Route of the Gold Rush
Original Gwich'in name: Yukon meaning 'great river'
Current official name: Yukon, from the Gwich'in original
Source: Coastal Range mountains of northern British Columbia
Mouth: Bering Sea at St. Michael, Alaska
Direction of flow: northwest
Length : 3,185 kilometres
Main Characteristic: aboriginal resource and Gold Rush route
Of all Canada's great rivers, the Yukon is the one that has
most retained its natural glory, while still being visibly
marked by great human events.
The Yukon's wide valley descends gently from the mountains
of northern British Columbia, through the Yukon Territory and
across Alaska to the Bering Sea. Boats can navigate all the
way from the Alaskan coast to Whitehorse, the capital of the
The valley of the Yukon is believed by some anthropologists
to have been the main immigration route for North America's
first human inhabitants. According to this theory, the ancestors
of today's aboriginal peoples arrived across a now-submerged
isthmus joining present-day Alaska with Russia's Siberia. Some
aboriginals dispute this theory and believe in their own traditional
teachings that their ancestors originated in North America.
In 1896 gold was discovered in a stream feeding the Klondike
River, a tributary of the Yukon. Word spread around the world
and would-be prospectors rushed to the Yukon River valley in
what was called the Klondike Stampede.
The Klondike Stampede of 1897 was a severe shock to the cultural
and physical health of the Yukon First Nations. Earlier contact
with outsiders had been very limited and Yukon Native peoples
had not yet suffered the epidemics of European diseases and
addictions to tobacco and alcohol that had already devastated
Natives living further south.
The rush to the goldfields caused the very rapid development
of a transportation system in the Yukon. Seeing an eager market
in the Stampeders struggling up the Chilkoot Pass towards the
Yukon headwaters in British Columbia, investors rushed to build
a narrow- gauge from the Alaskan port of Skagway to the heart
of the Yukon Territory.
The White Pass and Yukon Route reached Whitehorse in 1900,
two years after the gold rush ended. But the end of the gold
rush was just the start of industrial mining in the Yukon and
the railway company prospered.
Mining equipment and other freight taken by train to Whitehorse
were still a long way from the goldfields radiating out from
To move people and freight from Whitehorse to Dawson City,
the railway company built a fleet of steam-powered, sternwheeler
boats. These tall, white riverboats were similar to those made
famous on the Mississippi River in the United States.
The steamboats burned tremendous amounts of wood to produce
the steam that powered their wide, shallow paddlewheels. At
their peak, about 200 sternwheelers were running on the Yukon
River. Wood camps were set up every 50 kilometres along the
river, employing many woodcutters who were aboriginal peoples.
The White Pass and Yukon network of narrow-gauge steam trains
and sternwheeler riverboats continued to be the only practical
way to move goods into the Yukon until World War II. Fearing
an invasion of Alaska by their enemy, the Japanese, the United
States then decided to build an inland road that would be safe
from attack by warships.
Thousands of Americans bulldozed a rough highway from northern
Alberta, through the Yukon, into Alaska. The United States
Army pushed the Alaska Highway into the Yukon in 1942, crossing
the Yukon River at Whitehorse. For many aboriginal communities
along the route, this was their first contact with diseases
against which they had no immunities. Measles, dysentery, jaundice,
tonsillitis and meningitis invaded the aboriginal population.
To supply their Alaskan defences with gasoline, the Americans
also built an oil refinery at Whitehorse and a pipeline over
the mountains to oil wells at Norman Wells, on the neighbouring
Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories.
Peace ended the need for a local source of gas. The pipeline
and refinery operated for less than a year. Today, the route
of the abandoned Canol pipeline is now overgrown with vegetation
and provides a challenging trail for strong, experienced backpackers.
Meanwhile, the Yukon continued to be the last waterway in
North America whose riverside settlements depended on the proud
sternwheelers. Once an all-weather highway linked Whitehorse
and Dawson City in 1955, the riverboats were forced out of
Today, most of the river traffic on the Yukon is for pleasure.
Canoeists come from all over North America and may parts of
the world to enjoy the Yukon River. Tourism has replaced mining
as the Yukon's most important business.
Today, outside of Whitehorse and Dawson City, the banks of
the Yukon are home to aboriginal communities gradually recovering
ownership of land, self-reliance, health, and protection of
the natural environment. While non-Natives still dominate government,
police, and courts, the concerns of Natives are no longer simply
Concern for the health of the Yukon River and the territory's
environment is shared by Yukoners of every origin to an extent
unmatched anywhere else in Canada. The economic and cultural
needs of nearly all Yukoners now depends upon the river's health
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