“There is nothing like walking to get the feel of a
country. A fine landscape is like a piece of music; it
must be taken at the right tempo. Even a bicycle goes
Paul Scott Mowrer
Whitehorse resident Peter Long is an avid walker. He has explored many trails in and around Whitehorse. He believes he has found a city trail which could become an exciting historic walk.
Today at Miles Canyon, just above the parking lot on the west side of the Yukon River, the Hepburn Tramway trail beckons. The flat road bed is visible to the walker. Remnants of wooden rails can still be seen along the trail.
Historically a tramway was a lightly laid railway for uses such as logging or mining. The Hepburn Tramway was similar to a logging road. The trams (or low four-wheeled carts) were hauled along by horses.
While gold seekers worked diligently to pack gear over the Chilkoot Trail, Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse Rapids proved to be the most challenging water obstacles between Lake Bennett and Dawson City. Many rafts loaded with supplies were lost in this dangerous stretch of river. In the summer of 1897 John Hepburn proposed a tramway be built along the river to bypass the canyon. By November of that year he had returned to Victoria, B.C. looking to purchase horses and tram cars. He told folks in Victoria he had procured the right of way and blasted a roadbed along the shore.
Imagine walking nearly eight kilometres of the tramway as it was built by Hepburn between 1897 and 1898. Peter and I walked a two-point-eight kilometre section from the American Laundry Road (which today is found while coming south on the Alaska Highway, just before McCrae) to Miles Canyon. The last 400 meters coming into the parking lot is rough. One section is damaged by a small pre-1950 cat trail and other sections are overgrown from years of little use.
When Peter first discovered the trail, he visited the Yukon Archives to locate pictures and other information about Hepburn. Another section of the tramway trail, Peter explained, about two-and-a-half kilometres of it, ran from Cora Grant’s cabin to the Robert Service Campground area. Today this stretch is mostly under Schwatka Lake Road, under the dam or submerged in Schwatka Lake.
Peter envisions the Hepburn Tramway trail, along with historic treasures such as Herschel Island and Forty Mile, being preserved and interpreted for visitors and local residents. Schwatka Lake Road might serve as an interpretive promenade; a meeting place, an information hub, explaining the history of the area.
The river is a travel corridor with a rich transportation history. The Hepburn Tramway is only one part of the story. Along with travel on the Yukon River itself, it was bordered by trails that were long used by First Nations people. There was a tramway on both sides of the river and a telegraph line, built in 1899, that can still be followed in places along the west side of the river. Right above the canyon, just above the tramway, there’s the no longer used 1899 railway built by the White Pass and Yukon Railway.
Peter suggests that the loop trail below the tramway is “like walking in a cathedral.” It is regrowth forest that burnt sometime before the Gold Rush. Time has painted the area with a luxuriant green moss.
Imagine a city with a walking culture. A community focused on healthy exercise, local recreation and tourism. The success of the Millennium Trail and Rotary Centennial Bridge is a great example.
Peter has Hepburn Tramway research including many historic photos and maps on his website, www.WhitehorseWalks.com.
The Hepburn Tramway Historic Walk is perhaps a wonderful Canada 150 birthday project waiting for some enterprising folks to step up and develop a way forward.