Tracing Jack Dalton's trail to history, glory and gold

First Aired on Airplay (18/05/2012)

The legendary Dalton Trail was once a path that led fortune seekers to the Klondike Gold Rush, but it has mostly faded from the historical records.

Now, historian and author Michael Gates wishes to share the historic origins of the mostly forgotten route, as well as the story of the path's namesake, Jack Dalton. His new book, Jack Dalton's Gold Rush Trail, takes us back to an era when an estimated 100,000 people trekked to the Yukon region in search of riches.

A longtime resident of the Yukon himself, Gates is a historian on the early days of the famous gold rush. In 1971 he travelled to the southwest part of the territory for the first time as a student, and worked near Dalton House, where historic log buildings once existed.

"The experience I had there kind of shaped my decision to not only pursue the story of the Dalton Trail but to make my future life here in the Yukon," he told Airplay host Dave White. Forty years later his fascination with the Klondike Gold Rush was as strong as ever, but some of its history was in jeopardy. "I decided something should be done to preserve the history. It was quite apparent that there would be somebody in this historic site with a bulldozer pushing the old buildings down, and I just thought there was no particularly good reason to do that."

The book itself covers a very specific period, from 1890 to 1906, and discusses what the trail was and Dalton's role in developing it. Already in the region when the race for gold began, Dalton knew the locals and the surrounding region well. He believed the trail to be the best option for gold prospectors, who needed to safely transport cattle and avoid hunger.

"You have to understand that the trail was there long before Jack Dalton came along. He didn't discover it, he simply came into the area and took advantage of trails that were well established by the first nations people," Gates explained. Dalton had big plans for the trail, including widening the path and building bridges "so that people had an easy go of it if they chose to use his trail to get to the Klondike. And in exchange he set up a toll booth, and people had to pay for the privilege to use the trail."

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Dawson.jpgUnfortunately, Dalton never truly struck it big as transportation began to change. The construction of the White Pass Yukon Railroad became the easiest way of getting to and from the Klondike and consequently ended Dalton's dreams of a well-travelled path to gold. "Transportation plays a very important part of our history," Gates pointed out.

In the course of writing the book, he had to figure out exactly where the trail was. "I had to consult with maps, and I also went out on the land, and I hiked over and boated over and flew over the entire route to try and locate and isolate the tread way of the path," Gates said. "I learned that what I thought was the trail when I first started, wasn't the trail by the time I was finished."

After years of studying its history, parts of the Dalton Trail were still not well known to Gates. But the author admits that mapping out the original trail "led to some pretty interesting experiences."