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The Yukon steamers were all sternwheelers rather than sidewheelers. The paddlewheel at the rear of the boat allowed grounded steamers to wash sand away from the hull by reversing their engines. Sternwheelers had a narrower beam enabling them to negotiate smaller channels and they did not require special docking facilities.

The Bennett Lake and Klondike Navigation Company sternwheelers were called the "mosquito fleet". Two of these little boats were sent through Miles Canyon and White Horse Rapids and were the first to offer scheduled trips between Dawson and Whitehorse.

The John Irving Navigation Company operated the Gleaner on Bennett and Tagish lakes and the Scotia on Atlin Lake. The boats offered a through transportation route to the Atlin goldfields and on July 30, 1899 the Gleaner arrived in Bennett with $240,000 in gold dust. John Irving's company was taken over by the BYN in 1901.

The BYN Co. sternwheelers were modeled after the "swift water" vessels that operated on the Snake, Williamette, and Upper Columbia rivers. The Yukon River boats had flat bottoms and used rudders while lake boats, like the Tutshi, had narrower and deeper hulls and a keel. The Tutshi had rudders attached behind the stern wheel ("monkey rudders") in 1952.