Relic of the Klondike Gold Rush

Old gas engine leaves behind few clues from its life on the Chilkoot Pass during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush.

| April/May 2012

  • Klondike Gold Rush Travelers
    A loaded sled being hauled up the snow field by the gasoline engine at the top of the pass.
    Photo from the Darcie Culbeck Collection, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
  • Klondike Gold Rush Chilkoot Pass
    The gold-seekers heading over the Chilkoot Pass. Notice the sign for the "Gasoline Tramway Co."
    From stereograph picture, 1900 by B.L. Singley
  • Ivor Hughes Klondike Engine
    The author with the combine engine and winch as it appears today.
  • Klondike Gas Engine Pistons
    The pistons, timing gears and overhead camshaft. The exhaust rocker arms can be seen, as well as the exhaust exit tube. The galvanized sheet metal fuel tank can be seen at the back and looks as if it could still hold fuel, even today.
  • Klondike Gas Engine With Cover Plate
    An earlier photo of the engine with a cover plate embossed with a maker's mark.
  • Klondike Gas Engine Camshaft
    The camshaft and brass rocker arms operating the exhaust valves. The outermost linkages associated with the inlet valves and timing have been broken off and are missing.
  • Klondike Gas Engine Piston Rods
    A closer look at the piston rods and the additional strengthening rods.
  • Klondike Gas Engine Cylinder Heads
    The cylinder heads showing the exhaust down tube and fuel pump.
  • Klondike Gas Engine Cylinder Heads 2nd View
    Another view of the cylinder heads witht he inlet valve and ignition connection, as well as the piston fuel pump with an inlet and return pipe.
  • Klondike Gas Engine Flywheels
    A view of the flywheels, gearing and winch.

  • Klondike Gold Rush Travelers
  • Klondike Gold Rush Chilkoot Pass
  • Ivor Hughes Klondike Engine
  • Klondike Gas Engine Pistons
  • Klondike Gas Engine With Cover Plate
  • Klondike Gas Engine Camshaft
  • Klondike Gas Engine Piston Rods
  • Klondike Gas Engine Cylinder Heads
  • Klondike Gas Engine Cylinder Heads 2nd View
  • Klondike Gas Engine Flywheels

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.



Gas engines in the Yukon

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.



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