1960 Yukon Nuggets
Norman Lee and the Klondike Cattle Drive
Norman Lee was born in England, the eldest son of an English vicar. Not the kind of background you'd expect for a man who would attempt to drive cattle to the Klondike !
In 1882, Lee left a comfortable apprenticeship in an architectural office in London, England for the lure of the Cariboo gold fields of British Columbia, where he became a rancher and a trader.
Lee easily adjusted to the life of a cattle rancher, but the remote Chilcotin made the economics of cattle ranching difficult. So when the rush to the Klondike began, he jumped at what he thought was an opportunity for real money by driving two hundred head of cattle through 1,500 miles of wilderness to Dawson City.
He wasn't alone. By the spring of 1898 there was a flurry of activity as cattle ranchers assembled herds for the long trek north over the all-Canadian route from central B.C., via Telegraph Creek, to Teslin. Ranchers knew that the first to arrive would have the best opportunity to sell their cattle.
The distinction of being the first to attempt a cattle drive from the Chilcotin to the Klondike was Jim Cornell. He headed north with a hundred head in early May of 1898.
Cornell was followed by Jerry Gravelle with another hundred head of cattle, then Norman Lee with two hundred head and, finally, Johnny Harris with another two hundred head.
Lee headed out from his Chilcotin ranch on May 17 with five cowboys, nine packhorses, and a cook. There was a keen sense of competition because the first herds over the trail depleted the grazing lands along the way, leaving little forage. The lack of food was made worse by the mud churned up by the hundreds of gold seekers, with horses and mules, who were also on the trail.
Lee and his herd finally arrived at Telegraph Creek on September 2nd, 1898. After more than three daunting months on the trail, he wasn't even close to the Klondike.
Here he discovered that Jim Cornell, who had made better time with a smaller herd, decided not to go any further. Cornell had taken over a butcher shop previously owned by Dominic Burns, brother of Pat Burns, who would later become owner of the famous Burns Meat Packing Plants. Norman Lee pressed on to Teslin Lake, where the cattle were slaughtered. The plan was to raft the beef products down Teslin lake on hastily built scows, and then on the Yukon river to Dawson.
After two days of good sailing, a gale blew in. The scows were wrecked leaving the beef lying in the shallow water. Lee's Klondike Cattle Drive was over.
The fate of Johnny Harris, who had preceded Lee, was not much better. Although he had escaped the storm on Teslin lake, his scows became frozen-in on the river about two hundred miles above Dawson, and the beef, like Lee's, was a complete loss.
When he returned from his Yukon trek, Norman Lee rewrote the notes from his daily journal, illustrating the story with cartoons and sketches. He completed the manuscript in 1900, but it sat untouched until 1960, when it was published in the fascinating story of the 'Klondike Cattle Drive'.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.