Wheelmen pedaled winter trails during Yukon and Alaska gold rushes
|Drawing of gold rush-era wheelman based on photo from Selid-Bassoc collection, University of Alaska
Many people view winter biking as a recent phenomenon. However, bicycles came north with gold-seekers over 100 years ago. The 1897/98 Klondike Gold Rush occurred near the peak of a world-wide bicycle craze in the 1890s, and it was only natural for some stampeders to bring their bicycles with them.
Terrence Cole’s book, Wheels on Ice, Bicycling in Alaska 1898-1908, presents first-hand accounts from several gold rush-era bicyclists. It tells of a Seattle newspaper which wrote in March 1900 that, “scarcely a steamer leaves for the North that does not carry bicycles.” and of the Skagway Daily Alaska newspaper, which reported that in the spring of 1901 about 250 bicycles were on the trail to Dawson City. Photos in the University of Alaska archives also show bicyclists queued up behind horse-drawn sleds and dogteams climbing over Thompson Pass along the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail.
Bicycles, or “wheels” as they were called, made some sense as winter transportation for economy-minded prospectors. Bikes of that era had simple but strong frames made of tubular steel. They had one fixed-gear, few complicated parts, and tires could be easily repaired. Priced at $35 to $100, they were less expensive to own and operate that a team of huskies. Bicyclists also never had to go outside at -40 degrees to feed their iron steeds.
The wheels glided within the 2” track left by a sled runner, and bicyclists (called “wheelmen”) could outpace most others on the trail. Utilizing roadhouses to provide food and a warm place to sleep, minimally equipped wheelmen could travel most of the region’s main trails, at least when the terrain and weather permitted.
While bicycles ran well on packed trails, pedaling through unpacked snow or during a snow storm was almost impossible. Bicycles also didn’t fare well in heavy winds.
John Clark, in a description of his 1906 bicycle ride from Valdez to Fairbanks, wrote of battling winds along the Delta River. Of another wheelman headed in the opposite direction against the wind Clark reported, “He struggled manfully for about ten minutes and made about 50 feet backwards. He then laid the wheel down on the ice, untied a small sack under the saddle and put the package in his pocket. He took up the wheel, carried it to a pile of rocks…, lifted it as high as he could above his head and then slammed it down on the rocks and started up stream on foot. ”
Bicycles also had to be walked or carried up steep grades. They were prone to breakdowns (often far from the nearest habitation). Bearings froze, and pedals or handlebars sometimes snapped off in a fall. Injuries caused by accidents, snowblindness (from the eyestrain of following narrow sled tracks) and frostbite were also constant dangers. Their compatriots often viewed wheelmen as being slightly addled.
Perhaps the most travelled bicycle route was the 400-mile winter trail between Whitehorse and Dawson City. The drawing is based on a 1903 photograph of an unnamed wheelman who raced over the trail in a record-setting five days. The gent was evidently a dedicated racer. He even had toeclips on his pedals.
From the chainwheel design and other details it appears his bicycle may be a Pierce Arrow. A similar 1897 Ivers & Johnson bicycle can be seen at Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum here in Fairbanks.
A few of the hardiest wheelmen pedaled the 1200 miles from Dawson City to the Seward Peninsula in early 1900 to join the Nome Stampede. Ed Jesson and Max Hirschberg were two of those adventurers.
Hirschberg wrote of breaking his bicycle’s chain just east of Nome. With a stiff wind at his back, he scavenged a stick from beside the trail, stuffed it inside the back of his coat and sailed the rest of the way.
Jesson had fewer problems along the way and completed his trip in 36 days. According to a 2004 Alaska Magazine article, winter bike trekkers Andy Sterns (from Fairbanks), and Frank Wolf and Kevin Vallely (from Vancouver B.C.) pedaled a similar route in 2003, taking 40 days to reach Nome. I guess newer isn’t always faster.
- Hard Drive to the Klondike, Historic Resource Study for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Chapter 3. National Park Service. 1998
- Photo of bicyclist on Valdez-Fairbanks Trail from Falcon Joslin papers, University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives
- Photo of Whitehorse to Dawson bicyclist from Selid-Bassoc collection, University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives
- Rollin’ on the River: adventurers pedal down the Yukon River on a route first bicycled 104 years ago. Andy Sterns. Alaska Magazine. Vol. 7. No. 3, April 2004
- Wheels on Ice, Bicycling in Alaska 1898-1908. Edited by Terrence Cole. Alaska Northwest Publishing. 1985