The North-West Mounted Police and the Environment during the Klondike Gold Rush

Scroll this

This is the fourth post in a series edited by Blair Stein interrogating the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

In June 1894, twenty-one years after the founding of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP), the force expanded to a new environment: the Alaska-Yukon borderlands. Inspector Charles Constantine and Staff Sergeant Charles Brown were ordered to travel to the small mining town of Fortymile on a fact-finding mission to determine if a Mounted Police presence was required. The number of police in the Yukon was increased to twenty the following year, and only accelerated when the Klondike gold rush began in earnest in July 1897. Getting to know the northern environment, adapting to it, and transforming it to meet the NWMP’s needs were all essential parts of establishing Mounted Police control of the new region and essential parts of the experiences of all newcomers who arrived in the Yukon during the gold rush, but the police role as Canadian government representatives put the force in a unique position.

The Klondike gold rush presented unprecedented circumstances and a challenging northern environment that the police knew little about. From the moment Constantine and Brown set foot in the Yukon, the force immediately started gathering information about their new environment. The best evidence of this process comes from the NWMP annual reports, a document submitted to parliament every year and printed in the Canadian government’s sessional papers outlining the force’s activities the previous year. They reveal key recommendations to the government and critical information about local conditions facing the police.

Inspector Constantine’s first report after spending several months at Fortymile, included in the 1894 NWMP annual report, revealed just how little the Canadian government knew about the Yukon. His report described things such as the primary transportation routes to the region, available resources such as timber, fisheries, agriculture, fuel, fur, and game, and issues that would have to be addressed if the government took control of the region, such as a reliable mail service.1 In addition to information that would aid the police in establishing a presence in the Yukon, the reports included details that would be useful to other government departments called to the Yukon and were read by investors inside and outside the government who had great interest in the region’s natural resource potential, as a source of government and commercial revenue.

The annual reports also reveal the harsh environmental conditions faced by the police when they first arrived in the Yukon. These conditions are particularly evident in the NWMP records from the fall and winter of 1897-1898, in the early years of the gold rush. Once news of the Klondike discovery reached the outside world in July 1897 and thousands of people from across North American decided to head north, the Mounted Police began rushing reinforcements and supplies to the Yukon to meet them. Mounted Police, supplies, and pack animals arrived at Skagway and Dyea, crossed the Chilkoot and White passes, and attempted to make their way down the Yukon River to the Klondike. 

A black and white photograph of the Chilkoot pass. People, pack vehicles, and materials are all jumbled and crushed together as the gold rushers push northward.
The NWMP customs post buried in snow at the Chilkoot summit, 1898. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Hegg 211.

With some forty thousand people on the trails, Mounted Police Assistant Commissioner J.H. McIllree, who spent three months packing police supplies over the passes during the fall of 1897, reported that conditions deteriorated rapidly. He reported of the White Pass trail, “there is no doubt that it is an awful trail.” He explained, “it would not be so bad if there was a reasonable amount of traffic on it, but with the seething mass of men and animals ploughing over it all the time the soft spots get worked up in bottomless mud, and the rock gets smooth and slippery.”2

As fall turned to winter, muddy trails turned to ice and winter storms created even more trouble. At the summits of the Chilkoot and White passes, Mounted Police Inspectors R. Belcher and F.L. Cartwright both reported facing tough conditions during the winter and spring of 1898. Both men had been ordered to the summits in January to establish a temporary Alaska-Yukon border and begin collecting duties from the passing miners. On the Chilkoot summit, Belcher wrote that “the weather was one continual storm with a few intervals of moderate or fine days.”3 Cartwright reported similar conditions on the White Pass. “The weather was as a general rule blustery during the months of February, March and April,” he wrote, “the snow drifting in places to a depth of from 15 to 20 feet on the immediate Summit.”4

N.W.M.P. non-commissioned officers at Dawson, 1900
N.W.M.P. non-commissioned officers at Dawson, 1900. HQ-2006-FP-021ret. RCMP Photo Archives.

Environmental conditions complicated police efforts to send reinforcements and supplies to the Klondike, particularly as they largely relied on their own labour to carry supplies. But almost immediately, the police began using the information they were gathering on the northern environment to adapt to challenging conditions. They supported and benefited from the work of packers who carried freight to the interior and newly formed transportation companies that both began making improvements to the passes—building trails, bridges, camps, and eventually wagon roads, and aerial tramways—and the river route to Dawson by introducing streamer service and building a tramway around the White Horse Rapids. 

The police made contracts with many of these companies, such as the White Pass & Yukon Route railway. The British owned and American operated company began construction of their line between Skagway and Whitehorse in May 1898, and by February 1899 had reached the White Pass summit. That same month, the railway had entered into its first contract with the Mounted Police, and by the end of 1899, the police relied on the railway for all their transportation needs and the police were one of the railway’s best customers.5 Partnerships with transportation companies made it much easier to send police and supplies to the Yukon. Rather than hauling freight through mud, snow, and ice, as they had during the fall and winter of 1898, the police could simply travel on rail cars and steamers. 

This mirrored a larger shift in the relationship with the environment for Yukoners in general. Miners, merchants, government officials, dancing girls, and anyone else who traveled to the Yukon went from walking along the same muddy and icy trails as the Mounted Police and traveling down-river in all manner of home-made boats, rafts, and scows to traveling in the comfort of the White Pass Railway and river steamers.6

A black and white photograph of a locomotive passing by a small northern rail station. It is surrounded on all sides by white, snowy mountains.
White Pass & Yukon Route train at the White Pass summit, 1899. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Hegg 700.

By the end of the gold rush, gathering information about the Yukon environment, coping with challenging conditions, and adapting to it by fostering the development of a transportation system that transformed the environment and the relationship between the police and the environment had proven essential parts of establishing a NWMP presence in a new region and controlling the thousands of miners who participated. They also allowed the Canadian government to take control of the Yukon, facilitated the development of the area as an industrializing region, and made possible the creation of a concrete Alaska-Yukon border that divided the territory from Alaska. They also allowed connections across the Alaska-Yukon borderlands to remain. Just like in the Canadian west and other regions, the relationship between the Mounted Police and the environment was of critical importance to their success.

[1] Government of Canada, Report of the Commissioner of the North-West Mounted Police Force, 1894, 70-85.

[2] Library and Archives Canada, RG18, Vol. 139, File 442, McIllree to Herchmer, 17 November 1897.

[3] R. Belcher, “Annual Report of Inspector Belcher,” 30 November 1898, in Government of Canada, Report of the North-West Mounted Police 1898 (Ottawa: S.E. Dawson, 1899), Part III, 90, 93.

[4] F.L. Cartwright, “Annual Report of Inspector F.L. Cartwright,” 1898, in Government of Canada, Report of the North-West Mounted Police 1898 (Ottawa: S.E. Dawson, 1899), Part III, 114.

[5] See: Scott Dumonceaux, “‘Gateway’ to the Alaska-Yukon Borderlands: The White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, the North-West Mounted Police, and the Klondike Gold Rush,” BC Studies, no. 214 (2022): 49-73.

[6] See: Kathryn Morse, The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003).

The following two tabs change content below.
I am an instructor at Mount Royal University in Calgary. I have a PhD in history from the University of Calgary, where I examined the role of the North-West Mounted Police and the United States Army in the Klondike gold rush and the creation of the Alaska-Yukon border. My research focuses on borderlands history in the Canadian and American wests and norths and the connections between borders, technology, and government.

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.