The Klondike Cattle Drive
Norman Lee was born in England, the eldest son of an English vicar. Not the kind of background you’d expect for a man who would attempt to drive cattle to the Klondike !
In 1882, Lee left a comfortable apprenticeship in an architectural office in London, England for the lure of the Cariboo gold fields of British Columbia, where he became a rancher and a trader.
Lee easily adjusted to the life of a cattle rancher, but the remote Chilcotin made the economics of cattle ranching difficult. So when the rush to the Klondike began, he jumped at what he thought was an opportunity for real money by driving two hundred head of cattle through 1,500 miles of wilderness to Dawson City.
He wasn’t alone. By the spring of 1898 there was a flurry of activity as cattle ranchers assembled herds for the long trek north over the all-Canadian route from central B.C., via Telegraph Creek, to Teslin. Ranchers knew that the first to arrive would have the best opportunity to sell their cattle.
The distinction of being the first to attempt a cattle drive from the Chilcotin to the Klondike was Jim Cornell. He headed north with a hundred head in early May of 1898.
Cornell was followed by Jerry Gravelle with another hundred head of cattle, then Norman Lee with two hundred head and, finally, Johnny Harris with another two hundred head.
Lee headed out from his Chilcotin ranch on May 17 with five cowboys, nine packhorses, and a cook. There was a keen sense of competition because the first herds over the trail depleted the grazing lands along the way, leaving little forage. The lack of food was made worse by the mud churned up by the hundreds of gold seekers, with horses and mules, who were also on the trail.
Lee and his herd finally arrived at Telegraph Creek on September 2nd, 1898. After more than three daunting months on the trail, he wasn’t even close to the Klondike.
Here he discovered that Jim Cornell, who had made better time with a smaller herd, decided not to go any further. Cornell had taken over a butcher shop previously owned by Dominic Burns, brother of Pat Burns, who would later become owner of the famous Burns Meat Packing Plants. Norman Lee pressed on to Teslin Lake, where the cattle were slaughtered. The plan was to raft the beef products down Teslin lake on hastily built scows, and then on the Yukon river to Dawson.
After two days of good sailing, a gale blew in. The scows were wrecked leaving the beef lying in the shallow water. Lee’s Klondike Cattle Drive was over.
Klondike Cattle Drive: The Journal of Norman Lee (Mitchell Press, 1960; Heritage House, 1991; Touchwood Editions, 2005)
Coming soon: Coming of Age on the Trail, by Gerry Burnie
LOOSELY based on a 1,500-mile cattle drive from Hanceville, British Columbia, to Canada’s remote Yukon Territory, this fictional adaptation pits 17-year-old Cory Twilingate against the almost insurmountable 19th-century wilderness in order to save his father’s cash-strapped ranch. Accompanying him on this perilous adventure is ranch foreman, “Reb” Coltrane, a ruggedly handsome cowboy from down Texas way, and together they form a bond that is both rugged and enduring.
Woven into this epic tale, as well, is an ancient Indian legend that prophesies the reincarnation of two star-crossed lovers, cruelly separated by their warring tribes in a time when spirits ruled the land, but who have been promised a reunion by the Great Spirit himself.
Also Lurking in the background is an assortment of treacherous villains intent on doing them harm. These include a homophobic killer, and a vengeful rancher who has threatened the destruction of both Cory and his father.
This is a story of a young boy’s sudden catapult into manhood, and of the man who stood by him all the way, but can their devotion overcome the combined forces of man and nature?
Anticipated release, 2014.