Prior to the Klondike Gold Rush there were only a handful of steam powered sternwheelers working on the Yukon River. So quickly did word of the wealth of the Klondike affect the outside world that 57 registered steamboats, carrying more than 12,000 tons (10,886 t) of supplies, docked at Dawson City between June and September of 1898. A year later, 60 sternwheelers, 8 tugs and 20 barges were in service on the river.

Historical Photograph of the S.S. Keno
S.S. Keno

Steamer operations

An important new industry was created along the river to service the steamers. Wood camps were established along the waterway to feed the wood-fired boilers, their contracts running into the thousands of dollars annually, employing large numbers of men. A steamer, depending upon its size, consumed approximately 120 cords of 4 foot (1.2 m) wood every trip from Whitehorse to Dawson City.

Barges were pushed ahead of the steamers to handle the tonnage. Freight was as varied as only a gold rich country could demand: mining equipment, horse and dog feed, flour and dynamite was packed beside cut crystal, fine linens, canned oysters, evening gowns and first editions.

The officers who commanded these ships were a special breed, many former Mississippi River men or deep-sea captains. Resourceful and self-reliant, the officers were in constant combat with a river, which could hide snags, rocks, sandbars, rapids or could suddenly fill with ice floes to crush the light wooden hulls.

Loading ore onto the S.S. Keno
Loading ore onto the S.S. Keno

National Historic Site designation

Unfortunately none of the steamers in service at the time of the gold rush have survived. The National and Historic Sites Branch has preserved a typical vessel dating from 1922, the Steamer Keno built in Whitehorse. The Keno was in good condition, necessitating little restoration work. Built to transport silver, lead and zinc ore from the mines in the Mayo district 180 miles (290 km) to Stewart City, the Keno is 130 feet (40m) long. The ore was stock-piled on the bank of the river at Mayo Landing all winter, awaiting the arrival of the Keno in mid-May. In 1938 over 9,000 tons (8,165 t) of ore were carried by the Keno, every sack of it man-handled.

For half a century the steamboats plied between Whitehorse and Dawson City, and between St. Michael, Alaska and Dawson, some 1,700 miles (2,736 km) of waterway, opening the Canadian west and north.

In 1960 the Keno was moved to her present berth, on Dawson's waterfront, beside the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Her shallow draught and low superstructure made the transfer easier. On her last trip to Dawson, she carried 21 passengers, mostly newspaper correspondents and camera men. The old river steamer has been preserved to commemorate an era now passed forever.

Visit the S.S. Keno
S.S. Keno fact sheet