Yukon River: Bonanza
The quest for Klondike gold
Three members of the Wolf Clan of the Carcross-Tagish First Nation and a
non-Native relative were prospecting for gold near Dawson City in 1896. They
found it in the gravel of Rabbit Creek. The discoverers, Keish (Skookum Jim),
Shaaw Tláa (Kate Carmack), Káa Goox (Dawson Charlie) and George Carmack would
become rich from mining their discovery.
George Carmack renamed the stream Bonanza Creek, and the rush was on. People had been
mining small quantities of gold in the Yukon for 20 years. The 1896 strike was the first
big one. Other prospectors already in the region were quick to stake out claims to all
of the promising creeks.
In 1897, the first of the successful miners reached Seattle and San Francisco with their
new fortunes. News of the gold strike set off a stampede to the Yukon. With nearly all
of the gold fields already claimed before they left for the Yukon, few of the Stampeders
would make their fortunes.
Most of the Stampeders were Americans. The sudden arrival of more than 30,000 eager gold
seekers to the region of Dawson City was a challenge to Canadian authority in the sparsely-populated
Yukon. Canada's response — sending a detachment of North-West Mounted Police to the Yukon
— fostered another enduring image of Canada. The red-coated Mounties built much of their
legend maintaining law and order in the Yukon.
The mining claims were originally worked by many men wielding picks and shovels. In winter,
fires were made to thaw the frozen gravel. The gravel was carried in buckets to sluice
boxes. Creek water flowing through the sluice boxes separated the stone gravel from the
heavier gold nuggets and flakes that would sink to the bottom of the box and get caught
in wire screens. The lighter gravel was flushed out of the box.
The gold-bearing rock is 400 million years old and was broken up by stream erosion into
gravel containing gold nuggets and flakes. Because the Klondike region was not scoured
by glaciers, the gold bearing gravel was not dispersed. The extreme cold of the Ice Ages
held the precious gravel together.
Miners still uncover huge, 10,000-year-old tusks of woolly mammoths. The now-extinct,
woolly mammoth was a giant, elephant-like mammal common in the Yukon before the last ice
One-by-one, individual miners sold their claims to mining companies. The companies could
afford the big dredges used to strip the stream bottoms of gold-bearing gravel. The floating
dredges would dig their way upstream, sluicing the gravel as they went.
Large-scale gold mining ended in 1966. Yukon gold mining has become, once again, a small
business of stripping gravel from stream beds and washing it with creek water. Today's
miners use front-end loaders and sluice-boxes the size of trucks, but they are lucky to
make a modest living. Today, about 750 people work in about 200 small gold mines.
Modern miners are also hampered by tougher laws to protect the environment and by Native
claims to Yukon lands.
Dawson City's gold rush heyday is over, but it still prospers from the thousands of summer
tourists who come from Europe, Asia and the rest of North America to see this boom town,
carefully restored to its glory days of the Gold Rush.
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