Yukon Nuggets

1941 Yukon Nuggets

Klondike Photographer Asahel Curtis


Bold photographers, who packed cumbersome equipment over the Klondike trails, emerged with a photo story of incredible hardship, endurance and valour. There's little doubt that the Yukon story would not be the exciting tale it is had it not been for these few.

One such photographer was Asahel Curtis. He was born in Minnesota in 1874 and moved to Washington State in 1888. His older brother, Edward, opened a photo studio in Seattle in 1892, and Asahel began working there in 1895.

In 1897, Edward was contracted by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper to supply photos of the gold rush stampede. So he sent brother, Asahel, then just 22 years old, on his Klondike adventure. Loaded down with heavy gear, he sailed north, on a rickety boat called the Rosalie, in the fall of 1897.

When he reached the desolate port of Skagway, young Curtis stood on the beach as the Rosalie left. He felt very alone. But soon he adapted to life on the trails and he became not only a photographer, but the unofficial postman, by picking up mail along the trail. He once returned to Skagway with nearly 100 pounds of mail.

Curtis was impressed by the wild country and the drama of the gold rush. But had no desire to go to Dawson City because he was enjoying life on the White and Chilkoot passes and earning a good living taking photos of the stampeders and keeping the negatives.

Meanwhile, Edward wrote an article for The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine called "The Rush to the Klondike over the Mountain Passes." The photos were Asahel's, but were credited to Edward as owner of the studio and sponsor of the expedition.

After spending a year on the trail, Curtis decided to go to Dawson City before freeze up in 1898. It was an eventful journey. Years later, he told of watching a boat go through the White Horse Rapids. He knew the passenger was doomed because the boat went crosswise to the current and the dark figure in the boat seemed helpless.

Then a side current caught the boat and spun it straight into the rapids. He watched from shore as the boat raced passed him. He was impressed with the boat-handling of the occupant only to find out later than the dark figure was a large black dog, accidently set adrift.

In the fall of 1898, Curtis and a partner filed a claim on Sulfur Creek. But it was a non-paying proposition.

In his last diary entry on February 16, 1899, he had given up on the claim and was back concentrating on photography. After two years in the Klondike, he returned to Seattle with more than three thousand plate-glass negatives of the gold rush.

There, Asahel and Edward had a disagreement over who owned the negatives. They never spoke to each other again. Edward Curtis became the foremost photographer of Native Americans in history while Asahel operated a photo studio in Seattle for nearly four decades, documenting the growth of the Northwest. When he died in 1941, his children sent a telegram to Edward. Edward never replied.




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.