The End of the Gold Trail

Dawson City, Yukon, Canada

August 20th, 2002

In 1898, Dawson was the end of the trail for the gold-mining stampeders. The gold was, and of course still is, in the streambeds of the creeks around Dawson, that run down into the Yukon River. Although no major strikes have been found since the turn of the century, mining for the yellow rock is still a constant endeavor for many of the residents of the town. Claims are still fiercely defended, as we were warned when we checked into our RV park; "Don't go wandering off onto other peoples property with a gold pan in you hand". The first thing we noticed was that the streets are not paved with gold. Actually they are made of mud. Only the main street into town and the highway leading south have been paved. They still have the wooden sidewalks elevated above the muck. Our first outing, the next day, was to the Dawson City Museum. It is located in the old Government Administration Building that was built back in 1901 when Dawson was the capital of the Territory, before it moved to Whitehorse. It was in this museum that I first heard of the lost subcontinent of Beringia. Beringia is an area that dates back to the last great ice age. While the rest of Canada lay frozen under massive sheets of ice, a region encompassing eastern Siberia, Alaska and the Yukon remained untouched by glaciers. Sea levels dropped over 400 feet as water needed to make the glaciers was taken from the oceans. This exposed a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska over which the first people of North America may have traveled, following the pre-historic game needed for their survival. We would learn more about this in a later adventure. The earliest mining was done on the thawed gravel bars in big rivers like the Yukon. Mining was a matter of timing. The gold was lodged in the river gravel. Prospectors had to wait for the water to fall in order to recover the fine gold at the edge of the lowest rim of rock on the bar. The silt was processed through a rocker box. The resulting black sand and gold would be washed out in gold pans over a mass of mercury or "quicksilver" and the black sand removed. The residue was put into a buckskin bag and the soluble mercury was squeezed out through the pores. The remaining gold was heated in a frying pan over a hot fire and became a hard compact mass of yellow grains or scales. The principle of removing gold from gravel has not changed since the first gold was panned out of a stream. The methods of doing so changed from time to time depending on how much gravel would be processed at one time. We would find out a more about this later. 
The next day we found another museum along the main street. The Tr'ondek Hwech'in, or long house, told yet another side of Dawson. The Han Hwech'in tribe lived and hunted in the Dawson area long before gold was discovered. It also tells the tale of a most unusual Indian. Chief Isaac led the Han people from before the gold rush until his death in 1932. In many ways he was a bridge between the old ways and the new: mediating between his people and the newcomers. As Dawson grew with the arrival of the stampeders, the Han were forcefully removed from around the town and relocated across the river. Chief Isaac saw the coming of the end of a way of life as he had known. Working with the government, he arranged to move his tribe out of Dawson and across the river and out of harms way. Over the next winter Chief Isaac, Church and government officials determined that the TGr'okdek Hweeh'in should move downriver to Moosehide. By spring, people were building cabins and a new community. In May of 1897, the break up of the Yukon River ice brought a flood of gold seekers to Dawson while the Han settled in their new home. Meanwhile their small community, that had once been Dawson, was being buried under the tents, cabins and cribs of Louistown. Through Chief Isaac's guidance and mediation, the Indians gradually adapted the white man's ways, switching from a hunter-gatherer tribe to working alongside the white man, opening shops and businesses back in the town of Dawson. 
Next to the Indian museum, set on the banks of the Yukon River was the Keno. It is one of two preserved paddlewheel steamboats in the Yukon Territory. The Yukon River runs northward from Whitehorse at the top of White Pass to Dawson. So quickly did word of wealth of the Klondike effect the outside world that 57 registered Steamboats, carrying more than 12,000 tons of supplies docked at Dawson City between June and September 1889. A year later 60 Steamboats, 81 tugs and 20 barges were in service on the river. Everything had to be brought in during the short summer months when the river was not frozen. During that short time the river was jammed with steamboats coming and going, loaded with stampeders and supplies going up and loaded with gold going down. The Keno was actually built after the great gold rush. It was built in Whitehorse in 1922 by the British Yukon Navigation Company. The steamer used an all-wood construction method and was specifically built to haul silver, lead and zinc ore concentrates from Mayo and Stewart Landing on the junction of the Stewart and Yukon Rivers. 

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