RANCH TALES: Cattlemen cash in on gold rush

In the fall of 1896, a ragged group of miners got off the boat in Seattle with a fortune in their pockets

In the fall of 1896, a ragged group of miners got off the boat in Seattle with a fortune in their pockets.

The hundreds of pounds of gold that they carried sparked a gold rush that would capture the imagination of the world and earn almost legendary status in the history books.

During the next few years, tens of thousands of men and women flocked to a hitherto uncharted area known as the Klondike. By 1897 it was becoming obvious that a gold rush unlike any other was shaping up in the Yukon.

Cattlemen in B.C., Alberta, Oregon and Washington, conscious that thousands of men and women converging on a remote area in search of gold meant a demand for food, began to look for the most effective way to get cattle into the Yukon.

The cattlemen had several options for access to the remote Klondike.

Most saw a route from Skagway over the White Pass to Lake Bennett, then by scow or boat through a series of lakes and rivers to the Yukon River as the most promising.  In the fall of 1897, the first to attempt it was William Thorpe of Seattle, who brought in 25 head of cattle.

He slaughtered the cattle as soon as he arrived and sold them at an immense profit. Another cattleman who cast a hungry eye at the Klondike market was the legendary Pat Burns, who operated butcher shops in the Kootenays and in Alberta.

He arranged for Billy Perdue to purchase oxen in Seattle then drive them over the same route, arriving shortly after Thorpe and meeting with the same financial success.

Over the next three years, Burns made regular drives into the Klondike and used the cattle and the cowboys of B.C. extensively.

He bought cattle from the ranches in the Thompson/Nicola and Gang Ranch areas and engaged any cowboys that he could from these suppliers to accompany the cattle by rail to Vancouver and by a 1200-ton CPR scow to Skagway. There were pens on the scow for the cattle and a small cabin for the cowboys. From Skagway, the cowboys started out on the difficult overland Dalton Trail. Grazing along the trail was generally poor and cattle had to eat willow leaves and twigs as they travelled.

The scarcity of feed along the trail became worse as the summer of 1898 progressed and, as the undiscriminating cattle ate anything green, there was a real danger of them succumbing to toxic plants. To make matters worse, the rocky trail ground the cattle’s feet to the quick, making them lame and unable to walk any further.

Nonetheless, the years of 1898, 1899 and 1900 saw thousands of head of cattle reach Dawson City and sell for as high as a dollar a pound. Every bit of the cow was utilized. The meat was readily sold; the bones went for soup; and the offal and hides were boiled up with oat or corn meal for dog food.

By the time the Klondike gold rush had faded into history, Pat Burns had made a fortune, not from gold but from B.C. cattle.

Ken Mather is curator emeritus at O’Keefe Ranch.