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

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.