The surface tramways of the Chilkoot Trail

During the Klondike gold rush, three aerial tramways and several surface hoists operated over the Chilkoot Pass. The aerial tramways were significant engineering feats. The Chilkoot Railroad & Transport Company crossed a distance of 2,200 feet in one span, then the world’s longest; the Dyea-Klondike Transportation Company was one of the first aerial tramways powered by electricity; and the Alaska Railroad & Transportation Company was powered by gasoline. These tramways and earlier surface hoists were important final links in the chain of developments designed to make Dyea and the Chilkoot Pass the dominant route to the interior. However, they failed to successfully compete with the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad and most were bought out by the Skagway road. This column on the small surface tramways (or hoists) that ran from the Scales to the Chilkoot Pass is the first of several articles on the transportation developments along the Chilkoot Trail during the gold rush.


P. H. Peterson, a ferry operator from Juneau, installed a simple hoist at the Scales before the main rush. Stampeder William M. Stanley described the operation:

“[Peterson] anchors a pulley at the top through which he passes a rope, to which is attached a box, rigged on runners. A loaded sled is made fast to the rope at the bottom; the [upper] box is then filled with snow, to which is added the weight of the inventor and such other men as may be at hand. When this loaded box descends it pulls the sled up, where it is detached. The box is then unloaded and drawn back to the top when the operation is repeated as before.”

In 1894, Peterson attempted to do the same operation with seal skins instead of a box with runners, but it failed. He returned in 1896 with the gravity hoist described above. According to a sourdough known only as “Silvertip,” Peterson charged four bits (50 cents) a load. On February 17, 1898, he leased his tram to J. F. Hielscher of Dyea for five months, the peak months of the rush. He received a half-cent royalty on each pound carried by the operation.

The exact location of the Peterson tram is unknown. He may, in fact, have operated it on the Peterson Pass (which was named after him) instead of the Golden Stairs. Although there are many artifacts in the area, nothing can be definitely linked to Peterson.

Archie Burns was the builder and operator of another early mechanized hauling operation over the trail. He was born in 1864 and moved into the North Country as a young man. During his tenure in the north he worked in a variety of jobs and developed several businesses which involved the transportation and sales of goods. As a prospector he took part in both the Fortymile rush of 1887-1888 and the Circle City excitement of 1893-1894. By late 1894 he had moved to Juneau and by December of that year had opened up a freighting business there. He continued operating it through the following May, but by June 1895 he decided instead to build and operate a restaurant.

His exact whereabouts for the next year are unknown, but he probably continued to reside in Juneau. Wherever he was, he doubtless heard much about the growing movement of prospectors over the Chilkoot Pass and may have heard about Peterson’s tram. Accordingly, this “schemer of restless energy” set out to claim as much of the Chilkoot Pass business as possible for himself. In the fall of 1896, he claimed the summit of the Chilkoot for a trading and manufacturing site, effectively blocking out all competitors. Soon afterwards, he was operating a horse drawn tramway system through the spring of 1897. This tramway lifted goods from the Scales to the False Summit. In addition to his tramway business, Burns was also hauling goods on the trail below the Scales.

Several passing travelers noted Burns’ operation. Inspector W. H. Scarth of the Northwest Mounted Police emphasized its simplicity. Stopping at the Scales, he wrote that “there is a sort of tramway running up to the top from here, which is run by horse power. It is only a sled let up and down by a rope, which is passed around a dead man at the top.” A guidebook published that year noted that “an enterprising man named Burns has rigged a windlass and cable there, and with this he hoists up some freight at a cent a pound.” J. H. E. Secretan observed that “some enterprising individual had established a wire cable for the last six hundred foot lift, worked by two wretched horses, which were plodding around in a circle, winding up sleigh loads of supplies and passengers at one and one half cents a pound. I heard casually that this gentleman was clearing one hundred and fifty dollars a day by the operation.” Secretan watched a woman being pulled up in one of the sleds.

In the summer of 1897, Burns probably returned to Juneau but stayed there for only a short time. By mid August he was on the trail again, driving a herd of cattle to Dawson. He returned to Juneau in late October and was soon back on the Chilkoot. Taking full advantage of his experience and the available opportunities, Burns was an active businessman during the winter of 1897 1898. His financial interest in his tramway was apparently purchased by Juneau merchant C. W. Young and for the next several months Burns served as the manager of the C. W. Young Freighting & Trading Company. This firm was a major packer over the Chilkoot Trail. Under Young’s ownership, Burns operated several surface tramways between the Scales and the Summit at various times during the winter; one was run by steam and the other by gasoline.

Although Burns operated these businesses as manager, not owner, his name was either formally or informally associated with them. Observers noted, for instance, that the various tramways bore Burns’ name. In addition, the company’s Dyea stables, located on River Street south of Fifth Avenue, were called Burns’ Stables. A third business enterprise in which he was probably associated was a store and hotel in Sheep Camp. Advertisements indicate that the C. W. Young Company had a branch office in Sheep Camp, and that C. W. Young also ran a supply store there. No business of Archie Burns’ is listed in the advertisements, however, a news article in April 1898 notes an “Archie Burns’ store” at the north end of Sheep Camp.

By April 1898, Burns had been operating a motorized tramway at the Scales for some time. Although one account suggested that he began operating this service in early December 1897, he probably did not begin until the middle or end of January 1898. On December 17, 1897, Stampeder Harvey Condon noted that “about 20 of us helped pull Archie Burns’ boiler on a big sled up to the falls.” On January 19, 1898, the Dyea Trail announced further progress, stating that “a steam engine for handling Burns’ cable is being placed on the summit by Captain Purvis of this city.” The tramway began advertising on Jan. 19 and probably commenced operations shortly afterwards.

For the next two months, Burns ran the only tramway operation on the Chilkoot Trail. For the first month or more, before the Peterson tramway began operating, his only competition came from Tlingit packers. He profited handsomely from the growing traffic. By late February, his tram was lifting five tons of goods daily up the slope from the Scales. His rates apparently fluctuated according to the demand for services; on March 2, he charged two cents per pound, but later he charged four cents per pound or more.

Shortly after he put it into operation, Burns apparently found his steam powered tramway in need of assistance. Perhaps it was not sufficiently strong to haul the necessary loads, or he had difficulty supplying sufficient unfrozen water with which to operate his boiler, or perhaps he simply needed more capacity than the steam boiler could supply. For whatever reason, Burns supplemented the steam powered tram with a gasoline hoist. The steam hoist continued operating until late spring.

The gasoline powered tramway was introduced by mid April. It was described as “simply a pulley drum and gasoline engine at the summit of the pass, and enough rope to reach the bottom. Sleds were hitched onto the rope, which was wound around the drum and it pulled them to the top.” A stampeder who helped run the operation for a few days wrote, “I staid [sic] in the tent at the top of the hill and run the engine but when the load got to the top would have to go out and unload. They use a hoisting engine with a long wire rope around a drum with a sled at each end of the rope and when the loaded sled is going up the hill, the empty one is going down. Take about 1000 or 1500 lbs. at a load.” He added that he did “not want to stay on the summit all the time as it was too exposing. The engine room is very warm and one will take cold every time he goes outdoors.” Paul Mizony, an observer of the operation, noted with amazement that the sled once hauled up a man weighing almost six hundred pounds. Burns’ office was apparently a canvas tent, located just east of the Scales’ largest restaurant.

It is not known if Burns operated a horse powered tramway on the Chilkoot during the winter of 1897 1898 but he continued to operate the pack train and motorized tramway through April 1898. Burns apparently severed his working arrangement with Young in April or May 1898 and soon afterwards headed north for Dawson, hauling supplies down the Yukon River by scow. That November, he was running his own business once again, the Archie Burns Freighting Company out of his Dyea stables. Taking advantage of the Atlin traffic, the business remained active through January 1899 and possibly for the remainder of the winter.

Meanwhile, Burns commenced operating his horse powered tram once again. His operation was similar to that of two years before but instead of using two horses to power the tram, he used three or four. Burns was apparently convinced that the packing and tramway business would continue to be lucrative, for in January 1899 he agreed to purchase the C. W. Young Trading & Transportation Company for $5,000. Assets of the company included “30 head of horses and harnesses and pack-saddles, 4 bobsleds, 1 wagon, 1 lot and warehouse thereon, 1 lot and barn thereon.” This company was the fourth Dyea concern with which Young was involved, but after January 1899, Young had no further financial interests in Dyea or along the Chilkoot Trail.

Burns closed his tramway for the last time in the late winter or spring of 1899, probably at the same time as he stopped operating his pack trains. Soon afterwards he left for Nome, but in the fall of 1900 he returned to remove his tramway machinery from the pass. How much he took is unknown. Burns was last known in the Fairbanks area.

Today, several significant artifacts remain of Burns’ operations. Located on the False Summit are the remnants of an engine (a drum and line counter and several metal parts attached to a wood frame) that may have once been powered by the steam boiler. Another probable artifact from the Burns operation is a large steam boiler. A recently discovered photograph from 1900 shows this boiler in mid Scales apparently being dragged south. The boiler is now located on its side slightly off the trail at the southern end of the Scales. The gasoline engine and accompanying winch, mounted on wooden skids, lies midway between the False Summit and the top of Chilkoot Pass. For some reason, Burns did not remove this engine; perhaps it was buried by snow when he attempted to retrieve it. Today the engine apparatus is in good condition although it has been subject to some recent theft. The remains of the horse whim, in poor condition, are nestled in the notch just north of the False Summit.

This article was researched and written by Frank Norris, former seasonal historian at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway and edited by me, Karl Gurcke. It was part of a larger historical structure report on the Chilkoot Trail, completed in 1986 but never published. Portions of that report, complete with references, can be furnished by request at no cost if you email me at For the current condition of artifacts on the Chilkoot Trail, I have relied on Eve Griffin and Andy Higgs, both former seasonal archeologists for the National Park Service, and my own observations. An earlier version of this article was read over the air on KHNS, the Haines public radio station.


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