Sternwheelers used to rule the rivers in Yukon, Canada. These huge boats (also known as paddle steamers) played a crucial role in the development of the province. Unfortunately, it was this development that also hastened their own demise. Once road access was possible, sternwheelers began to be retired. And there lies a problem; what do you do with such giant boats when they have outlived their usefulness?
The answer for some was to retire them to the side of the Yukon River. More than 60 years later, they are still there, being slowly reclaimed by the forest. The sternwheeler graveyard is a must-see when exploring Dawson City; it was definitely one of our highlights.
Rise and fall
Mountains, vast distances and extreme weather made the construction of roads and rails difficult in the Yukon. Sternwheelers were favoured for river travel due to their flat hulls that allowed for use in shallow water and ability to berth almost anywhere on shore. Use of sternwheelers on the Yukon River exploded during the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800’s. Thousands of miners (and all their worldly goods) flooded into Whitehorse, all trying to reach Dawson City and their imagined fortune.
Sternwheelers continued to be used for public transportation and tourism purposes until the early 1950’s. The construction of highways and popularity of air travel effectively killed river travel in the Yukon. It proved difficult to sell the sternwheelers and harder still to dismantle them. Some sternwheelers have been preserved. Others, like those in Dawson City’s sternwheeler graveyard, have been left to nature.
lost city of boats at the sternwheeler graveyard
What once were magnificent sternwheelers are now reduced to a hodgepodge of wooden decks, huge paddle wheels, rusty chimneys and engine parts. It’s hard to tell where one boat starts and another finishes. From the shores of the river though, the size and grandeur of these boats still remain impressive. Walking closer towards the boats, smaller details can be picked out; a faded boat name, a wheel axle, a boiler, a ladder leading to nowhere.
Some of the boat decks and hulls have collapsed; the toll of many harsh winters. Plants weave in and out of paddle wheel spokes, slowly returning the wood back to nature. Bits and pieces of the engine, once so important, lay carelessly in and around wooden debris. Everything about these boats is larger than life. Reaching several stories high, with massive wooden beams and boilers the size of cars (big enough to crawl into!), everything about these boats is larger than life.
Finding the sternwheeler graveyard
The sternwheeler graveyard is found on the eastern side of the Yukon River, just north of the government campground. To access, drive or walk all the way to the end of the campground and then walk a few hundred metres downstream along the Yukon River until the boats come to view on the left-hand side. With no kind of preservation currently given to the boats, it is completely free to visit the graveyard at any time.
The S.S. Keno and S.S. Klondike are two restored sternwheelers that there now national historic sites of Canada. The Keno can be found in Dawson City and the Klondike in Whitehorse. Both are well worth exploring, especially before a trip to the sternwheeler graveyard. The comparison helps to put the chaotic graveyard in better perspective!
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