S.S. Klondike

S.S. Klondike National Historic Site

Klondike I

The Klondike I was built in Whitehorse and launched in 1929. With a cargo capacity 50 percent greater than other boats on the river at the time, she was the first sternwheeler on the Yukon River large enough to handle a cargo in excess of 272 tonnes (300 tons) without having to push a barge.

Map of the Yukon River showing Whitehorse, Dawson, Stewart, the Mayo District and Skagway

Built as an ore hauler the Klondike initially operated between Whitehorse and Stewart Landing. On her downstream run she would carry freight bound for the Mayo silver mining district. On her return trip she would carry silver-lead ore from the Mayo District that had been brought down the Stewart River aboard smaller sternwheelers such as the S.S. Keno. In Whitehorse the ore would be transferred to the WP&YR for shipment by rail to Skagway, Alaska.

The effects of the depression soon saw the Klondike moved to the Whitehorse - Dawson City run where she carried both passengers and freight, though she continued to be regarded primarily as a cargo vessel.

The career of the Klondike I came to an abrupt end in 1936 when, on the third run of the season, the vessel struck a rock wall when rounding a bend, lost control and ran aground on a submerged gravel bar.

Wreck of the Klondike I

On June 12, 1936, the Master Pilot of the Yukon River's largest sternwheeler went below for breakfast. His recently promoted second-in-command was left in charge of steering the boat.

"He was just coming around a point and he kept too far out. And there was a big rock bluff down this side and of course these boats, when you come around this sharp point, they're…sitting on top off the water, maybe three, three and a half feet, and they slide. And he didn't allow for that. Of course the boat came along and just crashed right into this rock bluff and it just tore the whole side out of her."

Bromley Interview
A Narrative History of the SS Klondike by Arnold Roos, 1981, Parks Canada

After hitting the wall, the boat hit either a rock or reef that tore the steering loose. As the Klondike started to float aimlessly down the river, the crew attempted to get a line to shore to stop the downstream drift but the current was too strong.


Getting ashore
© Parks Canada / John Dunn Collection #62 / 1936

Realizing the ship was doomed to sink, passengers and crew jumped ashore when the boat drifted close to the banks. Lifeboats were lowered but they provided a wet journey to shore because the drainage plugs had not been inserted.

© Parks Canada, John Dunn Collection #69, 1936

Once the Klondike came to a full stop, a workboat with a motor was used to ferry the remaining passengers to shore and to collect others from the far shore. It also retrieved the emergency telephone from the ship. Tapping into the telegraph line that ran along the river, the Purser let Whitehorse know about their plight.

Shore camp
© Parks Canada / John Dunn Collection #72, 1936

While waiting for rescue, supplies from the Klondike were scavenged as only the freight deck was below water. Blankets, food and other personal effects were saved.

© Parks Canada / John Dunn Collection #63, 1936

Survivors waiting at the shore camp. A drawer, possibly from below a bunk, a can of "Pacific Milk", a crate, hats, blankets and other salvaged items can be seen.

The survivors
© Parks Canada / John Dunn Collection #61, 1936

Survivors of the wreck pose for a group shot at the shore camp.

© Parks Canada / John Dunn Collection #78, 1936

Survivors of Klondike wreck were flown from their shore camp back to Whitehorse by aeroplane.

The losses

At the time it sank, the Klondike was carrying about 227 metric tonnes (250 tons) of cargo for communities and people along the river. While drifting freight from the wreck provided a bonus to people living downstream, many passengers lost everything. One newly married couple lost all of their possessions, including the furniture they were shipping downstream. Two geological survey teams lost all of their equipment. Although there were no human deaths, two of the four horses on board did not survive.

The boat itself was a write off but the company was able to salvage the machinery and much of the superstructure and immediately set about re-building the Klondike.

Salvage operations

Salvage crew
© Parks Canada / Wakefield Collection #2 / 1936

The salvage crew surveying the damage on the sundeck of the wreck of the Klondike.

Workboat and barge
© Parks Canada / F.L. Young Collection, #2, 1936

Salvage crew working from a barge to remove the spars and rigging.

A good start
© Parks Canada / David Wilson Collection #4, 1936

Windows, doors, part of the mid-ship superstructure and spars have been removed.

Almost done
© Yukon Archives, L. Irvine Collection #1905, 1936

Machinery, superstructure and king posts have all been removed; hog posts and chains are still in place.

© United States Geological Survey, Collection #2987

Even today remnants of the Klondike I's hull are still visible , reminding Yukon River travellers of the Yukon’s riverboat legacy.

Barging home
© Parks Canada / Syd Smith Collection #1 / 1936

The Nasutlin pushing a barge with salvage recovered from the wreck of the Klondike arriving in Whitehorse.

Klondike II

Built to the same specifications as her predecessor, Klondike II was launched in 1937 and continued to work the Whitehorse - Dawson run carrying both passengers and freight.

Building the Klondike II

Construction begins
© Parks Canada / Syd Smith Collection #2, 1936

On July 4, 1936 foreman Syd Smith and a crew of eight men arrived in Whitehorse from Vancouver to begin construction. Smith posing at the bow of the “new boat.”

In frame
© Parks Canada / Bill Crawford Collection #3, 1936

Shipwrights Bill Crawford and Alec Hadwin on scaffolding while framing the hull at the Whitehorse shipyard.

Hull complete
© National Archives of Canada, C-34901 / 1936

The hull is complete. The kingposts and hog posts, salvaged from Klondike No.1, are in place and the superstructure has been started.

Fall 1936
© Parks Canada / Bill Crawford Collection #28, 1936

The construction crew remained in Whitehorse until November 18, by which time the hull had been finished and work had been started on the superstructure.

Spring 1937
© Parks Canada / Jack Elliott Collection #2, 1937

Nearing completion. The shaft of the paddlewheel, salvaged from Klondike No. 1, is being fitted. Most, if not all, of the mechanical systems were transferred from wreck to the new vessel.

© Parks Canada / Bill Crawford Collection #33, 1937

Construction was completed in 1937. The newly launched Klondike No. 2, by the slipways in the Whitehorse shipyard.

Klondike II pushing barge with U.S. military supplies, Eagle, Alaska, 1943.

The outbreak of WWII resulted in a decline in silver prices and consequently the early 1940's were lean years for the Klondike as her freight handling capacity was not required. One season was spent on the ways in the Whitehorse Shipyard. Another was spent working on the lower river in support of the war effort, transporting freight and personal for the building of the ALCAN military road.

Increased silver-lead ore production in the late 1940s put the Klondike back into regular service, but the opening of an all weather road between Whitehorse and Mayo in 1950 saw her career as an ore hauler come to an end. She continued on the Whitehorse – Dawson run, carrying general freight and passengers until 1952 when the Mayo Road was extended to Dawson, signaling an end to the era of riverboat transportation on the Yukon River.

Cruise boat

In an attempt to salvage the career of their flagship, BYN refurbished the Klondike as a cruise boat. Through an arrangement with CP Air she offered cruise service between Whitehorse and Dawson in 1954 and 1955.

Cruising on the Klondike

Cruise boat conversion
© Parks Canada / Ian Watson Collection #17

Conversion to cruise ship service saw the saloon deck housing extended aft to the transom to house a passenger lounge, additional amenities in passenger cabins, crew quarters added on the freight deck and converting her from wood to oil.

The lounge
© Vancouver Maritime Museum

Passengers enjoying the new lounge aboard the refurbished Klondike II cruise boat.

Can-can girls
© Vancouver Maritime Museum

The new passenger lounge featured a fanciful mural of Dawson City can-can dancers.

©Parks Canada / Bromley Collection, #11, 1954

After conversion to cruise ship service the roof of the new saloon deck extension became the main focus of outdoor activities. Officer Frank Heath gives a shuffleboard lesson to first cruise passengers of 1954.

© Parks Canada / Bromley Collection #10, 1954

Passengers on the sun deck interrupt their game of shuffleboard to watch a landslide on the riverbank. Lillian Crosse of Seattle at left, Eric Lindsay of Vancouver, George Chandler (CJOR Vancouver) and Jay West of Bellingham, Washington. (Williams Travel Agency).

End of an era
© Parks Canada / Ian Watson Collection, #19

The Klondike’s final trip on August 26, 1955 was a day excursion to Lake Laberge carrying Whitehorse dignitaries and residents.

Though the trips were popular, the high cost of operation ended her brief sojourn as a passenger ship. In August 1955 when the Klondike II – the last sternwheeler working on the Yukon River – steamed into Whitehorse for the final time it brought the era of steamship navigation on the upper Yukon River to an end.

S.S. Klondike National Historic Site

The S.S. Klondike being moved along First Avenue in Whitehorse, 1966.

In 1960 the Klondike II was donated to the Government of Canada by WP&YR. In 1966, pulled by four bulldozers and rolled on top of steel runners greased with soap flakes, she was moved from the Whitehorse Shipyards to her present location.

She was formally designated a National Historic Site in 1967. Returned to her original 1937 configuration and meticulously restored and refurnished, she opened to the public in 1981.

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