One of the interesting names on the map in Yukon history is Dead Horse Gulch. It’s a name that has been well-earned.
During the height of the Gold Rush, from 1897-1898, there were thousands of horses that joined the thousands of people making the epic trek from the south up to the Klondike.
A North-West Mounted Police requirement that each person pack a ton of goods in order to cross the border from Alaska into Canada meant pack animals were in high demand. Having a horse to carry some of the load made a huge difference to travellers heading enormous distances through harsh terrain.
One result of this dramatic specification was that the price of these animals shot through the roof. Horses that were thought of as only fit for the glue factory fetched $2.50 in Seattle, but a whopping $200 in Skagway.
It was a poor time to be a horse. The journey to the Klondike was not an easy one. The difficulty that humans faced on the trip has been very well documented. Less well-known are the trials and tragedies of the pack animals that they brought with them.
Horses came to the Klondike by ship from Seattle, after being gathered from a number of states in the western U.S. This part of the journey was unpleasant for the horses, often jammed very tightly into ships’ holds in an effort to bring as much profit as possible to Skagway.
When the pack animals arrived in Skagway, they were unloaded somewhat inelegantly by being shoved off of the deck and into the water, where they were left to swim to shore on their own, and sold to whoever happened to have cash on hand
The result was that many, many horses were sold to inexperienced horsemen and people who had little business driving a pack animal of any sort.
It didn’t matter during the Gold Rush. People grabbed hold of any perceived advantage they could get their hands on, regardless of whether they knew how to use it or not.
Things only got worse for the horses from there. The overland routes to the Klondike were along the infamous Chilkoot Trail or on the longer, but less imposing, White Pass route.
While the White Pass made for a 45-mile journey, as opposed to the 33 miles over the Chilkoot, the way was much less steep and avoided the treacherous Golden Staircase – the most difficult leg of the journey.
Unfortunately, while the White Pass may have been easier for people to climb than its more terrifying neighbour, horses didn’t stand much of a chance.
This is the part where Dead Horse Gulch comes into the story.
The terrain along the trail was unkind to the animals, and made worse by the fact the grasses that grew at the summit were poisonous for horses.
In his book The God of His Fathers, Jack London writes, “they died at the rocks, they were poisoned at the summit, and they starved at the lakes.” London goes on to describe some of the dangers facing horses, including the absence of a clear trail, boulders, crevices, rivers and bogs.
Tappan Adney, a journalist for Harper’s Magazine, captures the spirit of many scenes along the trail and for the record: “I believe a horse will commit suicide, and this terrain will make them do it.”
While it’s unlikely that too many horses died from suicide, the terrain certainly spelled doom for a great many of them.
London describes how the horses “died like mosquitos in the first frost” and that “from Skagway to Bennett they rotted in heaps.”
“Rotting in heaps” is a pretty accurate description.
Images from the trail show horses piled one on top of the other in long, tragic-looking lines. Estimations of the number of horses that perished along the White Pass Trail from 1897-1898 vary from two to three thousand.
Dead Horse Gulch still exists, but it’s not easy to get to. The original route of the White Pass Yukon Railway went right by the Gulch, but in 1969 a new tunnel and bridge were built that bypassed the tragic location.
Still, hikers who make the trip out to the White Pass Trail can find the bleached bones of animals lying out in the open air, providing a reminder of the tragic events that left them there.