Brandon and the Yukon Cattle Rush
Brandon’s Yukon Block was built by John Alexander Howey in 1902 with money he made during two trips to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush.
But he didn’t make that money panning for gold.
Stephen A. Nelson tells all:
In 1898 when gold was discovered in the Klondike nearly 100,000 gold seekers left the security and comforts of home and headed for an uncertain life in the wilderness.
Although they packed staples like flour, oat meal and tea, there was still a shortage of perishable foods especially meat.
Wild game might have offered some relief, but if all the hungry miners became hunters they would have quickly decimated the caribou, deer and moose.
Western farmers more than 1,000 miles away had the cattle.
The Yukon had people who were willing to pay $1 per pound for beef that sold for three cents a pound in the south.
John Howey and his cousin William Burchell, who had a farm near Bradwardine and were also in the butchering business, decided to get their beef to the Klondike.
But they faced an obstacle shared by all cattlemen who dreamed of going to the Yukon.
How was beef produced on the prairie to be transported to that distant place?
Although early adventurers had tried different routes, cattlemen found there was only one practical method.
Take live cattle all the way – or nearly all the way – before slaughter.
They would ship cattle by rail to Vancouver, by boat to Skagway then cross the mountain passes on foot.
They would travel through nearly 500 miles of sub alpine forests, waste, and tundra, then go the last 100 miles by river.
Burchill and Howey formed a party of 13 men and left for Yukon in May 1898.
It would take four months to reach Dawson city.
Time was critical. From the first leg of the journey by rail, when they reached Dawson City, the Brandon outfit were in competition with a group from Moose Jaw.
While in harbour, cattlemen socialized amicably, and even shared information and hints about the ordeals they anticipated.
But once on the trail it was every man for himself.
During the last day of a 200 mile overland trip, the Brandon group’s cattle became so tired that they lay down and refused to budge.
The men were just as tired, so decided to camp for the night and hoped the cattle would be able to move in the morning.
But when they awoke their cattle were nowhere in sight.
A search of the surrounding territory revealed that the cattle had gone through the bush about half a mile until they found a stretch of green pasture with plenty of water.
The party stayed in that pasture for a month while they built large rafts to take the cattle down the river into Lake Teslin.
After crossing the 100 miles of Lake Teslin, they floated down the Thirty Mile River into the Yukon River.
But the most hazardous part of the journey was yet to come.
They still had to do another 400 miles in the rafts, encountering treacherous rapids and sandbars that delayed them numerous times.
Often they would have to stop at a sandbar, swim the cattle ashore, refloat the scow in deeper water, then bring the cattle on board again.
Despite the obstacles, the Brandon party made it safely to Dawson City with their cattle.
And they beat the Moose Jaw group and Pat Burns, Cattle King, to do it.
Others were not so fortunate. Those who risked the rapids in order to save time usually lost all their cattle and were lucky to escape with their lives.
The Howey’s wintered in Dawson City. The trip home next spring involved hiking over the frozen Yukon River for 600 miles with one dog sled.
At Skagway they boarded a ship for Vancouver, and from there took the train back to Brandon.
You would think that would have been enough adventure and fortune seeking for one life time.
But John Howey made a second trip to the Yukon the following year.
It was upon his return from that trip in 1902 that Howey built the Yukon Block.
It stands today as a monument to another time, and as a testimony to the pioneering spirit of the Howey family.
Today the Yukon Block’s main floor is commercial space. There are three apartments on the second floor.
The original Brandon College was completed in 1901. The building was designed by Winnipeg architect Hugh McCowan.
Source: Albertype Company/Library and Archives Canada/PA-032699
photo courtesy of Heritage Brandon
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