Few episodes in Canadian history have so captured imaginations as the fabulous Klondike Gold Rush. Thousands of adventurers and fortune seekers faced the rigors of the trail to dig for gold along creeks feeding the Klondike River. From a trading post on a mud flat at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers, Dawson mushroomed in a single season to a sprawling boom town, made up of log and frame buildings and tents when some 50,000 people from the four corners of the earth arrived. At the height of the gold rush in 1898-99, the itinerant population of Dawson was estimated between 20,000 and 30,000, making it the largest Canadian community west of Winnipeg. The excitement quickly petered out after the turn of the century with the formation of large corporations which bought up individual claims. The Klondike continued to produce gold in abundance for a number of years.
In a sense, the Dawson of the frantic two seasons just before the turn of the century was Canada's last frontier. By the 1940s Dawson had dwindled to a village with a permanent population of under 1,000 and in 1953 the territorial capital was transferred to Whitehorse. But the picturesque ghost town beneath the scarred and rounded hill known as Moosehide Slide is still very much a part of the town’s historical heritage, and Parks Canada has been active in the restoration and preservation of what remains of the once lusty mining camp.
S.S. Keno National Historic Site of Canada
Prior to the Klondike Gold Rush there was only a handful of steam-powered sternwheelers working on the Yukon River. Word of the Klondike’s wealth spread so quickly that 57 registered steamboats carrying more than 12,000 tons of supplies docked at Dawson City between June and September of 1898; a year later, 60 sternwheelers, 8 tugs and 20 barges were in service.
For half a century, steamboats plied some 1,700 miles of waterway between Dawson City and Whitehorse or St. Michael, Alaska, opening the Canadian west and north.
An important new industry was created to service the steamers. Employing large numbers of men, wood camps were established along the Yukon River to feed the wood-fired boilers, their contracts running into the thousands of dollars annually. Depending upon its size, a steamer consumed approximately 120 cords of wood every trip from Whitehorse to Dawson City.
Barges were pushed ahead of the steamers to handle the tonnage. Freight was as varied as only a gold rich country could demand: mining equipment, horse and dog feed, flour and dynamite was packed beside cut crystal, fine linens, canned oysters, evening gowns and first editions.
The officers who commanded these ships were a special breed; many were former Mississippi River men or deep-sea captains. Resourceful and self-reliant, the officers were in constant combat with a river that could hide snags, rocks, sandbars, rapids or suddenly fill with ice floes capable of crushing the light wooden hulls.
Unfortunately none of the steamers in service at the time of the gold rush have survived, but the National and Historic Sites Branch has preserved a typical vessel dating from 1922. Built in Whitehorse, the steamer Keno was in good condition, necessitating little restoration work. Built to transport silver, lead and zinc ore from the mines in the Mayo district 180 miles to Stewart City, the Keno is 130 feet long. The ore was stock-piled on the bank of the river at Mayo Landing all winter, awaiting the arrival of the Keno in mid-May. In 1938, the steamer carried over 9,000 tons of ore, every sack of it man-handled.
In 1960, the Keno was moved to her present berth on Dawson's waterfront beside the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. On her last trip to Dawson, she carried 21 passengers, mostly newspaper correspondents and cameramen. The old river steamer has been preserved to commemorate an era now passed forever.
Dredge No. 4 National Historic Site of Canada
Not long after gold was discovered in large quantities, dredges were brought into the Yukon. One of two dozen that worked this area, Dredge No. 4 rests on Claim No. 17 on Bonanza Creek near the spot where it ceased operations. The largest wooden hull, bucket-line dredge in North America, it was designed by the Marion Steam Shovel Company and built in 1912 for the Canadian Klondike Mining Company. It commenced operations in May of 1913, digging its way upstream in the Klondike Valley into what was known as the "Boyle Concession," sinking there in 1924. In 1927, it was refloated and continued to operate from the Klondike Valley to Hunker Creek. The ground at the mouth of Hunker Creek was so rich the dredge produced as much as 800 ounces of gold in a single day. It operated until 1940, then was rebuilt on Bonanza Creek the following year by the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation. and from 1941 to 1959 worked the Bonanza Creek valley.
Dredge No. 4 is 2/3 the size of a football field and 8 stories high. It has a displacement weight of over 3,000 tons with a 16 cubic foot bucket capacity. The dredge could dig 48 feet below water level, and 17 feet above water level using hydraulic monitors and washing the gravel banks down. No. 4 was electrically powered from the Company's hydro plant on the Klondike River about 30 miles away, requiring 920 continuous horsepower during the digging operation. Extra horsepower was needed occasionally for such things as hoisting the "spud" (pivot) and the gangplank.
The dredge moved along on a pond of its own making, digging gold bearing gravel in front, recovering the gold through the revolving screen washing plant, then depositing the gravel out the stacker at the rear. A dredge pond could be 300 feet by as much as 500 feet wide, depending on the width of the valley in which the dredge was working. The operating season was on average about 200 days, starting in late April or early May and operating 24 hours a day until late November.
While the dredges were a very efficient means of mining for gold, extremely fine flour gold was hard to save, as were nuggets too large to go through the 1-1/8 inch holes in the revolving screen, or those caught in the nugget catcher. These went up the stacker and out to the tailing piles.
During the summers of 1991 and 1992 the dredge was excavated, refloated and relocated to its current position on higher ground to protect it from seasonal flooding. Over the last two years, Parks Canada has made a significant investment in the restoration and stabilization of the dredge.
Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park
In 1897 the cry reverberated around the world heralding the arrival of the SS Portland in Seattle – just two days after the SS Excelsior had arrived in San Francisco – each carrying newly rich miners from the recently discovered Klondike Gold Fields in the remote northern reaches of western North America. And the rush to the Klondike was on!
The Klondike Gold Rush was the last of the great gold rushes which marked the last half of the 19th century. Beginning with the California Rush of 1849, successive gold strikes in the Western Cordillera of North America moved ever further northward – the P'end Orielle and Fraser River Rushes in the 1850s, the Cariboo Rush of 1862-63, Cassiar and Juneau in the mid 1870s and the smaller rushes in the Yukon River Basin at Forty Mile and Circle which set the stage for the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-98.
The Klondike Gold Rush transformed the face of the north, creating a new Canadian Territory and turning the American purchase of Alaska from folly to fortune. Where there had been only a couple of riverboats supplying the entire region, there were now fleets of riverboats working both upriver and down from Dawson City. As would-be Klondike prospectors fanned out through the region making new gold finds –Nome on the Alaskan coast, Atlin in northern British Columbia –an unknown backwater became the new land of opportunity.
In 1998 on the 100th Anniversary of the great rush, the Canadian and American governments signed a joint declaration creating the Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park to commemorate this shared chapter in the history of the north. Collectively, the individual sites that make up the international park tell the story of the last great gold rush.