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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  Industry  >  Mining
Unholy Misery on the Dead Horse Trail

A little way on[ward] three horses lie dead, two of them half buried in the black quagmire, and the horses step over their bodies, without a look, and painfully struggle on. . . . No one knows how many people there are. We guess five thousand -- there may be more -- and two thousand head of horses. . . . A steamer arrives and empties several hundred people and tons of goods into the mouth of the trail, and the trail absorbs them as a sponge drinks up water. They are lost amid the gulches and trees.
- Tappan Adney, The Klondike Stampede, 1900

When the Klondike Gold Rush was firing up in 1897, the frontier people of Alaska and the Yukon were already somewhat dependent on horses for exploration, travel, hunting, hauling freight, and plowing fields. A hardy steed in the hands of a knowledgeable, compassionate horseman was a valuable partner. However, too often deliberate brutality and abuse through ignorance were also evident. In 1899, one mail contractor experimented with using horses to carry the mail on the trail between Valdez and Eagle. Ultimately, the three letters that were delivered cost $3,000 and the lives of 11 horses.

Much has been written about the misery that people endured on their journey to the Klondike. However, the story of the widespread inhumane treatment of pack animals runs parallel and creates a picture of unrestrained greed that desensitized men. In the frenzy to get to the gold fields, ill-prepared stampeders bought and resold burros, mules, oxen, goats, dogs, and in the earlier Cariboo gold rush of southern British Columbia, even camels. Horses and mules were the predominant pack animals in 1897, when the White Pass, also known as the Skagway Trail, was the preferred route for those with pack animals. With little experience or concern about exposure, proper feed, or resting their horses and mules, stampeders paid royally for their animals, overloaded them, starved them, then drove them until they collapsed from exhaustion. At the border, where humane Mounties were known to shoot suffering creatures, the horses' burdens were unloaded and their weeping sores hidden by blankets, so owners could hurry back down to Skagway for yet another load. In 1897 and 1898, an estimated 5,000 gold-seekers crossed the White Pass, and as many as 3,000 horses died helping them do so.
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Pack trains on the summit of White Pass
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Dead Horse Gulch

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