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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 61/July 1902/Gold Mining in Klondike

By Professor HENRY A. MIERS, D.Sc, F.R.S.,


MY visit to Klondike took place at the end of August, 1901, at a very interesting time, and under most favorable conditions. The journey was made at the invitation of the Hon. Clifford Sifton, Canadian Minister of the Interior, and in company with Professor Coleman, of Toronto. Mr. Sifton provided us with a most efficient military escort in the person of Captain Strickland of the Northwest Mounted Police, who possesses an intimate knowledge of the far Northwestern Territory and its inhabitants. Consequently, we were able in a short visit to see a great deal and to become acquainted with the leading features of the mining industry.

The time was particularly interesting, because in 1901 the conditions of life were still to a large extent those of a young mining camp, but were undergoing rapid transformation into the social and political conditions of an organized and civilized community.

Access to Klondike is now practically confined to a single route available for the ordinary traveler. It is true that a considerable amount of merchandise is taken in by the sea and river route which consists of a voyage (from Seattle) of 2,700 miles by sea to St. Michaels at the mouth of the Yukon, followed by a voyage of 1,370 miles up that mighty river to Dawson City—a total of about 4,000 miles. But the ordinary passenger route is the following:—a sea voyage of 900 miles, up the quiet waters that lie between the islands and the mainland, from Vancouver to the little American port of Skagway; a journey of 112 miles across the coast range, by the newly constructed White Pass and Yukon railway, to the little town of White Horse on the Yukon; and a voyage of 450 miles down the Yukon from White Horse to Dawson City in a stern-wheel steamer—a journey of only 1,460 miles in all. By this route the sea voyage occupies from three to five days, the railway journey about twelve hours, and the river voyage from two to three days.

The railway climbs the icy precipices of the coast range, and crosses into Canadian territory at the summit of the famous White Pass which earned so unenviable a reputation as the scene of disasters and deaths during the great rush into the country in the winter of 1897; and the traveler is brought down to the banks of the Yukon just low enough to escape the terrible White Horse Eapids, where also so many lives were lost in those early days. The voyage hence to Dawson is a quick one, with a stream whose average current is five miles an hour.

Dawson City, which in 1898 was only a collection of huts on a frozen mud swamp situated at the point where the Klondike River enters the Yukon, is now a town of about 10,000 inhabitants, consisting, it is true, of wooden buildings and chiefly of log cabins, but possessing hotels, clubs, theaters, saw-mills, large stores, electric light, telephones, power works and all the resources of modern civilization. New government buildings were rising at the time of my visit, and the town wore an aspect of considerable and prosperous activity.

It is interesting to watch the life of this remarkable city, situated 1,500 miles from Vancouver and close upon the Arctic circle: upon the plank sidewalks are slouch-hatted, long-booted miners who throng dance-halls and saloons and pay from pouches of gold-dust; busy merchants, traders and storekeepers of all nationalities; well-dressed ladies and children; military men, surveyors, engineers and lawyers; while in the dusty roadway are to be seen men riding long-tailed horses with Mexican saddles, driving pack-mules laden with boxes, or urging yelping teams of dogs with the cry c mush, mush'

Popular accounts of this country generally represent it in its winter dress of snow, and relate tales of the rigorous severities of the Arctic frost. At the time when. I was there Dawson was enjoying the mild and equable climate which prevails in the summer months, when the temperature may even rise to 90° F.; no snow was visible save that which clothed the serrated peaks of the northern Rockies, and their majestic chain was only to be seen from the summit of Moosehide Mountain above Dawson, and at a distance of about 40 miles to the north. The inhabitants had begun to grow potatoes, cabbage, lettuce and other vegetables, and a considerable market garden was being laid out on the left bank of the Yukon. And yet there is one remarkable feature of the country which prevents the traveler from ever forgetting that he is close upon the Arctic circle; if a hole be dug only three feet deep at any spot in the boggy ground, it will be found permanently frozen at that shallow depth; even in Dawson itself the log cabins rest upon a foundation of ice which never thaws.

There is also a striking feature of life in Dawson which ever reminds the visitor that he is in a mining camp. He will have to pay Is. or 2s. for a bootblack or a barber, 2s. for a glass of cow's milk, 6s. for three boiled eggs or a mutton chop, 30s. for a bottle of claret, perhaps £20 a day for the hire of a rig and team of horses. The rent of a log cabin is about £120, and a sense of economic insecurity is inspired by the fact that the rent of a house is about half its value, and that 60 per cent, is an ordinary rate of interest for loans. Laborers' wages are £2 a day. Although almost anything required may be purchased in Dawson, all goods have been imported at great expense into a country which of itself has produced nothing but gold and wood. The freight rates on the White Pass route are about six cents a pound, and £23 a ton may be paid from Vancouver to Dawson.

The mining camp is situated to the southeast of Dawson at a distance of about thirteen miles. The productive area is about thirty miles square, and is bounded on the north by the Klondike River, on the west by the Yukon River, and on the south by the Indian River. The district is a gently undulating upland or plateau, attaining an average height of nearly 3,000 feet above the Yukon, and intersected by deep flat-bottomed valleys which radiate from its central and highest point, a rounded hill named the Dome. The valleys are separated by hog-backed ridges; the whole district is fairly thickly wooded with spruce and poplar except on the summits of the ridges; the bottoms of the valleys are occupied by flat marshy bogs, and the streams are rarely more than ten feet broad. The bog, which is from five to ten feet thick, is frozen at a short depth below the surface and keeps the underlying gravel, which may be from ten to thirty feet thick, permanently frozen right down to the bed-rock.

The principal streams are known as creeks; the short steep tributaries which flow into them as 'gulches'; and the streamlets which feed these as 'pups.' The most important creeks are from seven to ten miles in length, and are productive over perhaps half their course, so that there may be about fifty miles of richly productive gravel in the district. I was informed that one stretch of three and one half miles on El Dorado Creek produced no less than £6,000,000 of gold.

Recently constructed government roads lead from Dawson to the camp and connect the various creeks; they were being completed at the time of our visit, and were still very rough or almost impassable at some points among the creeks; numerous rudely built but fairly comfortable 'road-houses' afford lodging to the traveler. A small town of log cabins, known as Grand Forks, has sprung up at the junction of the two most famous creeks, Bonanza and El Dorado, and is inhabited by perhaps 1,200 miners and others. There is another small town named Cariboo on Dominion Creek.

The creeks no longer present the dreary appearance of bog and forest, which made them look so unpromising to the early prospectors; the hillsides have been largely stripped of their timber, and the valley bottoms are in many parts the scene of active mining operations and rendered unsightly by machinery; the mining is also carried on upon the hillsides at a height of 300 or 400 feet, where numerous adits penetrate the white gravel, and are marked by long heaps of tailings which descend from them towards the creek.

What little is known of the geology of the Klondike district can be stated in a few words. The auriferous area is occupied by Palæozoic schists, which may be roughly distinguished as grey or green chlorite-schist and mica-schist, and a light colored or white sericite-schist. These are bounded on the north—upon the right bank of the Klondike River—by a mass of diabase and serpentine, winch constitutes the Moosehide Mountain; and on the south—on the left bank of the Indian River—by a series of quartzitic slates, schists and crystalline limestones.

The auriferous creeks are entirely situated in the micaceous schists, which constitute the bed-rock everywhere. Mr. McConnel, the government geologist, regards these schists as having originated from quartz-porphyry and other eruptive rocks, but they have been much crushed and altered and entirely recrystallized from their original condition. They are intersected by numerous bands and bosses of more recent eruptive rocks—quartz-porphyry, rhyolite, augite-andesite, diorite, basalt, etc.—and also by numerous quartz veins. In the northern and northwestern portions of the area occupied by these Klondike schists, are both broad and narrow bands of a black graphitic schist, which can sometimes be traced across the valleys.

The veins and stringers of quartz which are so frequent throughout the district have for the most part a very barren appearance, but they are sometimes mineralized to a small extent and contain a little iron pyrites, argentiferous galena, and—very rarely—gold.

Up to the present, however, the gold has been exclusively won from the gravels in the valleys, and not from the quartz veins.

The gravels are mainly of two sorts:—(1) those which constitute the floors of the present valleys and have been laid down by the present streams; (2) those which cover terraces upon the sides of the valleys and represent old valley gravels which have been cut through by the present streams.

The gold mining was at first carried on entirely in the lower gravels, and it was in them that the precious metal was first discovered. These are sandy gravels consisting of pebbles of quartz and schist—in fact, they are made up of the same materials as the bed-rock, and contain nothing that might not have been derived from the breaking up of the rocks of the district. There is no reason to believe that they were derived from any other source, and some of the pebbles are so lightly rounded that they have clearly not traveled far. Among the minerals which I have seen from these gravels are haematite, rutile, pyrites, graphite, cyanite, garnet, cassiterite, epidote and tourmaline; also barytes and mispickel.

The gold is very unevenly distributed in the gravel. The richest patches of pay-gravel seem to occur about half way down the valley. In the wider portions of the valleys the pay-streak may be sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other, following no doubt the former course of the stream.

The valley gravel is generally from ten to thirty feet thick, and is overlaid by from five to fifteen feet of frozen bog, locally known as 'muck.'

The hillside gravel is a very remarkable deposit; it consists almost entirely of boulders and pebbles of quartz and of sericite-schist, and, when it is exposed to view, presents the appearance of a uniform white ledge running horizontally along the hillside at a height of about 700 feet above the level of the Klondike River. It sometimes attains a depth of 120 feet, and may be as much as half a mile wide. The pebbles are to a large extent subangular and less worn than those of the valley gravels.

The early miners of course confined their attention to the valleys, and the discovery of these rich deposits upon the hillsides excited great surprise; they now rival the valley gravel in importance. The deposit is locally known as 'white-wash' or the 'White Channel.'

The origin of the White Channel is shrouded in mystery; it was at first supposed to be a glacial deposit; but there are no striations or other signs of glacial action, and it is now the opinion of the local geologists that it was laid down by the sudden inrush of tumultuous streams acting over a small area. The materials have clearly not been transported far, and the gold is even more nuggety and less worn than that of the valleys.

One is naturally led to inquire whether all the gold of the lower gravels was not brought down by streams cutting through the White Channel which occupied the bed of the valleys when they were broad and shallow, so that the White Channel may be the real source of the gold. This view is supported by the fact just mentioned that the gold of the valleys is more worn than that of the hillside, also by the fact that the valleys are richer in their central portions, which must have been covered by the White Channel, than in the upper parts which are above the level of that deposit.

Still there is no reason to doubt that the White Channel itself is of local origin: its materials are those of the district, and have not traveled far. (There are a few gravels in this area which consist of pebbles foreign to the district, and they are not auriferous.) The White Channel itself follows the present valley courses. On the whole therefore although the origin of this peculiar deposit is obscure, there can be no doubt, in my opinion, that the conclusion forced upon us by a glance at the map is correct, and that the gold has been derived from the limited area intersected by the auriferous creeks which radiate from the Dome.

Some of the gold adheres to quartz, which exactly resembles that of the veins in the adjoining schists; and it is fairly certain that the metal came from quartz veins in the Klondike schists.

On the other hand it is certainly most remarkable that so little auriferous quartz has been found; at the time of my visit hundreds of quartz claims had been staked, but very few had been shown to contain any gold whatever; neither do the quartz boulders of the White Channel appear to be auriferous, or even mineralized. And yet it can hardly be doubted that where the valley gravels are rich in gold above their intersection with the White Channel the metal must have been derived from quartz veins in the schists.

In one instance I found direct evidence bearing on this question. In Victoria Gulch, a streamlet which descends into El Dorado Creek on its left bank high up the valley, have been found small flat crystals of gold of peculiar shape known as 'spinel twins.' In visiting a quartz vein at the head of Victoria Gulch (near the summit of the divide between El Dorado and Bonanza creeks), which had been lately opened and found to contain visible gold, I noticed precisely similar crystals. Here, at any rate, there can be little doubt that the gold in the creek has been derived from quartz veins in the schist.

No crushing has yet been carried on in Klondike; the gold has been entirely won by washing the gravels.

The chief difficulties of Klondike mining are due to the permanently frozen ground, which has led to certain peculiarities in the methods adopted. Every yard of gravel which is sluiced must first be thawed, either by artificial means or by exposing it to the rays of the summer sun after stripping off the overlying muck; for it is impossible to work the frozen ground with pick or spade, or even with dynamite.

Until recently shafts were sunk or tunnels were driven by laboriously thawing the ground with hot stones or wood fires; and I saw both methods in operation during my visit. The latter process—firesetting, as it is called—is, in fact, quite frequent. A layer of dry wood is piled up against the face of the gravel, blanketed behind by a layer of green wood, ignited, and allowed to burn itself out; twelve hours of burning would thaw out little more than one foot in depth; and the process is then repeated.

Upon the larger properties this method has been entirely replaced by 'steam-thawing.' In this four-to six-foot lengths of iron piping, tipped with steel nozzles, are inserted into the gravel, and steam is forced through them at a pressure of about 120 pounds. These pipes are known as 'points'; one point is inserted to about each square yard, and is driven in gradually by taps from a hammer; each point will thaw from two to five cubic yards of gravel. As contrasted with fire-setting, the steam-thawing obviates the suffocating fumes of burning wood, or the danger of thawing the frozen roof in underground workings.

A recent innovation which I saw coming into operation was thawing with water by means of the pulsometer pump, which seems to be economical since the water can be used over and over again; this process seems likely to come into more general use.

The gravel is raised from the shaft in buckets by windlass or steamhoists, and in winter is dumped on to heaps for summer work, or in summer may be emptied straight into the sluice-boxes.

Much ingenuity has been exercised in the construction of selfdumping hoists, in which, by a single rope, the bucket is raised from the bottom of the shaft, caught by a traveling clutch, carried along a horizontal rope to the dump-heap or the sluice-boxes, where it is automatically tilted. All this is done by an engine in charge of one man, and saves much labor.

As regards the washing of the gravel, the old-fashioned handrockers are still to be seen in operation upon many of the gulches, but have been for the most part replaced by sluice-boxes. These are long wooden troughs made in 12-foot lengths and about ten inches broad; the bottom is lined with wooden riffles, consisting generally of longitudinal bars (Pole riffles), but sometimes of transverse bars (Hungarian riffles), by which the gold and heavy minerals are caught. Sometimes Auger riffles—planks with circular holes—are employed; mercury is seldom used. A sluice-head of 75 miners' inches,i. e., 112 cubic feet of water per minute, is usual, and a fall of about eight inches in the 12-foot box length.

Water, which is very scarce in the district, and must be used economically, is conducted to the sluice-boxes by long wooden flumes, which are themselves a serious expense on account of the cost of wood (about $110 a thousand feet). Some of these flumes are half a mile in length; in a wide valley, where the pay-streak is on the opposite side from the stream, it is necessary to raise it by centrifugal pumps to a height of 30 or 40 feet, and to convey it across the valley by a long flume.

In the final 'wash-up,' by which the gold-dust is extracted from the sluice-boxes, the riffles are taken out, and a copious stream of water is sent down, which carries away the fine gravel and leaves the gold, and a heavy black sand which accompanies it. This black sand consists mainly of magnetic ore, and it is removed partly by a magnet and partly by shaking with the hand and blowing with the mouth in a small metal tray.

The mining operations on the creeks and upon the hillsides are somewhat different. On the creek a shaft is sunk down to bed-rock, four lateral tunnels are driven from the shaft along the surface of the bed-rock, and opened out in a fan-like manner to the limits of the claim. The outermost portions are worked out first, and as the excavation is carried back to the shaft, the roof and overlying muck are allowed to cave in and settle down on to the bed-rock. Timbering is thus entirely avoided. This absence of timbering in the Klondike shafts and tunnels is one of the most striking features in the mining; the frozen ground requires no support—it never thaws—and chambers as much as 100 feet square are covered by an icy roof which never breaks down.

The operations in the creeks are carried on upon a very considerable scale, and there is a large amount of machinery in the country; upon some groups of claims the work is not carried on by sinking and drifting, but is more of the nature of open quarrying. Night work is prosecuted by electric light or the acetylene lamp.

Formerly the raising of the gravel and its storage in dumps were mainly carried on in the winter, and the sluicing in the summer, and enormous winter dumps were accumulated for summer work. This last year the greater part of both has been carried on simultaneously during the summer, and it seems likely that the winter work will become less usual, and may even be abandoned altogether.

The mining upon the hillside claims bears no resemblance in appearance to ordinary placer mining. Horizontal tunnels are driven into the White Channel from the face of the hill, and shafts are sunk into it from the surface in a manner that more nearly resembles the working in ordinary metalliferous lodes. In one such mine which I visited, a horizontal tunnel 700 feet in length had been driven into the gravel, and at right angles to this, and at intervals of about 60 feet, lateral tunnels were being driven to a distance of 70 feet on either side; and there were 200 feet of pay gravel above the tunnel; the men were working with pick and shovel at the end of the long tunnels, and cars of rock were being wheeled along a tramway to the head of the long wooden shoot which carried the gravel down to the creek.

In these high-bench claims, as they are called, two great difficulties are encountered: (1) the difficulty of disposing of the tailings, which cannot be allowed to slide down upon the creek claims but must be artificially banked up; and (2) the difficulty of obtaining water at this height. Both have cooperated to prevent hydraulicking, which would otherwise be the obvious way of working gravels situated upon a steep hillside.

On Hunker Creek, however, Mr. Johanson, who owns both creek and hillside claims, has, with much enterprise and at very great expense, introduced hydraulicking upon a considerable scale. The water was here derived from a reservoir in the creek, and was raised by a 140 horse-power engine to a height of 260 feet, the level of the hillside workings, and then to an additional height of 40 feet to an elevated tank, which gives a total fall of about 60 feet available for hydraulicking. The water was conducted through a 10-inch pipe and 6-inch hose terminating in a 212-inch nozzle. About 1,200 Canadian gallons a minute could be delivered. This enabled one man to wash out no less than 8 cubic yards per hour, and the gravel was washed straight into the sluice-boxes without the necessity for intermediate labor.

If ever water becomes more abundant and accessible in the district, there can be no doubt that hydraulicking will be largely employed.

On Bonanza Creek I witnessed another novelty in the first operations of a new dredging plant which had just been introduced, having been formerly employed on an auriferous sand bar upon the Lewes River. It is very possible that dredging will prove to be an efficient and economical way of working over some of the old claims in the creeks which have only been treated by the cruder methods of the earlier miners.

There are other introductions which were new at the time of my visit; although no crushing of quartz had then been effected, a small Tremaine mill had just been erected on the banks of the Klondike in the immediate neighborhood of Dawson, and it is to be hoped that we shall soon hear of promising results among the quartz discoveries. An auriferous conglomerate found in considerable deposits on the Indian River was attracting much attention, chiefly on account of its superficial resemblance to the South African banket.

In default of resources other than gold, the prosperity of Klondike in the immediate future appears to me to depend mainly upon the extent to which in the creeks water can be more economically and bountifully supplied, labor and the necessaries of life more cheaply obtained, and communication be made more easy, so that it may be possible to work low-grade gravel at a profit. There is much auriferous material which it does not at present pay to touch. The Government is giving every encouragement, and in Mr. Ross the Territory has a strong governor; roads have been constructed; the royalty has been reduced to 5 per cent., and on all claims $5,000 of gold are exempt. The necessary charges are only $10 for a miner's license, $15 for recording a claim, $50 for surveying, $15 for renewal, and an owner is only required to put $500 worth of work on to his claim each year.

But the cost of water, wood, labor and materials is almost prohibitive; the standard of living is high, although there is, I think, a constantly increasing number of steady and thrifty men coming into the country and replacing the more gambling element of the early camp.

The ultimate prosperity of the country depends largely, I think, upon the extent to which auriferous quartz may be discovered, and other resources developed.

But it is certain that Dawson has come with the intention of staying, and that the country is very far from played out. Not only is there a considerable quantity of ground yet to be worked in the Klondike creeks, but it must be remembered that much of the vast Yukon territory is auriferous, and that attention has only been distracted from other localities by the extraordinary wealth of the Klondike area.

Now that the district possesses a large town, inhabited throughout the year, now that communication is being facilitated, that freight rates are being lowered, and that the population is increasing, it ought to be possible to open up districts that could never have been attempted under the more adverse conditions of two or three years ago.

Coal is being mined at Cliff Creek, 55 miles below Dawson, and at Five Fingers, about 200 miles above Dawson; placer copper exists in large quantities on the White River; copper ores have been found near White Horse; the Atlin district promises well; horses, cattle, and sheep will shortly be supported in the country itself, and vegetables and other produce will be raised.

It only remains to be seen whether the cost of production can be so far diminished that this far northwestern Territory will be able to compete with other regions which are more favorably situated.

That the inhabitants have the necessary enterprise and energy I know from what I have seen of them. It is, in fact, most interesting to note how in this isolated country native grit and intelligence have brought the best men to the front. One naturally associates the element of luck with placer mining, and no doubt many fortunes were made and lost by sudden strokes of chance. But in no mining district have previous experience and knowledge been of less avail. The conditions were so strange, that the old and experienced miners sometimes made the worst mistakes, and the men who succeeded were those who were sufficiently alert and intelligent to adapt themselves to the new conditions. One finds among the leading miners—men who have come from all places and from all classes of society—men who two or three years ago were workmen, hotel clerks, store assistants, or farmers.

I cannot conclude without a word of tribute to the magnificent work which has been done by the Canadian Northwest Mounted Police, and the excellent way in which the inhabitants have settled down under their rule. A mere handful of this fine military force have sufficed to introduce law and order into the country, from the time of the great rush in 1897. The perfect quiet which prevails, and has always prevailed, on the Canadian side of the frontier contrasts most favorably with the lawless scenes that took place till recently at Skagway and other places in American territory. Even the disorderly population which migrated into Klondike seemed to lose its character on Canadian territory, and the six-shooter was no more seen.

I doubt whether any better example exists of the manner in which, in any part of the world, the finest features of British character will prevail—the firmness, good temper, and love of order which are the dominant characteristics of our most successful colonists.

  1. Read before the Royal Institution of Great Britain, on February 28, 1902.