In these days of highways and 1000-year level flood dikes, it’s easy to forget that the best way to get to Dawson used to be by sternwheelers. While most of the stampeders made their way here in small boats and rafts in 1898, a sizeable number cruised to the fledgling town from St. Michael’s, Alaska, in riverboats and steamers and, once the White Pass chugged into Whitehorse, still more hopped on boats from there.
Robert Turner’s exhaustive illustrated history of the boats, beginning even before the Gold Rush and carrying on to the final voyage of the Keno in 1960, which now sits just inside Dawson’s dike as a National Historic Site, covers the entire history of the river traffic, and concludes with a chapter on the importance of preserving what’s left of that history. He goes so far as to celebrate the roles of the Discovery III cruise out of Fairbanks and the Klondike Spirit cruise in Dawson. Even the long beached Yukon Rose, once a supply vessel for Taylor & Drury, and the seven decaying steamers in the graveyard above the territorial campground on the West Bank of the Yukon get a mention and some pictures.
Turner deals with what appears to be most of the ships and the companies that ran them. While the saga, from construction to retirement or disaster can get a bit repetitive at times, the through line of the main text is easy and informative reading. I say it that way because there are so many images, maps, facsimile brochures and detailed captions to distract a reader from the bigger story. I found myself reading the major chapters straight through, then going back to pay attention to the photographs, detailed captions and special text frame asides that fill the pages.
While the text is good, I have to say that the most outstanding feature of the boot is the amount of photography it contains. the majority, of course, is black and white images, but the final chapter is very colourful. This summer, it seems likely that the George Black ferry and a dozen or so smaller boats will be the only ones cruising the waters in front of Dawson. This summer’s future for the Klondike Spirit, the metal hulled side-wheeler that was built in Eagle in 2006 and eventually purchased and brought to Dawson by the Triple J Motel’s Brad Whitelaw, is not promising, since the Spirit’s main clientele was visitors from the Westmark Hotel, which COVID-19 has emptied for this season. Getting Brad’s last name wrong (Whitehall) is the only mistake that I am aware of in the book, but I’m not a Yukon River historian.
Robert D. Turner was a writer-in-residence here at Berton House in 2009 while he was working on this book, and a number of the photographs in it were taken at that time. Turner was effusive in his praise for the residency and the people of Dawson during the three months that he and his wife, Nancy, spent here working on their separate book projects. Much to my surprise, I found that “Dan and Betty Davidson” were singled out for thanks among the half dozen folks who were connected to the Dawson Community Library Board (one of the program’s sponsors) at that time.
The book originally appeared in 2015 and I was somewhat surprised to see the quality of this 2019 reprint edition. Harbour has done a great job on this one. It’s only available in hardcover so far.