Before the construction of the highway that linked Dawson City to Whitehorse, the only method of winter travel or freight delivery was by the Overland Trail. Depending on the amount of snow, sleighs or wheeled carriages would carry passengers, freight, and mail between the two hubs.
In the early 1920s, winter travel between Whitehorse and Dawson was carried out by various contractors who used trucks and Caterpillar® tractors, commonly known as CAT trains, to pull the sleighs. The introduction of Caterpillar tractors revolutionized transportation on the Overland Trail. Replacing horse teams with CAT trains made the Overland Trail more economically viable. Since one tractor was able to pull several sleighs, more freight and passengers could be accommodated. The use of these new vehicles also ended the need for long stops to rest the horses. To the relief of many passengers, there was no longer a need to stop overnight. The majority of the road houses along the trail, most of which were rundown, were phased out. By 1923-24 trucks and cat trains had replaced horses completely and as a result the stables were converted to garages. The move to CAT train reduced transportation costs by an incredible eighty-five percent.
This piece of machinery was manufactured by The Caterpillar Tractor Company sometime between June 1925 and December 1931. During these years the Caterpillar Tractor Company used the revealing grey as its base machine colour and painted the trim red. Their trademark decals from this era are red with a silver border which match those on this CAT train. After 1931, Caterpillar® changed the paint colour to the standard 'highway' yellow we know today.
At the turn of the 20th century the only way to Dawson City from Whitehorse was by land or by river. Sternwheelers were the easiest method of transportation but once the rivers froze the journey had to be undertaken by way of the over land trail. At the time transport was slow and costly and the extreme cold of the Yukon made the trip even slower. During the winter of 1899-1900 the Canadian Development Company used dog teams to carry mail and light freight along the river between Whitehorse and Dawson. In 1901, White Pass & Yukon Route bought the company to get its lucrative government mail contract for its sternwheelers. In 1902 the Territorial Government contracted the White Pass & Yukon Route to build the first winter road.
The winter road between Whitehorse and Dawson became known as the Overland Trail. The White Pass then inaugurated the Yukon Stage Line which because of the mail it carried was also called the Royal Mail Service. For the Dawson residents, it created a much needed winter link to civilization. The Overland Trail was not a single road but five sections of road divided by four major rivers: the Takhini, Yukon, Pelly and Stewart. After the close of the seasonal river navigation, the White Pass Stage Line ran its sleighs or stages three times a week between Whitehorse and Dawson. Daily service was frequently provided in March, when people were eager to get to Dawson before steamboat traffic began. When the water ways were still open people, luggage, freight and mail were paddled across the rivers in canoes. A coach and its horses waited on the other side in order to speed up transfers.
When the river was covered in a layer of ice a bridge was built by a technique developed by the White Pass and Yukon Route called booming. They would build a brush bridge out of branches and green brush from fresh cut spruce trees across the ice. Water would then be sprinkled on the branches. When the path froze, the solid mat would be strong enough to cross a horse. As soon as the snow was deep enough the wheeled stages were replaced by sleighs drawn by teams of four or six horses. Sleighs made better time than the stages because their runners would glide easily over the snow covered trail. As a result fares were considerably cheaper in the winter. A one way ticket cost would drop $50.00 to $75.00 in December until the end of the sleigh season. Roadhouse meals and beds cost extra. Passengers were allowed 25 lbs of luggage for free. Excess baggage of luggage was 30 cents a pound. In some cases if there was too much freight, passengers had to get out and walk or run behind the horse drawn stage.
The stage operated during the daytime only and at night passengers would board at one of the roadhouses along the trail. On average the trip took from three to ten days. Each day, three to four scheduled stops were made at outposts which were spaced 20 to 25 miles apart. At each stop passengers ate and rested while teams of horses were changed. Tired horses were rubbed down, blanketed, fed and put into log stables heated by wood stoves. Fresh horses were hitched to the sleigh for the next leg of the journey. On average, meals cost $1.50 and beds were a dollar a night. The company had 275 horses that worked to haul the stages and sleds. They could not be worked to hard, and the company took care to rest and feed them properly after each leg of the journey. The average trip required 15 teams of four horses in order to cover each of the legs. In extreme cold the horses wore chest protectors and bags over their noses to prevent lung 'burn', they had summers off to graze and fatten before the long hard winter.
Yukon Transportation Museum, Whitehorse