“Wickwire’s Horses for Gold” Synopsis
By Leon A. Schatz
“Wickwire’s Horses for Gold” Synopsis
By Leon A. Schatz
The following true story is based upon the diary of Byron F. Wickwire 1897-1898
In 1897, the entire country was a buzz about the Yukon Gold Rush in Dawson City. Adventurers of all kinds and skill levels embarked upon the arduous journey. And the news spread like wildfire all the way to the wild western towns of Wyoming.
Byron Wickwire was an expert cowboy, the kind of man who just had a natural equine instinct, the original Horse Whisperer, if you will. So it was no wonder when the older cowboy Lon Taylor showed up one day asking if Byron would be willing to lead an expedition. You see, the flier that Lon Taylor had found, claimed they were paying top dollar for horses in Dawson City, $300 a head.
“All we gotta do,” Lon Taylor said, “Is ride into those mountains, gather up 100 head of wild mares and drive em north. Canada’s got a brand new trail, practically paved all the way to Dawson!”
Byron was happily married and content to keep working on his homestead at the Paintrock Ranch, but Lon Taylor was persistent, and the opportunity for Byron to offer his wife May a better life, eventually convinced him to join Lon and attempt the impossible trek.
“I’ll be back in 9 months, May,” said Byron. “And when I get back, we’ll be rich!”
After the hard, creative cowboyin’ of rounding up those wild horses, the cowboys Byron Wickwire and Lon Taylor headed north on October 5th, 1897. The hope was that they’d be able to travel the horses by frozen rivers all the way to Dawson City. Needless to say, they were in for surprises of all sizes along the way.
For one thing, the only recruits willing to go on a journey of this kind, were incredibly underqualified. They had also planned to meet up with a guy by the name of Weaver; a friend of Lon Taylor’s in Billings with the intention that he’d help them drive the horses. Well he never showed and they were short handed from the get go.
They ran into trouble at the Canadian Border, realizing they had to pay $2 for each animal they intended to sell. So began the dwindling of Byron’s hard earned savings.
North of the border, near Fort McCloud, they met up with Weaver, but on November 12th, a blizzard set in that was worse than any Byron had ever seen. It lasted a month before they finally accepted they’d have to ship the horses by train to Edmonton. Another unexpected expense.
By the time they finally reached Calgary, it was 45 below and 18 inches of snow. They had 3 horses down. They got them up and they were alright. But then to make matters worse, they had no feed; That is, until Taylor’s “friend” Weaver saw a man with a load of hay, He opened the gate and told the man to drive into the corral. Weaver unloaded the hay quickly and the man left, unknowingly delivering the hay to the wrong horses. “Weaver was the biggest liar and thief in the world, but was the best man for a trip like this” Byron wrote in his diary.
Upon their arrival in Edmonton, the cold stormy weather continued and they learned that the trail they had heard about, had not yet been built. They were stuck in Edmonton.
But Byron found a silver lining. They had something the other Klondikers needed; horses. It caused all sorts of division amongst the crew knowing they and Byron could have sold the whole team right there and then and made a solid profit. But instead, Byron sold just enough for provisions.
Recruiting a couple cowboys from Montana, they set to breaking the horses and building sleds for the upcoming journey. The crew attempted to stay friendly with each other and out of trouble while Byron wheeled and dealed over the next months as more and more men arrived in search of riches.
Edmonton proved to be a wild circus of Klondikers from all parts. There were other Americans, Canadians, and even Royal expeditions from Europe, decked out to the “T” with tents, servants, and hair-brained schemes on how to traverse the Canadian Rockies.
When 2 months had passed, Byron and his crew could wait no more, and headed North and West with 75 good horses and a wagon full of provisions. Travel was slow through the snow, but they made progress, often passing easterners along the trail who had no sense of wilderness skills, whatsoever. It was hard to imagine a future where some of them survived.
Through the month of March they traveled onward with the horses pulling sleds atop the icy surface of the Peace River. By early April, however, the ice had started to melt. And on April 14, 1898 the chuckwagon broke through the ice and more than half their provisions disappeared. At this rate, they’d be lucky to get the horses to Dawson City by the end of the summer. They knew it was time to find another way.
Despite the bitter arguments over the rudimentary Canadian map, it was eventually agreed upon, that the team would split up; Byron and Lon Taylor would take the faster route by water to the north in order to arrange for pasture and the sale of the horses when the others arrived, and the horses would be taken west by Weaver the rest of the crew by land through the mountains. So, amidst the hundreds of other Klondikers attempting to build boats, the cowboys built a vessel and watched as Weaver and the others left on May 1st with the entire herd, into the great unknown.
Upon completion of the small boat, which they named “The Wyoming” Lon Taylor and Byron Wickwire set out on what would be completely new, uncharted territory for a couple of cowboys. Portaging, and paddling they made slow progress, and then, on June 1st, they ran into a fleet of backed up Klondiker boats. Up ahead were a series of waterfalls and rapids and most of the crews were slowly unloading and packing all provisions and boats through the forested banks. After discussions with a local Indian guide, Byron and Lon Taylor decided to attempt the rapids in hopes of bypassing the traffic jam and saving weeks of backbreaking work. Byron’s diary from June 3rd says it best, “One boat the guide was taking through the rapids. He ran on to a rock and the guide had to jump off on the rock as he was afraid the boat would slip back into the water and sink. So he jumped off on the rock and let the boat go and now it was some job to get him off the rock. Taylor and myself tried to get him off but we started out anyway. When we got to the rock where the guide was, the rock split the water and ran on both sides of the rock and very swift. We went by the guide like a shot out of a gun and he tried to wave us into the right channel but of course we took the wrong one and the first thing we did was to go over some falls 10 feet high and then struck an eddy and the boat went around and around. And every time it came around it would get under the falls and would get a lot of water in the boat. We had to get out of there as the boat was filling up with water. So we got the boat started down the channel and boy did we go? The channel was full of big rocks and everything else that could be in there. I don’t see how we got through myself, but we did. The Indians looked at us and laughed. We were fools for luck, but then we had to try again in a canoe, to get the guide off the rock.”
Byron, using his lasso as the boat neared the rock, was able to swing the canoe around to save the guide, who had been left to survive on his own by the Klondikers who had hired him.
As Wickwire and Taylor continued north into the Great Slave lake, they battled giant gnats and mosquitoes as they hugged the shoreline to avoid being capsized in the massive thunderstorms. North along the Mackenzie River, they spent July 4th sharing the meat of a bear with local Indians who gladly offered up salmon in contribution to the feast.
By July 19th, they had reached the Mackenzie Delta, hunting polar bears and fishing with the Eskimos. It seemed they were going to make it after all, but this was yet one of many deceptive glimpses of success along the route. The Rat Creek grew smaller and smaller and most of the other Klondikers turned back, hoping to find alternate passage at a place that came to be know as Destruction City, where hundreds of people froze and starved to death in search of passage through the last obstacle before the promises of gold in Dawson City.
But again, The Wyoming, being a small boat, allowed Byron and Lon Taylor to push forward, portaging where they had to, and often only after covering 3 miles per day. They killed caribou and caught fish as they watched others with larger boats turn back, to what would likely be their demise.
On August 11th, Byron and Lon crossed the continental divide, dragging their boat through moss, weeds, brush, mud, gnats and mosquitoes. On August 12th they crossed a small lake and by August 14th, they were swiftly flowing down the Bell River covering 20 miles a day. They caught fine trout and journeyed long days till the sun would set at 10:30 in the evenings.
The Bell river spilled into the Eagle River and then into the Porcupine and then… the Yukon River. They traded with Indians, made good camps, hunted waterfowl, and felt a true sense of optimism as they made progress downstream.
On September 9th, 11 months after leaving Wyoming, Byron Wickwire and Lon Taylor arrived in Dawson City, an over saturated mining camp town of 40,000 people with little idea what the hell they should do now that they’ve arrived.
Prices were high and men were desperate. “Just one street,” wrote Byron. “No sidewalks. Streets were muddy. Several saloons, one had a big dancehall in the back and would run all night… Every time you would dance it would cost you $1.75 to $2.00. You had to buy a drink for yourself and partner and there was just as many dancing as there would be if they paid 10 cents a dance.”
Dawson City was full of crooks and opportunists, but the Mounted Police were very strict and kept good order. On the bright side, Byron and his crew were going to make a fortune once those horses showed up. Byron could toss a pepple and hit any number of miners who would have been eager to get their hands on a horse and lighten their loads.
As Byron and Lon waited for the horses to show up, Byron found work from a boss with 12 pack horses loading mining equipment back and forth. The boss packer told him, they had 35 head of horses and each one made him $12 a day. That’s $425 a day! With the 75 horses Byron’s crew had left Edmonton with, they could be making $900 every single day. Byron couldn’t contain his excitement and he and Lon watched with eager anticipation for their horses to arrive every evening…
But the days went on and as soon as the weather turned bitter cold that fall, Byron’s pack train boss headed to the coast to winter his animals. Byron and Lon continued to ask any newcomers to Dawson if they’d seen a string of horses along the way, but no one had. It looked like they wouldn’t see the horses again this year.
Byron and Lon found gruelling work in the mines to survive the winter. Spring finally arrived and as the ice on the river began to melt, over-priced supplies showed up for the desperate men. By this time, Lon Taylor had grown ill, and Byron used the last of the money they had left to send Lon on a boat to Seattle and then to find his way back to Wyoming.
Byron waited and hoped that he might spot Weaver and the horses on every steamer that came up the Yukon River, but after a few weeks, when they finally did show up, Byron was hit with a bitter-sweet reunion. All but Byron’s own horse, Roman Nose, and one mule had not survived the brutal winter and the many treacherous miles.
By the time Byron made his way back to Hyattville, Wyoming, nearly two years had passed. Another bit of bad news when Byron learned that his wife, May, believing he had died on the journey, had sold the Paintrock ranch and left town.
It seemed like Byron Wickwire had risked it all… and lost it all. But the silver lining came when the townspeople of Bighorn County put Byron to the task of being their sheriff. He accepted the job, and quickly tracked down his wife with a joyful reunion. The trip hadn’t ended as hoped, but through it all, Byron Wickwire became a legend; a tough as the land, man of integrity, who dared to dream.
FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:
“WICKWIRE’S HORSES FOR GOLD”