Palm Sunday Avalanche Page 2

Black and white photo of men standing on deep snowpiles
Scene on the summit of Chilkoot Pass depicting aftermath of the April 3, 1898 avalanche.

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

On the night of April 2, avalanches began to tumble down the slopes above the Scales. At about 2:00 the next morning, one of the slides buried twenty stampeders in the Scales area; another one, at about 9:30, buried three others.5All of these people were rescued, but the roar of additional snow slides convinced the entire Scales population to evacuate, along with a number of construction workers for the Chilkoot Railroad and Transport Company who had been on the top of Chilkoot Pass. Some 220 people, therefore, began to descend toward Sheep Camp.6 Workmen for the tramway went first; the remainder left the Scales between 10:45 and 11:00 a.m.7 At the time of the mass descent, it was snowing heavily, and visibility was cut almost to zero.

Between 10:00 a.m. and noon, three fatal snow slides cascaded down from the eastern escarpment.9 The first slide took place at Squaw Hill, which was north of Stone House but south of the Alaska Railroad and Transportation Company powerhouse. Here three campers were crushed to death in their tents. Here also an ox named Marc Hanna was enveloped in snow. Despite his burial several feet under the top of the slide the ox was unhurt, and after being extricated was put to work hauling the bodies of slide victims down to Dyea.

Sometime later, the party of CR&T Company construction workers came down the trail from the Scales. As they were passing through a narrow gorge near the AR&T powerhouse, a second avalanche buried the entire party. All were killed. This avalanche probably occurred on a cut-off trail (an alternate to the regular Chilkoot Trail) that followed along the east side of "drow-a-low" ravine, located east and about 800 feet north of the AR&T powerhouse.

There is some confusion regarding how the construction men got to this area. One source, based on supposedly eyewitness accounts, claims that the group headed north from Sheep Camp at 8 a.m. and were engulfed by the slide as they headed north. More reliable sources stated that the crew headed down from the summit in the mid-morning, and were killed as they hiked south. Either way they went, the low visibility may have caused them to wander off the main path.

5. New York Times, 4/10/98, 6/13/98; Lung/Martinsen, Black Sand and Gold, p. 376.

6. The campers who evacuated the Scales later found out that slides had buried many tents after they left. New York Times, 6/13/98.

7. The number of tramway workmen has been variously estimated as 17, 19 and 23; published lists of the dead inexplicably indicate that only five were involved. New York Times, 4/10/98; Lokke, Klondike Saga, p. 63; Graham, "Diary," pp. 5-6; Steele, Forty Years in Canada, p. 307; Dyea Press, 4/6/98.

8. Lokke, Klondike Saga, p. 63; Bearss, Klondike Gold Rush, pp. 116-17.

9. Several sources have erroneously suggested that the main snow slide took place on the Peterson route, or on the main trail above the Scales. Alaska DNR, "The Chilkoot Trail," 1968, p. 15; William R. Hunt, North of 53 (New York, Macmillan, l974), pp. 48-49; William Bronson with Richard Reinhardt, The Last Grand Adventure (New York, McGraw Hill, l977), p. 96; Cohen, The Streets Were Paved With Gold, p. 65.

10. Newspaper reports called this the O&I powerhouse (an abbreviation of the Oregon Improvement Company). Both the Oregon Improvement Company and the Alaska Railroad and Transportation Company were subsidiaries of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company transportation network. New York Times, 4/10/98; Dyea Trail, 4/9/98; Bearss, Klondike Gold Rush, p. 117.

11. Lokke, Klondike Saga, p. 63; Bearss, Klondike Gold Rush, pp. 116-18.

Last updated: March 2, 2016

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