, wrecking 300 vessels and taking the lives of five people. Steele is famously quoted as saying: “why more casualties have not occurred is a mystery to me.” From that point on, only skilled pilots were hired to navigate boats through Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids. Regardless, by the time the gold rush ended, it is believed that this stretch of the river would take the lives of 200 people.
One of the seven thousand people Steele saw on the shore of the Yukon River was Norman Macaulay, who moved arrived from British Columbia a year earlier. As an inspiring entrepreneur, Macaulay found a solution to the treacherous bottleneck. He hired eighteen men to build a wooden tramway for horse-drawn cars that could carry freight and small boats around the canyon and the rapids. The tramway took twenty-one days to build and was in full operation in 1898 during the main rush of the Klondike stampede.
On the other side of the river, Macaulay’s tramway faced competition as John Hepburn was also working to create his own tramway. Instead of competing with him, Macaulay bought out the tramway in June 1899 for around $60,000 ? or somewhere near $1.6 million today. However, Macaulay would get the last laugh as he sold both tramlines to White Pass and Yukon Railway two months later, for $185,000 or near $5 million today.
During the three years it flourished, Canyon City had a hotel, saloon, restaurant, store, stables, a machine shop, and a NWMP detachment office.
The decline of Canyon City was due to the completion of the White Pass and Yukon Railway. No longer did stampeders need to use the Yukon River to enter the Klondike. Instead, they could go straight from Skagway, Alaska to Carcross, Yukon, and then up to Whitehorse by train.
Following the creation of the railway, not much is known about Canyon City. The NWMP detachment was recorded as still being in operation in 1901, and vessels such as the S.S. Olive May, S.S Kilbourne, S.S Nova and S.S. Clifford Sifton were seen docked at the town at various times. Following the end of the gold rush, some Indigenous people moved back onto the townsite, as it is reported that in 1906 an Indigenous woman named Mrs. John died at her cabin in Canyon City.
In 1994, the Canyon City Archaeology Project began, with funding from the Yukon Heritage Branch, Department of Tourism, the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, the Yukon Conservation Society, and MacBride Museum. They discovered that due to the construction of the Whitehorse hydro dam in 1959, the river had risen between 2.5 ? 4 meters, swallowing up much of the original Canyon City wharf and some of the tramway. The Yukon Underwater Divers Association investigated and concluded that there are still some foundations below the water’s edge. They would also find artifacts such as forks, broken bottles, and ceramic fragments.
On land, they discovered middens of tin and lead cans that the stampeders would cook out of, as well as various coins and gold nuggets used as currency. They also found a brass button polisher at the former NWMP detachment office. The dig would also find the site of a potential machine shop and forge, a possible fox farm from the 1920s, and even the site of a former cabin. This cabin was extremely interesting as most people who lived in Canyon City lived in tents. In the remains of this cabin, they found tableware, buttons, hairpins, some hair dye, and some furniture hardware. Due to the rarity of a wooden cabin in Canyon City, it is speculated that this may have belonged to Norman Macaulay.
It was also through this archaeological dig that they found many Indigenous artifacts, such as arrowheads and stone tools, and were able to interview elders to learn about the site thanks to oral tradition and storytelling.
Today, there isn’t much left of Canyon City. The only visible evidence of the former townsite are middens of tin and lead cans and part of Macaulay’s tramway, set aside as a testament to his innovation. It is now part of the Miles Canyon Loop, a 15km hike from Whitehorse, across Miles Canyon and back again. During the summer, the Yukon Conservation Society leads interpretive hikes through the area, and Created at the Canyon takes place near the suspension bridge.
Although visiting Canyon City and seeing the evolution of the Klondike Gold Rush is an easy hike, I’m sorry to admit it really isn’t worth the trip. The clearing is a nice place to rest and relax and listen to the rushing Yukon River, but other than a clearing, some trees, some metal cans, and some of the tramway, there isn’t much left to see or do there. If you’re a history buff, you might find this spot interesting, but otherwise, you might not be able to appreciate what it once was.
Researching this was difficult because there is another former Canyon City in Alaska that also was closed down due to the White Pass and Yukon Railway. The resources I used for this article include the short Wikipedia article, The Canadian Encyclopedia, YukonNuggets.com and the From Trails to Tramway: The Archeology of Canyon City, but I apologize if some of the facts I got here are wrong.
Have you ever heard of Canyon City? Would you visit it? Let me know in the comments below.
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Categories: Canada, Hiking, History, Yukon