Old gas engine leaves behind few clues from its life on the Chilkoot Pass during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush.
The country is in the midst of a recession, unemployment is high, banks are failing, the price of gold is setting records, Congress is at odds on the course of action, the mood of the people is depressing and the future appears bleak. This could have been ripped from today’s headlines, but in fact is from the 1890s.
The country was in the doldrums and looking for a jump-start to the economy, and it came in July of 1897. “Gold Strike in the Klondike!” shouted the newspaper headlines; it was as if the whole nation suddenly saw the American dream that had faded from view suddenly reappearing.
The news acted like a call to action; men and women from all walks of life and professions and from countries beyond the North American shores rallied. The stampede was on “to make a fortune overnight” as they left their homes, dropped everything and headed north for Dawson City and the Yukon of Canada. Many of these people had never been in the wilderness, nevermind that they knew nothing about prospecting nor understood what they were in for, but that mattered little. They were undeterred as some 100,000 people headed for the Klondike between the years of 1897-98.
So what has this to do with old gas engines? Well, when you have that many people suddenly converging on a remote and undeveloped area with one thing on their minds it leads to all kinds of ingenuity and innovation to solve the huge logistical problems in just getting there. You see, once the thousands had made it to the jumping-off points of Seattle or Vancouver, the real challenge was still to come. For ahead of them was a 1,600 mile wilderness journey, first by sea up the coast to Skagway, Alaska, then over the Coast Mountains to Lake Bennett in a 35-mile trek called the Chilkoot Trail. And as if that wasn’t enough, then a harrowing ride across lakes, through rapids and down the Yukon River to Dawson City by raft or in a small boat that, for the most part, they had to build themselves.
This story, though, is about an old gas engine left over from the 1890s sitting atop the mountain pass at 3,500 feet on the Chilkoot Trail, which I recently hiked with my son and friends. What a story the engine could probably tell, and all kinds of questions came to mind: How did it get there? What was it used for? Who made it?
To answer these questions, it is necessary to step back more than a hundred years. Old photographs paint a picture of the conditions the Klondike Gold Rush stampeders endured. The first thing to notice is that there were a lot of people on the trail, thousands in fact, in this very remote area. The Canadian North West Mounted Police required each stampeder to have enough supplies to be self-sufficient for a year before they could cross the border into Canada, which was at the top of the mountain pass. This equated to about a ton of food and other necessities that each person had to haul – mostly on their back! And as if this wasn’t enough of an impediment, the majority carried out this part of the trek during the winter in bitter cold and deep snow. However, doing the trek in the winter did have the benefit of enabling loads to be skidded on sleds and steps to be cut in the snow over what normally would be a challenging rock-and-bolder field leading over the mountain pass.
Necessity breeds solutions, and it wasn’t long before all kinds of services sprang up to help haul all this gear up and over the mountains. Initially this was with the use of porters, carts and sleds. But in short measure aerial tramways were rigged up with steel cables strung on towers. Steam and gasoline engines were used as the power sources. Old artifacts still litter the trail, along with a large steam boiler. All of this hardware had to be manhandled up the mountain; a feat in itself when you consider the terrain and remoteness.
The engine we came across was used in conjunction with a winch and was mounted on wooden skids. It could pull itself up the snow field to the top of the pass by tethering the cable at the top. Once there it could winch up loads on sleds or stone boats. There are indications that it also operated by winding up an ascending sled while at the same time letting down a descending sled. This method would have helped to reduce the total engine power required.
Inspection of the engine and combine winch did not reveal any obvious maker’s marks in the casting or tags, so it is of unknown make. A historic photograph, however, shows a cover plate with an insignia lying on the engine skids. It is not known if this was part of the engine, and unfortunately this plate is no longer present. The overall dimensions of the frame are 11 feet long by 2-1/2 feet wide and 2-1/2 feet high. The first interesting point is that it is a twin cylinder, rather a rarity. The two-cylinder horizontal configuration with twin flywheels is in remarkably good shape for more than a hundred years spent enduring snow, rain and the seasonal temperatures of this northern climate. It can only be expected that over such a long period some parts have also gone missing, although these artifacts are now protected by both the U.S. National Park Service and Parks Canada. Its construction is a mixture of cast iron and brass or bronze, evident by its patina. It appears to have been water-cooled and there are still two sheet metal tanks present, presumably one for cooling water and the other for fuel.
What follows is my speculation on the parts and operation of the engine, and I am certainly open to comments and correction that can unravel some of the mystery surrounding the origins, as well as this engine’s operation and manufacturer.
The engine block was cast iron, housing both cylinders with an overhead camshaft. Both piston connecting rods (brass) have additional strengthening rods in parallel with them, and dimples were necessary in the ends of the cylinder walls to allow clearance (one of the connecting rods appears to be bent). Was this a field modification after the engine was built? At first it was considered that the engine might have been a split-cycle engine where one cylinder performed the intake and compression and the second cylinder performed the power and exhaust all within one revolution. However, the two pistons are offset 180 degrees, which does not fit with that approach.
The valves are operated from a gear-driven camshaft mounted atop the cylinder casting. The two exhaust valve levers (brass) can be seen running along the top of the cylinders and act directly on the exhaust valve stems. The exhaust ports exit through a common pipe on top of the engine that is connected to a vertical tube. This exhaust tube looks like it is double-walled and acted as a heat exchanger to warm the inlet air.
The cams and followers that are associated with the fuel input/ignition (top of the engine left and right outer components) are broken and the linkages are missing. There are other components (with missing parts) next to the gear drive for the cam shaft that were possibly associated with an engine governor.
A center-mounted cam, linkage and associated components operated a piston fuel pump. This can be seen at the cylinder head end. There are two components mounted on each cylinder head, one of which was probably the inlet valve and the other the igniter. It is not clear if the engine was throttle-governed or hit-and-miss, or what the method of ignition was because of the missing components. Speculation would assume it made use of a magneto because of the operating environment.
The winch drum is operated through two sets of reduction gears with a reduction ratio of approximately 30. There is a lever on one side of the winch that probably operated some form of clutch to disengage the engine drive. There was probably some form of brake, although this was not in evidence. The other mystery — was it possible to reverse the winding drum? It seems that reversing would be useful, although if the mechanism made use of an endless cable loop with the sleds being disengaged when they reached the top or bottom, something like the way chairs are decoupled off a ski lift, reversing might not have been necessary.
Old Iron Wherever “Yukon” Find It, by Alan Nowell, Gas Engine Magazine, March 1999.
• Christine Hedgecock at the Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site, Parks Canada, Whitehorse, Yukon.
• Karl Gurcke, Historian, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Skagway, Alaska.
Ivor Hughes • email@example.com