Saturday, August 6, 2011

Paddlewheelers of Alaska and the Yukon: 100th Anniversary Collection by Graham Wilson

Published by Wolf Creek Books, Inc.

This review will be a little different, because this is a little more personal. I was thrilled to be able to obtain this book. It is primarily archival photos, but there is historic information in it too. Taking in the era of the Klondike gold rush and beyond, it portrays in photos the now famous photos of the "golden staircase" portion of the Chilkoot trail. The front cover shows the White Horse going through what appears to be the Five Finger Rapids.

What is personal to me is the wealth of photos of the paddlewheelers that serviced the area from about 1898 to the last one, the Klondike, being taken out of service in 1951. My great-grandfather was the steam engineer on the boats, particularly the Gleaner, that plied Atlin and Bennett Lakes. My grandmother was 8 years old the first year he worked there, in 1900. Over the winter of 1901, the family lived on the Gleaner and then the Australian while the boats were up on the ways. A third boat, a steam tug named the Mabel F was also there. My great grandmother kept a journal of their winter in isolation about 8 miles south of Caribou Crossing (now Carcross), Yukon. Besides my grandmother that year, there were two other children in the family: her sister aged 6 and her brother aged 2. I've grown up hearing about these paddlewheelers and living in the north. Although they only spent one full year there, they went north about April of every year and returned to Vancouver about November, spending the summer at Taku, across from Atlin. In 1908, there was an outbreak of typhoid and 3 of the children including Grandma and the baby of the family caught it, delaying their return to Vancouver. Fortunately they all survived, but Grandma lost all her hair at the age of 16. It came in very thick and curly when it started to grow again.

This book brought back many wonderful memories of the stories Grandma and Great Grandma told me through the years. The north was in my blood by default! I'm sure many readers would either have memories of their own, or enjoy learning something of their ancestors. I drove Grandma up for one last visit to the area in 1979 and it was like taking a time machine. Most of the paddlewheelers were either scattered around rotting, or had been destroyed long before, but on a visit to Whitehorse we discovered that the Klondike was being restored and we were allowed on board. It was very similar to the Australian, and she took me around the boat showing me where she would have slept in one of the staterooms, having to go outside to get from one to another. When the winter of 1901 set in, the family all moved into the lounge/dining room to keep warm. She also showed me where her father worked on the boats. This book celebrates the hardiness of the people of the north at the turn of the 20th century, and the magnificent and romantic paddlewheelers. Romantic now, but very hard work for the crew of the times. There are photos of the Gleaner and the Australian, and many more of the better-known boats that continued in the later years like the Klondike. There were three Casca boats, and in 1949 or 50 Grandma and Grandpa took a trip on the Casca 3 on one of its final trips to Dawson City.

This book is still available from some used book stores. I was unable to locate a current link for the publisher.

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