Today the Chilkoot Trail is a 33 mile route stretching from the ghost town of Dyea, Alaska to Lake Bennett, British Columbia. This trail connects the Inside Passage and Pacific Ocean to the headwaters of the Yukon River. Utilizing a glacially carved valley, Chilkoot Pass was one of only three ways to cross the Coast Mountains that could be used year round.
Before the rush
Before the 1880s, the Chilkoot Trail was closely guarded by the Tlingit people. Traditionally, this trail was an important trade route. Many of the English place names along the trail have cooresponding Tlingit names.
As more miners and prospectors came to the area, the Tlingits faced mounting pressure to allow foreigners to use the Chilkoot Trail. This trail represented one of only three passes in southeast Alaska that could be crossed year round. The Chilkoot was the best known, and most used option. In the 1880s the trail opened to Euroamericans. Several notable early expeditions used this route. By using the trail, it was understood that Tlingit and Tagish packers would be hired to move expedtion gear.
The rush begins and the trail grows
As stampeders began heading north, many of them headed to the Chilkoot trailhead in Dyea. Though not heavily used, the Chilkoot had gained some publicity through the Schwatka and Funston expeditions.
By fall 1897 there was a good wagon road from the Dyea beach to the first crossing of the Taiya River. Without a bridge, stampeders had to ferry their supplies across for a fee. The road continued on the east side of the river before a ford back across to the west side.
At Finnegan’s Point the river was forded again. Stampeders were now 5 miles from Dyea and found a tent camp, blacksmith shop, saloon, and restaurant. During the fall of 1897 Pat Finningan and his sons attempted to build a toll road allowing stampeders to use it for $2/horse ($58.49 in 2016).
From Finnegan’s Point the trail crossed a glacial moraine and several boggy areas before crossing the river again. From here to the mouth of the canyon, the trail followed the river over level terrain. Near the river crossing Canyon City developed. The trail then zig-zagged its way up a steep hillside. Many people considered the next mile and a half as the worst part of the Chilkoot Trail. The hillside was heavily wooded, there were many boulders and gulches. Above the canyon was Camp Pleasant or Pleasant Valley, named reflecting the stampeders' relief after the gloomy canyon. Here there was good water and plenty of firewood.
Two more miles up the trail was Sheep Camp. Most stampeders spent the night at Sheep Camp. This was also the last opportunity for firewood until Deep Lake, 11 miles down the trail. From Sheep Camp, stampeders passed Stone House, named for a large rock with an overhang that provided shelter.
Long Hill was next. Many travelers considered the walk up Long Hill as the “most tedious and tiresome strip of the whole journey—even more so than the summit.” Long Hill is about one-half mile wide and slopes off “right and left toward the mountains, forming on each side a sort of ravine.” From this point the there was a short incline and a steep grade before stampeders arrived at the Scales.
On Sunday April 3rd, 1898 - Palm Sunday - a large avalanche struck the Chilkoot Trail between Sheep Camp and the Scales. This single deadliest event on the trail took over 65 lives.
Just ¾ of a mile from the Summit, the Scales were located at 3,000 ft above sea level. From here, up, the ground was covered in large, rocky boulders. Without sufficient snow to cover them, travel was very slow and dangerous.
The final stretch to the summit from the Scales generally followed one of two routes. During the winter, the "Peterson" Route or the "Golden Stairs" were the only choices. In summer there were many choices over the sprawling, talus-filled bowl. Most of these converged at the false summit, then led through a narrow gap at the top, otherwise known as the Chilkoot Pass. However, most people generally stuck to either the Peterson or Colden Stairs routes, even in the summer. The two routes converged near the Canadian border.
The Peterson Route was much longer. The quicker, steeper, Golden Stairs route was preferred. In early winter 1898, a set of steps and resting ledges were carved into the slope. This is probably when the route became known as the "Golden Stairs." To get back down in winter users of the Peterson probably walked back down the trail. Winter users of the Golden Stairs slid down a chute in the snow a short distance from the stairs.
Weather conditions further exacerbated the trek to the summit. In the winter stampeders faced howling winds, deep snowfall, and icy conditions. In the summer it was loose footing, and often wet, slippery boulders on the talus slopes. As a result, several companies constructed and operated tramways to the pass. For a fee, supplies were transported to the summit.
Near the summit the North West Mounted Police examined the supplies each stampeder brought. By 1898, stampeders were required to bring enough supplies to last them one year.
After the summit, stampeders had to descend a steep section to reach Crater Lake. During the summer of 1897 some stampeders ferried across this lake, and subsequent lakes to avoid some extra packing. In the winter this was not possible. Located 3.5 miles from Crater Lake was Long Lake and Happy Camp. How Happy Camp got its name has been lost to history. In the fall of 1897 Happy Camp still had timber for firewood, but a traveler reported “at its present rate of consumption this will soon disappear.”
Waiting at the Lakes
In the fall of 1897 most stampeders stopped walking at Lake Lindeman and started building boats. Without restaurants, hotels, or shops one stampeder reported “Money has no value as compared with food.” Once the boats were done stampeders traveled 5 miles down Lake Lindeman, made a short portage to Lake Bennett, and could sail the rest of the way to Dawson City.
However, in the spring of 1898, Lake Bennett remained frozen until May 29th. This lead to large encampments of stampeders at both Lake Bennett and Lake Lindeman. On May 29, 1898, the electrifying word spread that Lake Bennett was clear of ice and the great boat race to the Klondike began. Before the day was over, 800 craft had cast off for Dawson City. Within 48 hours both Lakes Bennett and Lindeman were clear of ice, and the entire flotilla of over 7000 boats was in motion.
Though this route had been an important trade corridor for hundreds of years, the Klondike Gold Rush ended that. After the winter of 1897-98, the Chilkoot Trail saw fewer and fewer hikers. Beginning in 1898, the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad began construction along the rout of the White Pass Trail. The Chilkoot Trail was quickly abandoned and hiked infrequently as a result. As more people came to the area, Skagway became the focus of trade, commerce, and transportation to Canada.