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A 1949 Steam Adventure
from Skagway to Dawson

Part 1 - Skagway to Whitehorse

by Murray Lundberg

Skagway, Alaska - Broadway in 1949 Dateline: November 18, 2003

    I admit it - I'm an eBay-aholic!

    Since first signing into the online auction site in August 1998, my Web persona has bought literally thousands of items, almost all of which are related to the North in some way - postcards, stamps, maps and books as well as many obscure things falling into the category of ephemera. Land deeds, still-full liquor bottles, mukluks, wooden boxes, mining stock certificates, election buttons - it's all fair game when I'm in the mood.

    Occasionally, I have a lot of fun with one of my discoveries, and in this article I'd like to give you a peek at one that was shown to large audiences in Carcross, Tagish and Skagway in the spring of 2003. It's a 52-minute "home movie", but shot on professional 16mm film, not the usual 8mm. This is a section of a much longer film - an entire Alaska coastal cruise with interior excursion, no doubt.

    Judging by the subjects, it was filmed by a woman - there are lots of kids and dogs, and no machinery. The amount of snow and the cars that are seen show that it was shot in May-June 1949. The photographer's identity remains a mystery, though, as I bought the film from a woman in Arizona who, in about 1985, acquired it from unknown man in New York.

Skagway, Alaska - the suspension bridge across the Skagway River in 1949     Our mystery woman begins her travels in Skagway. People along Broadway are seen in the frame above, and the suspension bridge across the Skagway River is seen to the right. She then goes up to Carcross on the White Pass & Yukon Route railway, to Ben-My-Chree on the sternwheeler Tutshi, back on the train to Whitehorse and finally, on the sternwheeler Casca, sails down the Yukon River to Dawson City.

    A funny aspect of the film is the editing. It's been spliced so that individual features are shown both northbound and southound consecutively! That makes it difficult to identify places along the Yukon River, as things may or may not be out of chronological order.

    Quirky editing aside, the film is exceptional in its presentation of life the way it was along the route to the Klondike gold fields. In April 2016, I posted a low-res video scan of the film, on YouTube. This scan, at 480p (low-resolution by today's standards) was done in 2003, with funding assistance from the Skagway Museum. I'm currently (2016) looking for funding to get a 4k scan of it done.

    The 76 images you'll see in this article were made by unrolling the film, shooting the film with my digital camera set on macro and then editing the resulting photos in PhotoShop. Crude, but it works. There are also many links to further reading about various subjects as this narrative progresses.

    I hope that you enjoy this journey back in time!

Skagway, Alaska - a local dripping with gold nuggets in 1949     One of many local residents appearing in the film, this old gentleman is showing off his large gold nuggets to the tourists. The post office can be seen in the left background.

    Other subjects in Skagway include the AB Hall, the Golden North Hotel, kids on the boardwalk, the new school, the Pioneer Cemetery and Reid Falls.

Downtown Skagway, Alaska in 1949     Broadway and the side streets up as far as the post office are well covered, including homes, people and details such as signs and totem poles.

Heading up the White Pass & Yukon Route railway in 1949     All of a sudden we're on the WP&YR, heading up through the coastal mountains. This is a mixed train (both freight and passengers) pulled by steam locomotives.

A WP&YR train entering the tunnel at Tunnel Mountain in 1949     Heading into the tunnel at Tunnel Mountain always impresses passengers, and the curve of the line leading up to it makes for great photography. A stop is then made at Inspiration Point, from where the terminus of the aerial tramway from the Inspiration Point Mine (closed long before 1949) can be seen.

A WP&YR train crossing the steel cantilever bridge in 1949     Passengers on today's excursion trains often breath a sigh of relief when they see that they aren't going over this cantilever bridge. In 1949, however, the bridge was still being used - a line around it was built when heavier ore trains began being hauled in the 1960s.

A WP&YR train crossing the steel cantilever bridge in 1949     Here at the bridge and again at the Trail of '98, the funny editing is clear - not only by the direction the train is heading, but by the greatly-diminished snow pack on the southbound footage.

    Note the car on the flatdeck right behind the tender. This is long before the South Klondike Highway joined Skagway to Carcross, so the train was the only way to and from the interior.

The old snow shed at the summit of the White Pass on the WP&YR line in 1949     The old snow shed at the summit of the White Pass.

Native children at Bennett, BC in 1949     The woman wearing the captain's hat is the tour guide, and she shows up frequently in the film. Here at the Bennett train station, she's setting a group of native kids up for the photographer. The boy with the rifle may be Stanley James.

Native children Edna Helm and Gerry Johnson at Bennett, BC in 1949     In the first showing of the film, at Carcross, I was lucky enough to have the little girl in this image in the audience! This is Edna Helm and her cousin Gerry Johnson. Living at Bennett in the summer, posing for tourists is how they made their spending money.

Entering Carcross, Yukon on the White Pass & Yukon Route train in 1949     Coming into Carcross, with the footbridge on the left, and the water tower still in place beside the railway bridge. There is very little footage of scenery, even in spectacular locations such as Lake Bennett. The photographer's objective for this film seems to have been to show Northern life, not just the beauty of the North as most visitors do.

Carcross, Yukon in 1949, with the steam engine Duchess and the sternwheeler Gleaner     The little steam engine "Duchess" and the abandoned sternwheeler Gleaner in the background. This picture of the Gleaner shows her missing the flagpole at the bow, lending credence to my theory that the sternwheeler flagpole at my cabin came from her (my place - known for many years as "The Cooper Place" - was built in 1943, and the doors also seem to have come from an abandoned sternwheeler).

Carcross, Yukon - the Northern Airways office and the post office in 1949     The Northern Airways office is in front of the pickup truck, and the post office is to the right.

Carcross, Yukon - a boy plays with his pet fox in 1949     In the days before laws about keeping wildlife, an Indian boy plays with his pet fox.

Carcross, Yukon - Matthew Watson General Store and the Caribou Hotel in 1949     The Matthew Watson General Store and Caribou Hotel are located opposite the railway station. There have been very few changes to downtown Carcross in the past 54 years.

A Mounted Police officer on board the sternwheeler Tutshi in 1949     A Mounted Police officer on board the sternwheeler Tutshi. It was common for Mounties at Yukon communities in those days to meet tourists in full scarlet (rather than their brown working uniforms).

Leaving Carcross on the steamboat Tutshi in 1949     Leaving Carcross on the Tutshi gives agood look at the waterfront. Not visible in this frame, a floatplane is tied to the opposite bank of the Nares River.

Heading for Ben-My-Chree on the steamboat Tutshi in 1949 Sailing down Tagish Lake, headed for the home of Otto and Kate Partridge, known as Ben-My-Chree.

Ben-My-Chree in 1949     Located in a remote and rugged valley, Ben-My-Chree was famous for its gardens. The blue cast in the film here seems to be from the camera struggling to deal with very low light conditions.

Sternwheeler Tutshi at Ben-My-Chree in 1949     The Tutshi waits for passengers at the Ben-My-Chree dock.

Arriving at the WP&YR station in Whitehorse, Yukon in 1949 Arriving at Whitehorse.

Whitehorse, Yukon - White Pass Hotel, 1949     There is good detail of the buildings within a block of the train station - the group seems to have had very little time in Whitehorse before boarding their ship.

Main Street in Whitehorse, Yukon, 1949     Both the White Pass Hotel (seen above) and the Elks Hall to the left have both been torn down. The Edgewater Hotel now sits where the White Pass was, opposite the train station.

Whitehorse, Yukon - the sternwheeler Casca docking The beautiful steamboat Casca is seen coming up the river and docking. The Casca and the Tutshi were both owned by the British Yukon Navigation Company (BYN), a subsidiary of the White Pass & Yukon Route. Below Dawson City, their boats were operated by the American Yukon Navigation Company.

Mounted Police attend to a WP&YR boxcar in 1949     Two Mounted Police officers attend to a WP&YR boxcar. It's entirely possible that it contained a shipment of gold, as there was still a lot of placer mining going on in the Klondike.

People waiting to board a Yukon River sternwheeler in 1949 People wait to board the Casca. The footage of people around the station doing "the Yukon dance" (waving away mosquitoes) always gets a laugh from people!

To Part 2 - Down the Yukon River to Dawson City