Miles Canyon and Whitehorse Rapids were the major obstacles to travel on the Yukon River before the Whitehorse hydro dam was constructed, and Schwatka Lake created. Many river travelers chose to portage around these hazards rather than risk their life of belongings.
In 1897, at the beginning of the Klondike Gold Rush, two entrepreneurs from Victoria, British Columbia built log tramways on each side of the river for horse-drawn carts. For a fee, small boats and freight could be hauled around the canyon and rapids while a certified pilot could be hired to take larger boats and barges through the dangerous water. Tens of thousands of stampeders stopped at the tents and log buildings of Canyon City at the head of the tramway on the east bank of the river.
The North-West Mounted police opened a detachment at Canyon City to inspect the stampeders’ goods for contraband and collect duties. The officers regulated the river traffic, making sure the owners were competent at the helm and the boats seaworthy. Although this likely saved many lives, it added to the congestion at Canyon City and contributed to the tramway business. Canyon City was a scene of frantic activity for three short summers as thousands of gold seekers funnelled through this dangerous point on the journey to Dawson City.
As suddenly as Canyon City was born, it was gone. In 1900, the gold rush had subsided and the White Pass & Yukon Route railway was completed past the rapids. Canyon City was abandoned and the buildings relocated to the new town of Whitehorse on the west bank of the Yukon River.
Canyon City has been a camp site of some importance for over 2000 years. The First Nations created the trail that bypassed the dangerous Miles Canyon and White Horse Rapids, named Kwäninlen in the Southern Tutchone language. Norman Macaulay built a horse tramway here that operated during the Klondike Gold Rush.
The completion of the White Pass & Yukon Route railway in 1900 spelled the end of Canyon City. Tramways on both side of the Yukon River were sold to the railway company for a healthy profit and the Canyon City buildings were moved or salvaged.
Norman Macaulay, a 28-year-old business man from Victoria, British Columbia, came here from Dyea in the fall of 1897. He hired eighteen men to build a tramway for horse-drawn cars that could carry freight and small boats about seven kilometres from the top of Miles Canyon to the bottom of White Horse Rapids. The tramway took twenty-one days to build and was in full operation in 1898 during the main rush of the Klondike stampede.
These reproduction tram cars are parked next to the site of Macaulay’s stable. You can still see the building depression and a difference in vegetation marks the manure pile. Piles of thin wire bound the hay that brought in as feed for the horses.
Look carefully along the tramway route for a series of holes where material was excavated for the tramway bed. Depressions in the bed mark the location of now rotted ties that leveled and supported the log rails
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