Pilot Houses

Planning a RV trip to Alaska and other points north this summer? Keep in mind that a trip to Alaska is more about the journey than the destination. Rush to Alaska as the gold miners did and you will miss many of the best sites along the route.

An RV trip to Alaska via the famous Alaska Highway will take you through the Yukon Territory where there is much to see and experience. During the early days, there were no roads or RVs in the Yukon, only sternwheeler service on the Yukon River which began in 1866 providing the only source of reliable transportation.  With the discovery of gold near Dawson City in 1896, the Yukon River between Whitehorse and Dawson became a major riverboat route. All told, some 250 sternwheelers were built to navigate the Yukon River and its tributaries from 1866 to 1936.

Eventually all-weather roads and airplanes became the preferred means of transportation ending the sternwheeler's transportation dominance. Highway bridges constructed over the river from Whitehorse to Dawson City, which were too low to accommodate the sternwheelers, were the final death blow for the riverboats and by 1955 all had been beached. Two pristine examples of these magnificent old vessels remain in the Yukon. Both are Parks Canada National Historic Sites: the SS Keno in Dawson City and the SS Klondike in Whitehorse.

Hundreds of others have been lost. Some were sold and moved, others were wrecked on the river and a number were hauled out of the water a short distance downstream of Dawson City and now lie forgotten and decaying in the sternwheeler graveyard. Here you will find numerous sternwheelers left where they were hauled out of the river and parked side by side, sternwheelers like the Seattle No. 3, which was built for the Seattle-Yukon Transportation Company and launched in May 1898. It faithfully served on the Yukon River until 1922. The Seattle No. 3 was built by Todd Shipyards in Seattle and assembled in Alaska. It is listed as the 24th vessel constructed by the company, with a displacement of 548 tons.

Other sternwheelers and river barges lie on either side of Seattle No. 3, their collapsing timbers scrambled with one another, like animal bones that have been scattered by scavengers. As you walk through the ghostly remains, you are able pick out distinguishable components here and there—the spokes of the paddle wheel, the pilothouse and the cantilever beam, which projects from the stern to support the paddlewheel. The characteristic hog posts and hog rods forming the truss system that support the hull still stand high in the air, defying years of gravity that have tried to pull them down. Rudders, which had for years safely steered the riverboats through the dangerous rapids of the Yukon, are still sturdily attached on a couple of the vessels. Two pilothouses sit side by side on opposing ships as they slowly return to earth as the timbers rot out beneath them.

If you visit the sternwheeler graveyard on a misty day, don’t be surprised if you see a bearded captain in the pilothouse manning the wheel of one of the vessels. He may even give you a nod, letting you know the visit was appreciated. After all, what is a visit to a graveyard without a ghost or two!

Enjoy your RV Alaska adventure, but remember the journey there is the real adventure. Be sure to stop and savor the unique sites along the way.

If you go:

A visit to the sternwheeler graveyard is convenient for RVers as the trail departs from the Yukon River Campground. Park in one of the many accessible RV spaces, walk north toward the back of the campground and you will find an unsigned trail heading into the woods. From there head toward the river; it is a short hike to the graveyard. The graveyard is located at N64° 05.060’ W139° 26.525’.
The Yukon River Campground is on Yukon Highway 9, also known as the Top of the World Highway. From Dawson City, board the free ferry (RV Accessible) at the north end of town. After a short crossing, travel three-tenths of a mile on Highway 9 to the campground. The GPS coordinates for the campground entrance are: N64° 04.338’  W139 26.296’. The Yukon River Campground has 98 campsites, water, pit toilets, firewood, shelters and boat launch. Click here for complete details on the campground.