Yukon Nuggets

  • A view of the site of Canyon City in this 2007 photo. The M.V. Schwatka, built by John Phelps and John Scott is in the foreground.

  • Exterior view of log tramway building (inland side) with a large group of people assembled in front. Date: June 1900. Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4666.

  • Panorama of Canyon City looking north along the river. Date: July 1899. Yukon Archives. Anton Vogee fonds, #57.

1897 Yukon Nuggets

Canyon City


If finding the gold was rough enough for newcomers to the Klondike, getting there was twice as tough. When news of gold by the handfuls in Klondike Creeks reached the outside world in 1897, the rush was on. Not until 1898, did the full flood of gold-seekers reach the Yukon, and young Norman Macaulay was ready for them.

In the fall of 1897, Macaulay moved to the Yukon from Dyea and set up a roadhouse at the beginning of the portage trail around Miles Canyon and White Horse Rapids. He knew that stampeders would have to bypass this treacherous stretch of water.

During the winter of 1897-98 he built a wooden tramway on the east bank of the river. It was a crude log track but the scale of the project was very big by the standards of the early days.

With a crew of 18 men and a few horses, Macaulay cut five miles of trail for his tramway through the thick bush. Wooden tram cars with cast-iron wheels were pulled along the track by a single horse, but two horses could be hooked up for the pull up the steep hills. Macaulay's tramway and roadhouse were centre stage in a new Yukon community called Canyon City.

In the spring of 1898, the stampeders arrived after the torturous trek from Dyea up the Chilkoot Pass to Bennett Lake. The Northwest Mounted Police at Lake Bennett reported that in February 1898 seven thousand men were camped at the site, awaiting the spring break-up.

In that first frenetic year of the Gold Rush more than 28,000 men and women came over the Chilkoot Pass and down the Yukon River. The major obstacle, apart from the mountain passes, was Miles Canyon and the White Horse Rapids.

It's not known how many handmade boats and scows were lost in the churning waters. Macaulay's tramline offered an option. But many could not afford the price.

Still, the Canyon and White Horse Rapids Tramway Company transported freight and small boats around the canyon and rapids for three cents a pound and twenty-five dollars a boat. At the peak of its operation, Macaulay, his men and horses were working 24/7. Canyon City was booming.

By the summer, it boasted a hotel, saloon, restaurant, store, stables, machine shop, and a Mounted Police post. Hundreds of people a day made the journey around the canyon and rapids while hundreds more waited at the Canyon City Saloon.

Macaulay's tramline was so successul that he planned on building a narrow gauge railway in 1899. But the White Pass Railway was on the way and the White Pass and Yukon Corporation wanted exclusive control of the route to the gold fields. In August 1899, it bought Macaulay's outfit for $185,000.

In June, 1900 the first train arrived in Whitehorse and Canyon City was abandoned. Today you can visit the site of Canyon City and see the archeological work that has revealed a short but boisterous era in the Yukon's amazing past.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.

Les McLaughlin

Les McLaughlin

As storyteller, radio man, and music producer, Les proved a passionate preserver of Yukon heritage throughout his life — nowhere more evident than as the author and voice of CKRW’s “Yukon Nuggets,” from its inception until his passing in 2011.

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