Walking in a Graveyard

It was a morning where the sun owned the sky; a good time to visit a graveyard. Even though it was broad daylight, I had my eye out for bear. Besides, walking in a graveyard at night is just a little creepy. The smell was mostly boreal, a blend of spruce and balsam poplar. Seven dead were in plain sight even though the vegetation was growing up through portions of the large skeletons.

I carefully stepped through the bones of Tyrrell, a paddle wheel steamboat from the gold rush era. She had been laying here for nearly one hundred years. She was born in 1898, the same year as the great gold rush up on the Klondike. And now her remains are slowly merging with the riverside forest, less than five miles from those historic gold fields.

The locals call this quiet stretch of shoreline the Steamboat Graveyard. It is where seven steamboats, the Tyrrell, the Mary F. Graff, the Schwatka, the Seattle #3, the Julia B, the Victorian and the Alandian were pulled out of the Yukon River. They were victims of a forced retirement. They either needed major repairs or simply had outlived their time.

At the turn of the last century these proud sternwheelers had been the workhorses of the Yukon River. For over half a century, more than 240 steamboats plied the waters of the northern frontier. They were the primary means of transporting ore, freight and supplies up and down rivers. Built to travel over shallow rivers, these ships had a draft of only four and a half feet of water between the waterline and the flat bottom.

The power and design of the boats made it possible for a good pilot to hold the ship in the channel while carving a tight turn, almost like running in place, around a sharp river bend. Good river pilots became legendary for their ability to read the ever-changing river. They could quickly determine the river’s depth and mood by reading the swirls, eddies, and current lines. The pilots steered for the highway of smooth and fast water. When they spotted ripples and flecks of foam they maneuvered to avoid grounding the boat on shallow shoals. This was not an uncommon experience and the boats averaged two groundings per season. Some pilots were so adept at maneuvering the 36-foot wide boats between narrow riverbanks they were said to “move a boat like a fat man squeezing through a door.”

The steam engine that powered the paddle wheel had a healthy appetite for firewood. In 1951 it required 110 cords of wood to power a round trip between Whitehorse and Dawson City, a distance of 920 miles. Independent folks who enjoyed living in the bush made money cutting firewood for the paddle wheelers. They would stack logs along the riverbank and the ships would stop and resupply. Cost of firewood in 1951 was $22-28 per cord.

Even with a relatively cheap fuel, the end of the steamboat era was inevitable with the increase of aviation and highway building. The more modern means of transport were much faster than the boats that averaged ten miles per hour going downstream but only four miles an hour going upstream.

As there was no sign warning me not to investigate, no fences to keep me out, I delicately climbed up on to the deck of Tyrrell. She was 142 feet long. I tiptoed as lightly as I could over the weathered and twisted deck. The paint that had brightened the orange paddles and the white hulls was long grayed. Belching smoke stacks were a signature on these boats. Now one lay crumpled across the Tyrrell’s deck and the other was tilted like an aimed cannon.

Finding a ragged hole in the deck, I eased my way down into the boat’s hold. I crouched my way through the dark and damp cavern beneath the rotting deck. I ran my hand along the massive timbers that were the backbone of the ship’s hull. This once proud boat was built in 1898 in Vancouver, British Columbia. At that time giant Douglas fir were practically growing in the city limits. These trees had started their skyward growth hundreds of years before any European had stepped on to North America. It’s too bad these beams could not have been salvaged to reuse in other building projects before they started to soften in rot. But then maybe it is perfect that they return in this silent manner.

Due to their hard use and common encounters with the river bottom or banks, most riverboats were short-lived. Tyrrell was no exception. After twenty years of operation, she was dry docked here in 1918.

I climbed back out into the sunlight and stared at the tilting smoke stack. I imagined June 8, 1898, when that first steamboat pulled into the marshy site that would become Dawson City. Who would know that in the span of two years the population would grow to between 30,000 and 40,000 people making Dawson City the largest city in Canada west of Winnipeg. It is said that on that day of the boat’s arrival there were loud cheers by the gathered crowds who were intent on building a city and working the streams and hills for gold. They knew that there was whisky on that boat. Sixteen barrels to be exact. The purveyors of that whisky sold it for a dollar a shot and made more money than most miners. The majority of prospectors arrived to find the best gold bearing sites already claimed. Most miners returned home without any gold.

If a shot of whisky had been available as I paid my respects, I would have raised my glass in honor of these dead but not forgotten riverboats.

“There is joy in Dawson City.
When we hear that cheerin’ note,
From the nozzle of a tooter,
On a Yukon River boat.”
-Anonymous poet

6,525 Responses to “Walking in a Graveyard”