General Articles


The sourdoughs have fled the Yukon before the banshee wall of mechanical giants — but the lure of the Klondike is still gold

PIERRE BERTON September 1 1948
General Articles


The sourdoughs have fled the Yukon before the banshee wall of mechanical giants — but the lure of the Klondike is still gold

PIERRE BERTON September 1 1948


The sourdoughs have fled the Yukon before the banshee wall of mechanical giants — but the lure of the Klondike is still gold


THERE is still a smell of gold about, the Klondike River in the Yukon Territory. Klondike housewives stir their tea with nugget-handled spoons and old sourdoughs sport watch chains heavy with nuggets. You can go to the gold teller in the bank at Dawson City and buy an ounce of nuggets for $35. You can still slide a pan into some of the old tailings along the Klondike, or its tributary creeks, and see the dull sparkle in the bottom when the gravel has washed away.

In Dawson, the old-timers still tell of the days when Rig Alex McDonald bought a claim from Russian John for a sack of flour and a side of bacon, then started making regular trips into town with a string of 39 mules each laden with 150 jx)unds of gold. They tell of Charlie Anderson, the Lucky Swede, who was sold a “worthless” claim on Eldorado when he was drunk and promptly took a million dollars from it. Still remembered is Dick Lowe, a chainman on a survey gang, who very reluctantly staked an 87-foot sliver of ground, left over when a claim was resurveyed and dug up $600,000 in nuggets and coarse dust.

Nobody knows exactly how much gold has been dug out of the 1,000 square miles of rolling gravel foothills which outsiders call “The Klondike” and insiders call “the creeks,” but a recent estimate placed the sum at 300 million dollars. There is still an estimated 60 millions (two thirds of it proved by drilling) in fine gold lying in the frozen bedrock of those creeks, which bear the storied

names of Gold Run and Last Chance, Eldorado and Bonanza, All Gold, Gold Bottom, Hunker, Quartz, Dominion and Sulphur.

Today the lion’s share of this Croesus horde is controlled by one big company—rich in history, hut relatively poor in profits The Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation. The history of the corporation is fabulous and checkered -as you might expect in a country where at one time the basest amateur could scoop up riches by simply dipping a pan into the ground.

The Klondike area actually consists of two great watersheds separated by a high divide. The Klondike watershed and its tributaries lie on one side of the divide, the Indian River watershed on the other. Thirty miles from the divide lies Dawson City at the mouth of the Klondike River where it flows into the Yukon.

Along t he creek beds of these watersheds lie the relics of the gold rush and the days that, followed: rusting shovels and picks and wheelbarrows by the hundreds; rotting sluice boxes and crumbling cabins (with old newspapers from ’99 lining the walls); abandoned boilers, winches, engines and keystone drills.

Old hydraulic workings still scar the benchland at Last Chance and Dago Hill and Paradise Hill. Every hillside is cut. by the thin line of an ancient flume or ditch, for water in the Klondike is as important as gold. And up the Klondike River valley, and the streams across the divide, the high tailing piles run for miles -great mounds of white

gravel, choking the creeks from brim to brim—the dung of the great dredges which still dig up the gold for the Yukon Consolidated.

A big dredge is an awe-inspiring sight. It stands three stories high, looking outwardly like a big square river boat. It. is built in a dredge pit, then floated. It sits in its own pond, which it digs out of the stream bed as it. goes (often diverting the course of the stream), surrounded by its own offal, its bucket line munching deep into the bedrock, its stacker disgorging the useless gravel out onto the tailing piles behind. As it digs, its myriad cables and winches scream and whine like the souls of the damned.

The big boat pivots on a 60-foot, 30-ton anchor or “spud.” It swings from side to side on this spud, its long bucket line digging deeper and deeper into the bedrock. When it has dug to depth the bucket line comes up, then the spud is yanked out of the rock and the dredge lurches forward about six feet on its cables and begins to pivot again, gnawing away at more bedrock. On the biggest dredges each bucket weighs 3,340 pounds and scoops up 16 cubic feet, of gravel at a time. Some dredges have as many as 80 manganese steel buckets. The dredge is captained by a dredge master and a crew consisting of oilers, winchmen and deckers.

A dredge is a combination digger and sluice box. When the bucket chain deposits its loot (which may contain false teeth, earrings and diamond stickpins) inside the dredge, it is screened and the coarse gravel goes out the stacker along a movable belt. The finer sand and gold passes through the screen and is flushed down a series of sluice boxes where the flow of water is obstructed by riffles and coco-matting, in which the gold catches. The gold is quite fine, dull-looking

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Monsters on the Klondike

Continued from page 8

and slightly greenish in color. At a “cleanup.” the mats and riffles are mined of their gold which is melted into bricks, sold to the bank at Dawson and air-mailed to the Ottawa Mint.

If getting at the gold were simply a matter of putting the dredge to work among the pale green willows of the Yukon valleys, the YCGC would he sitting pretty. It is not this simple.

Before the dredge’s maw can bite into bedrock, a heavy layer of frozen muck-—as much as 65 feet, of it—must be sliced off the surface of the valley bottom. After that, the gold-bearing bedrock, anywhere from 10 to 40 feet farther down, must be completely thawed out. A dredge can’t buck frost.

To solve these problems, the placer miners of the north have invented and perfected systems of stripping and thawing which, as far as is known, are unique with Alaska and the Yukon. (The Russians sent a silent little deputation to look things over in the late ’30’s, but nobody knows whether they put their knowledge to use or not.)

After shearing the creek-bed foliage off with bulldozers, the company simply removes its muck by washing the whole works downstream and into the Yukon River, where it eventually finds its way to the Bering Sea, 2,000 miles distant. This “stripping” process, which leaves the valleys from 10 to 65 feet deeper, is accomplished by first damming the stream to hold back the water from the creek bed, then laying a network of pipes and blowing the topsoil off with giant nozzles. Water explodes from these nozzles or “giants” at pressures as high as 120 pounds

per square inch, enough to blow a man to shreds. When a nozzle man has torn off as much of the topsoil as is t hawed he moves to another nozzle down the line, letting the sun thaw the newly exposed ground. This process goes on all summer until there is a great deep black scar along the valley.

Rut there is still an average of 30 feet of gravel and bedrock to thaw. The thawing process occurs usually the year after the valley is stripped. The dredge follows the year after that. The bedrock does not refreeze once the great masses of ice have been thawed.

Early prospectors and companies used to thaw the ground with steam. It was costly and dangerous. A 16-foot pipe with a chisel bit end—called a “point”-—was driven into the ground and extensions added. It was attached by rubber hose, to a steam boiler. Often the heat used to fry the ground around the point, causing pressure to build up at the base and the whole thing would explode, killing or badly scalding the point driver.

Today, thanks to a Nome inventor named Miles who suddenly realized that even the coldest water is warmer than ice, all thawing is done with cold water. Steam thawing used to cost 35 to 40 cents a cubic yard. Today the Yukon Consolidated thaws its ground for four cents a yard. This cold-water thawing, plus the increased price of gold from $16 to $35 an ounce, is what keeps the Klondike going. Despite this the company—faced with high operation costs and wartime shutdowns—lost $223,627 in 1947, after depreciation.

The thawing operation is a messy and miserable job. Point drivers earn their $1.05 an hour. There are 400

I to 700 of these pipes, or points, to a | ! unit and each thawing crew on the i different creeks thaws five or six units | a season. The points get their water j from a vast network of pipes which I covers the stripped and blackened valley, fed by a pumping station from j the dammed-up cieek.

The point driver has a line of points which he must drive to liedrock. He stands deep in the mud and drives each one a few feet at a time, swinging j a 30-foot slide hammer, which he heaves up and down himself by the j sweat of his brow. He twists the pipe a little after each shower of blows. Thecold water runscontinuailv through the pipe, bubbling up all around him and he may have to screw on one or more 10-foot extensions before he reaches bedrock. He works every day in the week, Sunday and holiday, eight hours a day, and.when he wakes in the morning he sometimes has trouble opening his fists, which have been stiffened from their continual grasping of the narrow pipe.

There is an old anecdote, almost certainly apocryphal, still making the rounds of the mud flats of the Yukon, j A group of ‘brains,” as the workingman calls his bosses, had come out on ! an inspection tour at Granville on i Dominion Creek. One of the brains turned to the foreman and pointed at a stationary point driver across the valley. “Fire that man,” he said. “He hasn’t moved in half an hour.” The foreman went across to the workman and found that he couldn’t move: he was up to his hips in mud.

By the time the points have been in ! the ground three weeks the mud is j deep in the valleys. As the ground ; thaws, it falls away around the point, j water boils up from nowhere and great pools—20 feet deep sometimes—spring up all around. The whole land turns into a giant wet sponge, but by | September another chunk of the ground is thawed ready for the dredge j next spring.

Klondike King

The history of the Yukon Consolidated, its dredges and its gold, is | inexorably tied up with the names of I two fabulous men, both of whom in ! their day juggled with millions and ¡ both of whom ended up penniless.

! One was Arthur Newton Christian Treadgold, a diminutive, wiry, shaggyhaired, blond-mustached onetime professor of Greek at Oxford. The other was strapping, heavy-jawed Klondike Joe Boyle, onetime bouncer in Swift' water Bill Gate’s saloon in the Dawson ! of 1898.

Boyle was the man who built the biggest dredges on the Klondike. In their time they were said to be the biggest dredges in the world. Two of ■ his dredges are still digging gold. One I operates on the Klondike River, the j other on fabulous Bonanza Creek, j Between them they have dug up close j to $12 millions. Another Boyle dredge,

• his first, was dismantled in 1938 after I operating 32 seasons—more than any I other dredge in history. It had found six and a half million dollars lying on the bottoms of three different creeks.

Boyle started in the mining business j by wangling a tremendous lease of land ;

-—a seven-mile, 25,000-acre chunk of j the Klondike River valley—from the ! Government at Ottawa in 1902. There j ! was a tremendous protest over this I j wholesale grant of dredging rights, so i I much so that the Government ceased j j to grant further hydraulic leases. But

! Boyle went ahead, with English capital, i to form the Canadian Klondike Mining j Co. and build the dredges that made j him famous.

At one time he owned the telephone I

company, power plant, laundry, sawmill and coal mine; he sponsored the Dawson hockey team on a North American tour, sent the Boyle machine gun battery off to war. They called him “King of the Klondike.” Then Joe Boyle went broke when one of the big dredges sank, taking with it his capital. He headed for England to raise more - money, but joined the British railway mission to Russia instead (wearing lapel buttons made of solid Yukon gold). He won himself a D.S.O., O.B.E. and seven foreign medals as a soldier of fortune on the Continent, beerte the great and good friend of Romama’s handsome Queen Marie and mac. j himself “the uncrowned King ofRomania.” He died a pauper in 1923 at Hampstead Hill, England, without ever returning to or apparently caring about his bankrupt mining company and his big dredges which were still digging gold out of the Klondike valley.

The Treadgold Tale

Meanwhile, Arthur Treadgold had been doing his own promoting. He had mushed in over the Trail of ’98 and worked like the others with a pick and shovel and sluice box, until he suddenly thought up the idea of dredging the creek beds with huge floating machines. He walked into the New York office of canny Daniel Guggenheim, the mining and smelting baron, and emerged with a check for $65,000. The Guggenheim interests had been talked into backing Treadgold’s Yukon Gold Corporation. On the banks of the Klondike there is still a little town called “Guggieville.”

In 1903 Treadgold was busy buying up all the claims he could on the creeks emptying into Joe Boyle’s Klondike River. The Yukon Gold built nine dredges (smaller than Boyle’s), but Treadgold quarreled with the Guggenheims, who finally bought him out for one million dollars.

Treadgold promptly raised more money in England from the same sources that were backing Joe Boyle and moved across the divide into the Indian River watershed to form the Granville Mining Co. In 1912, when the Guggenheims exhausted their deposits, they moved out of the Yukon, taking some of their dredges with them, to operate tin mines in Malay. Treadgold bought up their assets. He now had a small army of companies operating under the parent company. When Boyle’s Canadian Klondike went into receivership, it joined the Treadgold fold, too (the two men had always wrangled bitterly). Finally, in 1925, Treadgold formed the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation which eventually absorbed all the companies.

Treadgold’s name is still a legend in the Yukon. He had a tremendous ego. Once, when he was two days late on a trip west, he wired from Winnipeg to Canadian Pacific Steamships in Vancouver: “Hold the boat; l am coming.” CPS didn’t. He had a remarkable memory: After a 12-year

absence from the Klondike (1912-1924) he walked into the mess hall at Rear Creek, shook hands with 50 men, called each by his first name, recalled the details of his last meeting with each one.

Treadgold spent the company’s money like water, tried to do away with the dredges which had made him and squandered millions seeking a substitute.

He bought two huge land-going diggers which were supposed to run on tracks, dig out the gravel and move it to a separate washing plant. They wouldn’t work. Cost: more than half a million One of them stood for 20

years, a gaunt skeleton of rusting steel rising among the aspens of Dominion Creek valley until, during the war, the company dismantled it for scrap.

He built a huge cableway with two giant towers across Dominion Creek, with a scraper bucket that was supposed to scoop up the dirt as it went flying along the cable, thus stripping off the topsoil. That wouldn’t work, either. He bought different types of suction pumps that were supposed to suck up rocks and gravel. They wouldn’t wrork. To this day you can walk along the main street in Dawson City, on the Yukon banks, and see the rusting, unused machinery that Treadgold bought, lying in the moss and willows.

In the early 1930’s, the English shareholders in Treadgold’s company began to get restless. They appointed J. T. Patton, an old-time Klondike!and fellow shareholder, to look into the company’s tangled affairs. Patton, with the aid of Charlie McLeod, a native Yukoner and corporation lawyer, found out what he and his colleagues had long suspected: Treadgold had been shuffling the stock with the aid of rubber-stamp directors, trying to get sole control of the company.

A long, legal struggle ensued. It ended in 1936, after an appeal and a new trial, with the complete defeat of the onetime Greek professor. Treadgold’s stock was declared worthless and he walked out of the courtroom a pauper and went back to England, never to return to the Klondike.

Today the company is managed by Charlie McLeod, the lawyer who helped untangle the company’s affairs. He replaces Warren McFarland, a tall white-haired engineer, who helped revitalize the company after Treadgold’s exit and who is staying with the company as consulting engineer. The Treadgold and Boyle eras are now things of the past, but the dredges still dig gold on the Klondike.

Piggyback for the U.P.

The company operates eight of the big diggers in the Klondike-lndian River area today. After the 1936 reorganization, Consolidated Gold Fields of South Africa, which now owns a controlling share of the company, advanced a million and a half to build new “boats” as Yukoners call them-—to mine the creeks. 'The company’s vice-president, Robert Annan, is a Gold Fields’ executive as well. Its president, G. Goldthorpe Hay, is a small white-haired Englishman, who visits the Yukon once a year, walks the pipe line in rubber shoepacks and wing collar, and is sometimes packed through the mud on the shoulders of a husky sourdough, paid for that purpose.

In a peak year the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation takes more than $2 14 millions out of its property, despite the fact that the ground has been worked and reworked. On Bonanza, for instance, one of Boyle’s old dredges, since rebuilt, is digging into ground thoroughly exhausted by individual miners and then thoroughly dredged by the old Yukon Gold. Yet it. is still hitting pay dirt.

Side by side with the giant operations of the big gold-dredging company, a few old sourdoughs from the days of ’98 still toil away on their own claims or on “lays,” as land leased by individuals from the company is called. They make wages, but nothing more. The company gets a 15'4 royalty on a miner’s lay. but last year it realized only $2,247.91 in this manner. Out on Dominion Creek last year, Fred Elliott, a gaunt whitening prospector managed to take 39 ounces of gold (about $1,300 ;

from his claim. Up the creek a way, Pete Pontalleta, an old Italian sourdough, took out 12 ounces. The men who climbed the Chilkoot Pass are tired now and so is the ground they work on.

But the company can still work the tired ground. A man who owns a seemingly worthless claim may find it paying off if the dredge goes through. The dredge now has the right-of-way legally. Joe Boyle once tried to stop a Guggenheim dredge from digging through his property, but when he took it to court he lost the case: the dredge had dug no gold up, therefore done no damage. After that the law was changed.

The company usually tries to buy a man’s claim (1.000 square feet) outright. It. paid $1,000 each for the twice-mined claims of Bonanza Creek. Failing that, it pays a royalty to the claim owner (usually around eight per cent) of all the dredge digs up on his property. Gus Nelson, a diminutive, ageing sourdough, who shot the Whitehorse Rapids in ’98 with a raft load of 10 burros, two mules and a horse—an astonishing feat even in those hardy times—was paid a royalty of $30,000 as his share of the dredge’s loot on his Bonanza Creek claim.

Jimmy Lenin, dead broke and unable to squeeze an ounce of dust from his 1.000 fret, of Bonanza gravei, got $15,000 in royalties. Frank Gough, on relief, received $10,000, which he left to the Anglican church when he died. Dr. W. K. Thompson, onetime M.P. for the Yukon, sat in California while his claims earned him $39,000 in a single year. George Pitts got a $9,000 royalty, which went to pay his bills in the insane asylum which has claimed many a cabin-lonely miner.

Once the company contracts to lease a claim for dredging purposes, the owner has no more worries. The company takes care of the representational work (a man must do $200 worth of work on a claim each year) and the renewal fees. If a man will neither sell nor lease, the dredge still goes through, but doesn’t take out any gold: if it did, the owner would legally be entitled to it all.

Despite the big holdings of the company, and the tiny trickle of gold found by the old sourdoughs, younger men still look for gold in the Yukon. 1 n Dawson City, and in the little mosschinked cabins along the Klondike, the magic word “mother lode” still makes men prick up their ears. Here, at the in-ad of a dozen creeks, once lay some of the richest deposits of alluvial gold in the world. Where did the dust and

nuggets and the coarse free gold come from?

This is a question geologists have yet to agree on.

Many a prospector and many a cheechako, too, have climbed the weary slopes of King Solomon’s Dome, spang in the centre of the divide that cuts between the romantic Klondike and the rich Indian River volley. From this dome you can see every one of the gold-bearing creeks radiating out like the spokes of a wheel. Purely, the old men whisper, the mother lode must lie under the round shagvy head of old Solomon. “jf

The Yukon Consolidated doesn’t believe it does. Ijo geologists have said that the gold ^¿as ground down into nuggets and dust and tiny veins by glaciers and erosion, long ago when the hills were new.

But other men are not so sure.

Monsters’ Delight

In 1896 old Bob Henderson, working away on Gold Bottom Creek, almost in the shadow of the Dome, urged squaw man George Carmack to head over the hills and try out the values on Rabbit Creek. Carmack did and found more gold than most men have ever seen. Rabbit Creek became Bonanza and Carmack, rich as Midas, left for Seattle where he threw fistfuls of coins out of his hotel window to the scrambling crowds below. Bob Henderson, official discoverer of the Klondike, hardly made a nickel.

But today Bob Henderson’s son Grant, a prospector and miner for more than 40 years in the Yukon, is picking away at the quartz on King Solomon’s Dome on a claim once held by the famous woman prospector “Stampede” Mitchell. (She won the name when she used to haunt the mining recorder’s office, watching for claims to lapse, then pick them up herself and sell them back to the company.)

There is the faint glitter of gold in some of the quartz samples that the old prospector brings into Dawson and a glitter in Grant Henderson’s eyes when he talks about it. Is the mother lode there? Nobody can say, but as long as Grant Henderson keeps picking away there is hope. For at the most, there is oniy 25 years of placer mining left for the creaking dredges of the Yukon Consolidated. And unless the hard rock is found, the monsters that chew up the creek beds will, in another generation, lie rotting in the sunlight along with the picks and shovels of the early prospectors who first dug for buried treasure on. the Klondike. ★