American Heritage Book Selection: Off To The Klondike!

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By the time Hegg reached Dyea it was too late in the year for him to hope to get down the river to Dawson. He decided to wait on the seaboard side until spring and sell pictures to the men headed across the pass. He set up a studio in a shack made from the remains of scows that had been smashed on the beach. The shack leaked. It let in both rain and the infrequent bursts of sunlight, and he finally had to put up a tent indoors for use when developing plates.

The best of his Dyea photographs show the sweep of tideflats, the jackstraw piles of supplies at the edge of town, and the raw board buildings flanking the muddy main street—Trail Street it was rightly called—that led back along the river into the narrowing canyon that rose toward Chilkoot Pass.

Hegg made frequent trips up the trail. The first few miles were deceptively easy. The only real problems were some boulders dropped in the distant past by the glaciers that had scoured the valley, a few soft spots in the trail, and the occasional necessity of fording the shallow but swift Dyea River.

About five miles back from tidewater an enterprising Irish family named Finnegan had built a convenient though precarious bridge, for which they charged a toll. In time the stampeders became so numerous and bold that they simply ignored Finnegan’s demands. He thought it over and opened a bar, for this was an area where, one man noted in a letter home, “a tent, a board counter a foot wide and sixfeet long, a long fellow in a Mackinaw coat, and a bottle of whiskey make up a saloon.” They named the town after Finnegan and it prospered. A blacksmith set up shop, charging—at peak—ten cents a nail for horseshoeing. Two sisters from Seattle pitched a tent and served beans and bacon, bread and butter, dried peaches, and coffee for seventy-five cents.

“After five miles of good road,” a British officer reported, “hell begins.” The terrain was rough, wooded with a tangle of spruce, hemlock, and cottonwood. The trail narrowed, and the hoofs of the pack horses and the wheels of wagons chewed the vegetation into a quagmire. To stay on it was to risk bogging down; to leave it was to fight through clutching branches and to risk falls on the wet rock.

Dyea Canyon itself was a crevice about two miles long and fifty feet wide at the bottom. The packers shared the bottom with the river. Boulders were piled in dangerous heaps. The grade in places was eighteen degrees. Then, after achieving an elevation of some five hundred feet, the trail dropped slightly to Pleasant Camp. The pleasantness was relative. The camp got its name because a few trees able to survive in the rocky ground afforded some shelter.

The more favored stopping point was Sheep Camp, thirteen miles from tidewater. It lay beside the Dyea, milky white here, cold, and furiously swift until the freeze. The community consisted of a scattering of tents around a nucleus of two frame buildings and a log cabin set among stunted spruce and hemlock. One of the two board buildings was a hotel. It consisted of a single room, twenty by forty feet, with a calico curtain to shut off the portion where the proprietor and his family lived. Said a correspondent for Harper’s Weekly:

At noon, but more particularly at evening, the floor of the hotel is crowded by a wild, dirty, wet, unkempt crew of men from Chilkoot, who advance in relays to a long table, where beans, tea and bacon are thrown into them at 75 cents each, payable strictly in advance. When supper is over the floor is thrown open for guests. All who have blankets unroll them and spread them on the floor, take off their socks and shoes and hang them on the rafters, place a coat under their heads and turn in.

It was the last place offering bed and board west of the Coast Range divide and the Canadian border. Beyond Sheep Camp horses could not scramble. Nor, in winter, did many men find it worth pulling sleds. The camp was the next to the last staging area for the assault on the summit, four miles distant. From Sheep Camp to the top it was back-packing all the way. The grade for the first three miles was between twelve and eighteen degrees; it steepened to twenty-five degrees the rest of the way to the little valley known as The Scales; and from there to the summit the grade was thirty degrees. The ascent was 1,950 feet in three miles, then 1,250 feet in the last mile.