Archie Burns' Chilkoot Tramway

Tramway pulley

NPS Photo

Archie Burns was the builder and operator of another early mechanized hauling operations over the trail. He was born in 1864, and moved into the north country as a young man.2 During his tenure in the north he worked in a variety of jobs and developed several businesses which involved the transportation and sales of goods. As a prospector he took part in both the Fortymile rush of 1887-88 and the Circle City excitement of 1893-94.3 By late 1894 he had moved to Juneau, and by December of that year had opened up a freighting business there. He continued operating it through the following May, but by June he decided instead to build and operate a restaurant.4

His exact whereabouts for the next year are unknown, but he probably resided in Juneau. Wherever he was, he doubtless heard much about the growing movement of prospectors over Chilkoot Pass, and probably heard about Peterson's tram, which was operating over the pass in the spring of 1894 through 1896. Accordingly, this "schemer of restless energy" set out to claim as much of the Chilkoot Pass business as possible for himself. In the fall of 1896, he claimed the summit of the Chilkoot for a trading and manufacturing site, effectively blocking out all competitors. Soon afterwards, he was operating a horse-drawn tramway system through the spring of 1897. This tramway lifted goods from the Scales to the false summit. In addition to his tramway business, Burns also was hauling goods on the trail below the Scales.5

Several passing travelers noted Burns' operation. Inspector W. H. Scarth emphasized its simplicity. Stopping at the Scales, he wrote that "there is a sort of tramway running up to the top from here, which is run by horse power. It is only a sled let up and down by a rope, which is passed around a dead man at the top." A guidebook published that year noted that "an enterprising man named Burns has rigged a windlass and cable there, and with this he hoists up some freight at a cent a pound." J. H. E. Secretan observed that "some enterprising individual had established a wire cable for the last six hundred foot lift, worked by two wretched horses, who were plodding around in a circle, winding up sleigh-loads of supplies and passengers at one and one-half cents a pound. I heard casually that this gentleman was clearing one hundred and fifty dollars a day by the operation." Secretan watched a woman being pulled up in one of the sleds.6 Joaquin Miller, who was not a direct observer of the operation, noted that Burns "set up an elevator here ... and used it with great results till the snow faded away." Goods were brought up the slope on "a sort of street car sled." A Juneau newspaper, perhaps citing the name of the manufacturer or its design type, called it "the Nash tramway at Dyea." Its design was similar to those used around many Western mining camps.7

In the summer of 1897, Burns probably returned to Juneau, but stayed there for only a short time. By mid-August he was on the trail again, driving a herd of cattle to Dawson. He returned to Juneau in late October via Chilkoot Pass, and was soon residing back in the country between Dyea and Chilkoot Summit.8 Taking full advantage of his experience and the available opportunities, Burns was an active businessman during the winter of 1897-98.9 His financial interest in the tramway was apparently purchased by Juneau merchant C. W. Young, and for the next several months Burns served as the manager of the C. W. Young Freighting and Trading Company. This firm was a major packer over the Chilkoot Trail. In order to guarantee the smooth access of his pack trains, one of his duties was to maintain portions of the trail surface.10 In addition to packing, the company also operated what was advertised as "the old, established and original summit aerial tramway."11 Under Young's ownership, Burns operated several tramways between the Scales and the summit at various times during the winter. None, however, was an aerial tramway. One surface tram was run by steam power, the other by gasoline.

Although Burns operated these businesses as a manager and not an owner, his name was either formally or informally associated with them. Observers noted, for instance, that the various tramways bore Burns' name. In addition, the company's Dyea stables, located on River street south of Fifth street, were called Burns' Stables.12 A third business enterprise in which he was probably associated was a store and hotel in Sheep Camp. Advertisements indicate that the C. W. Young Freighting and Trading Company had a branch office in Sheep Camp, and that C. W. Young also ran a supply store there. No business of Archie Burns' is listed. A news article in April 1898, however, notes "Archie Burns' store" at the north end of Sheep Camp.13

By April, Burns had been operating a motorized tramway for some time. Although one account suggested that he began operating this service in early December 1897, he probably did not begin until the middle or end of January 1898. On December 17, stampeder Harvey Condon noted that "about 20 of us helped pull Archie Burns' boiler on a big sled up to the falls."14 On January 19, the Dyea Trail announced further progress, stating that "a steam engine for handling Burns' cable is being placed on the summit by Captain Purvis of this city."15 The tramway began advertising on January 19; it probably commenced operations shortly afterwards. It appears that Burns did not own the tram, instead, it was part of the C. W. Young Freighting and Trading Company, but like the other enterprises, his name was commonly associated with it.

For the next two months, Burns ran the only tramway operation that ran directly up Chilkoot Pass. For the first month or more, before the Peterson tramway began operating, his only competition came from Indian packers. He profited handsomely from the growing traffic.16 By late February, his tram was lifting five tons of goods daily up the slope from the Scales. His rates apparently fluctuated according to the demand for services; on March 2, he charged two cents per pound, but later he charged four cents per pound or more.17

Shortly after he put it into operation, Burns apparently found his steam-powered tramway in need of assistance. Perhaps it was not sufficiently strong to haul the necessary loads; perhaps Burns had difficulty in securing an adequate supply of unfrozen water with which to operate his boiler; perhaps he simply needed more capacity than the steam boiler could supply. For whatever reason, Burns supplemented the steam-powered tram with a gasoline hoist. The steam hoist continued operating until late spring.18

This image was cropped from a black and white historic photograph titled "Supply caches, freight and Klondikers at The Scales, base of Chilkoot Pass, Alaska, 1898. "

Photo courtesy of University of Washington's Eric A. Hegg Collection

The gasoline-powered tramway was introduced by mid-April. It was described as "simply a pulley drum and gasoline engine at the summit of the pass, and enough rope to reach the bottom. Sleds were hitched onto the rope, which was wound around the drum and it pulled them to the top."19 A stampeder who helped run the operation for a few days wrote, "I staid [sic] in the tent at the top of the hill and run the engine but when the load got to the top would have to go out and unload. They use a hoisting engine with a long wire rope around a drum with a sled at each end of the rope and when the loaded sled is going up the hill, the empty one is going down. Take about 1000 or 1500 lbs. at a load." He added that he did "not want to stay on the summit all the time as it was too exposing. The engine room is very warm and one will take cold every time he goes outdoors."20 Paul Mizony, an observer of the operation, called it "a freight carrying device consisting of a cable and a stoneboat sled, operated by a winch." Mizony noted with amazement that the sled once hauled up a man weighing almost six hundred pounds. Burns' office was apparently a canvas tent, located just east of the Scales' largest restaurant.21

It is not known if Burns operated a horse-powered tramway on Chilkoot Pass during the winter of 1897-98. Two sources suggest its possible existence. Will Patterson, who visited the area in mid-April, noted the presence of "sleds drawn by whims or steam trams." Also, the Dyea Trail noted that in addition to a gasoline sled "there were a number of other schemes of a similar class, but all working about the same way."22 This would include the Peterson tram which was probably operating in mid-April, however no known diaries specifically mention its existence. If it did operate, Burns would have had to replace his original materials; the whim previously in use was chopped up for fuel while Burns was in the interior.23

Burns continued to operate the pack train and tramway through April 1898. He apparently severed his working arrangement with Young in April or May 1898, and soon afterwards headed north for Dawson, hauling supplies down the Yukon River by scow.24 That November, he was running his own business once again, operating the Archie Burns Freighting Company out of his Dyea stables. Taking advantage of the Atlin traffic, the business remained active through January 1899, and possibly for the remainder of the winter.25

Meanwhile, Burns commenced operating his horse-powered tram over the summit again. His operation was similar to that of two years before, but instead of using two horses to power the tram, three or four were used.26 Burns was apparently convinced that the packing and tramway business would continue to be lucrative, for in January 1899 he agreed to purchase the C. W. Young Trading and Transportation Company from Young for $5000. Assets in the company included "30 head of horses and harnesses and pack-saddles, 4 bobsleds, 1 wagon, 1 lot and warehouse thereon, 1 lot and barn thereon." This company had been the fourth Dyea concern with which Young was involved. After January 1899, Young had no further financial interests in Dyea or along the Chilkoot Trail.27 Burns closed his tramway for the last time in the late winter or spring of 1899, probably at the same time as he stopped operating his pack trains. Soon afterwards he left for Nome, but in the fall of 1900 he returned to remove his tramway machinery from the pass. How much he took is unknown; based on present-day evidence, he removed the more valuable or more portable portions of his operations. Burns was last known in the Fairbanks area.28

The specific location(s) from which either the steam-, gasoline- or horse-powered tram operated is not known. Today, several significant artifacts remain of Burns' operations. The remnants of an engine which may have once powered the steam-powered tram are located on the false summit. Another probable artifact from the operation is a large boiler, located in the Scales area. The engine remnants include a drum and line counter. This assemblage consists of a large metal cylinder, 26 inches in diameter and 56 inches in circumference, and several adjacent metal parts attached to a wood frame which is 58 inches long. (Burns probably removed the engine itself in the fall of 1900.)

The boiler, located slightly off the trail at the southern end of the Scales, is 8 feet long and 3½ feet wide, and is in excellent condition. No evidence directly ties this boiler with Burns' operation, but no other boilers were known to have been brought to the Scales area. Probably Burns or someone else dragged the boiler down from the false summit, then abandoned it at the Scales.

The gasoline engine, with its accompanying winch, lies midway between the false summit and the top of Chilkoot Pass. For some reason, Burns did not remove this engine; perhaps it was buried by snow when he attempted to retrieve it. Today the engine apparatus is in good condition. It is 11 feet long, 2½ feet wide and 2½ feet high. It is mounted on wooden skids. The remains of the horse whim is nestled in the notch just north of the false summit.29

Written by Frank Norris, edited by Karl Gurcke

2. Vital Statistics, Skagway Magistrate's Office, vol. 56, p. 2.

3. Spude, Chilkoot Trail, p. 197; Berton, Klondike, pp. 17-18, 28-29.

4. Alaska Searchlight, 12/31/94, 5/20/95, 6/29/95.

5. Alaska Mining Record, 9/4/97; Spude, Chilkoot Trail, p. 197; Dyea Trail, 1/19/98, p. 2.

6. Scarth, "Diary," p. 5; The Miners' News Publishing Co., All About the Klondyke Gold Mines (New York, the author, 1897), p. 36; Secretan, To Klondyke and Back, p. 44.

7. Alaska Mining Record, 9/4/97; Alaska Searchlight, 3/27/97; Spude, Chilkoot Trail, p. 198.

8. Alaska Mining Record, 8/21/97, 10/23/97; Condon, "Diary," p. 2.

9. His personal life was apparently enriched as well. On January 2, 1898, 33-year-old Burns was married in Sheep Camp to Mary Palmer. Palmer, who was 20 years old, may have been related to the owner of Sheep Camp's first hotel. Vital Statistics, Skagway Magistrate's Office, vol. 56, p. 2.

10. Condon, "Diary," p. 2; Dyea Trail, 1/19/98, p. 1.

11. Dyea Trail, 1/19/98, p. 2, 4/16/98, p. 5.

12. Bearss, Klondike Gold Rush, pp. 123, 127; Deeds, vol. 53, pp. 69, 104, 232.

13. Dyea Press, 4/6/98, p. 1.

14. Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 7/21/98; Condon, "Diary," p. 2. These falls, which were located between Canyon City and Pleasant Camp, may have been the subject of several photo graphs featuring Chilkoot Trail stampeders. KLGO collection, photos TC11 and TC12.

15. Dyea Trail, 1/19/98, p. 5. Robert L. Purvis lived in Dyea and owned the Palace Hotel. He also owned two lighters, and may have engaged in other freighting business. Norris, "A Directory of Businesses," p. 10; Deeds, vol. 5, p. 183.

16. Yanert letter, 3/1/98; Bearss, Klondike Gold Rush, p. 127; unidentified newspaper article, March 6, 1898, in George A. Brackett Papers, p. 46.

17. Bearss, Klondike Gold Rush, pl. 29; Yanert letter, 3/1/98; Dyea Trail, 8/98, p. 6.

18. Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 7/21/98; John P. Clum papers, p. 44.

19. KLGO collection, photos SS16-SS20; Dyea Trail, 8/98, p. 6.

20. Patterson, "Excerpts," pp. 18-19.

21. Mizony, "Gold Rush," p. 9; KLGO collection, photos SS18 and SS20.

22. Patterson, "Excerpts," p. 17; Dyea Trail, 8/98, p. 6.

23. Spude, Chilkoot Trail, p. 193; Bearss, Klondike Gold Rush, p. 127.

24. Dyea Press, 5/14/98.

25. Spude, Chilkoot Trail, p. 197; Dyea Press, 11/19/98, 1/21/99.

26. Whitaker, photo album, photo 37.

27. Deeds, vol. 53, p. 360; Norris, "A Directory of Business es," pp. 5-6, 20.

28. Spude, Chilkoot Trail, pp. 197-98; Wilkes, "Packers on the Dyea Trail," p. 56.

29. Spude, Chilkoot Trail, pp. 193, 197-98; KLGO collection, slide 1057; McDonald and Davenport, "Cataloguing," pp. 9, 33; Sinnott and Shank, "Cataloguing," pp. 20, 21, 25, 51.

Part of a series of articles titled Chilkoot Tramways.

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

Last updated: December 6, 2019