Slim Williams: Alaska to Chicago by Dogsled
Clyde “Slim” Williams travelled to Alaska in 1900 at the age of 18 to prospect, and survived there by mining, trapping, delivering mail and raising sled dogs. In 1932, he boasted that his strong wolf-dog teams could mush all the way from his home in Copper Center Alaska to Chicago, and do it in time for the World’s Fair of 1933.
Proponents of an Alaska highway route learned of Slim’s boast and realized that such a feat would draw much-needed attention to their cause. Author Bill Miller, in his book Wires in the Wilderness: The Story of the Yukon Telegraph, writes that, “...one thing led to another, and he found that his original goal of visiting the Chicago World’s Fair had been expanded to include blazing and publicizing the route for an international highway.”
Slim was told that if he and his dogs could get to the Chicago World’s Fair by its opening in September 1933, he could be the star of the show in his very own “Alaska Cabin” exhibit. He decided he was up for the Chicago challenge, but he also set his sights on Washington DC and meeting President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Williams was 51 when he hitched up his eight-dog sled team and began his trip. “In November of 1932 Slim set out from Copper Center in minus 40º weather,” writes Miller. His progress was followed with interest by small-town newspapers in BC, the Yukon and throughout the US. The US papers repeatedly overlooked the Yukon and British Columbia in their coverage. If they did mention BC or the Yukon, our mountains became the Canadian “Plains” and our well-established settlements became “unmapped” and “uncharted” territory, and a “frozen” one too. One American paper featured a photo with the caption, “Williams by Yukon River on his way into Washington.” The American press may have ignored the giant, populated Canadian land mass, but Canadians did not ignore Williams.
Miller explains that Williams went the “long way around, via Chicken, Forty Mile and Dawson City, then headed south to Whitehorse and eventually reached Atlin.” He encountered deep snow and for hundreds of miles had to break trail, on snowshoes, for the dogs. New Hazelton’s Omenica Herald on January 25, 1933 wrote, “Slim Williams is somewhere between White Horse YT and Atlin. He is on a trip by dog team from Alaska to Chicago. He will pass through here enroute. The distance from White Horse to Atlin is 500 miles (not short miles either) and it will be at least a month yet before he will hit the local part of the Yukon Telegraph line. Williams is going to the Chicago World’s Fair and wants to get there for the opening.”
A sled with wheels On March 29, the paper wrote an extended piece, stating, “Slim Williams arrived at Hazelton on Tuesday afternoon safe and sound. After a rest of a couple of days he will resume his journey to Seattle and thence to Chicago to attend the opening of the world’s fair. Williams is in good health and now that he is feeling over the worst of the trip he is feeling quite enthusiastic. He has averaged 13 miles a day since he left home and he figures that is pretty good going under the circumstances. He arrived at Second Cabin on the Yukon Telegraph trail last Sunday afternoon and soon after that took to the ice on the river. Slim says he has had a wonderful trip thus far. It is the greatest game country he ever saw. It was quite common for him to see twenty moose in a day and nearly every day…Williams arrived here to find the roads practically bare of snow and as a sleighing proposition from here to the south does not appeal to him. He has decided to rig his sleigh up with some wheels and proceed over the highway as soon as possible. He figures he will cover more miles per day now that he does not have to break trail.”
Lillian Weedmark, former curator of the Bulkley Valley Museum in Smithers, researched Slim’s brief time in Smithers and wrote, “He rigged the sleigh up with wheels from a narrowed Ford chassis. Local schoolchildren had been so excited by his visit that he waited on Monday until they were out of school so they could watch him leave.” The Interior News recorded that there were over a thousand people on the streets to watch Slim and his wheeled dogsled leave Smithers; every corner was crowded. Weedmark wrote, “He drove up Broadway and went onto Main. The lead dog made the turn, but the rest of the team kept on going in the original direction and the new brake couldn’t hold them. They ran over a ditch and came to rest behind a telephone pole.” Repairs had to be made and he departed Smithers the next day. He was now clear of winter weather and, aside from mud-holes, he made good time. As the weather warmed, Slim travelled mainly at night to spare the dogs the heat.
In the autumn of 1933, after mushing hundreds of highway miles, Slim arrived in Chicago in time for the World’s Fair. On September 27, the Omenica Herald wrote that Williams was in Chicago: “...He was travel-worn and he and his dogs were tired and not favourably impressed by the hot weather.” Slim and his dog team were hosts of the very popular “Alaska Cabin” exhibit at the fair before mushing on to Washington DC, where he camped in city parks and spoke to President Roosevelt about the importance of an international highway.
The second journey In May 1939, Williams repeated his journey out of Alaska to the United States, but this time he brought only one dog and a fellow human traveller, Mr. John Logan from Portalnd, Oregon. And this time he left his sled at home and the two men opted for motorcycles. Extraordinarily, they filmed parts of their journey using colour silent film. The films are available online through Alaska’s Digital Archives and show the two men constructing rafts to cross rivers, cooking over an open fire and even zipping around Hazelton. Weedmark wrote that Slim arrived in Hazelton in November and gave a speech to the Hazelton Chamber of Commerce saying that if the road wasn’t built soon his next trip would be by tractor. At Hazelton the trail became a road of better condition and the two motorcycles were lashed together with a basket between for the dog. Making good progress, they arrived in Seattle in December.
Slim never did do the trip by tractor. Construction on the Alaska Highway began in 1942, spurred on by World War II. The route was not the one that Slim blazed; this Alaska-Canada highway was built north out of Dawson Creek.
Later in life Slim travelled the US as a lecturer, advertised as “The Alaskan Adventurer and Musher Who Became World Famous for Driving His Wolf-Dog Team 5,600 Miles Blazing the Proposed US Alaska Highway.” He was billed as “Rugged, Picturesque, Humorous, Philosophical.” After his lecture circuit he moved back to Alaska and lived to be 93.