An archeologist looks through finds during a recent excavation in Skagway, Alaska. (National Park Service/S.Spatz)

Archaeologist salvages Skagway’s Gold Rush history by sifting through trash

Newly unearthed site Chilkoot Trail site was at risk of washing away

The bustling visitors centre in Skagway is often the first stop for the 10,000 cruise ship tourists that descend on the town every day. Smiling National Park Service rangers, in their Smokey the Bear hats, direct visitors to tours and museums that tell the enduring story of the Klondike Gold Rush.

It’s a story that evolves with each passing year.

Looking back in time at the lives of people who lived more than 100 years ago is made possible by the job of one man. With his blue denim jeans, casual orange shirt and the tan of a person who spends his time outdoors, Shawn Jones, stands out in a room of grey-shirted, green-trousered park rangers.

Jones is an archaeologist with the National Park Service. He specializes in historical archaeology and has been digging around Skagway since 2009. Excavations are a part of Jones’ job but when dealing with relatively recent history of the Gold Rush, they aren’t always necessary.

“Most of our sites are above ground so we do a lot of surface surveys,” said Jones.

That includes routine assessments of existing historical sites in the park’s four main units: Skagway, Chilkoot Trail, White Pass Trail and Dyea, a town abandoned when the railroad connecting Skagway to Whitehorse was completed.

But a tip from a local hiking guide led to an unscheduled safety check on a historical site half a mile up the Chilkoot Trail. The site, Kenny Bridge Complex, was a 150-metre bridge that crosses the Taiya River, enabling travellers to bypass a steep hill and take a wagon road all the way to Canyon City. The tipster alerted Jones and his team to erosion cutting into the banks of the river, slowly eating away the remains of the buildings at the entrance of the bridge.

“Nature was going to take it back and is currently taking it back,” Jones said. “There’s no point fighting Mother Nature.”

Although the complex was discovered in the 1980s, not much was known about why the structures existed in the first place. Jones and his team decided to excavate and learn as much as they could before it was lost forever.

Accompanying the bridge were a handful of buildings, the largest one right at the beginning of the bridge.

“We knew the large structure was used as a tollbooth but had no other clue about what was going on in there,” he said. But Jones and his team found most of their information]in an unlikely of place: the trash pit.

“A lot of the time, we find the best data in the worst places,” he said.

They unearthed an oil cloth for lining cupboards, pieces of wallpaper, bits of clothing belonging to women and children and a pair of ice tongs. This may seem like an assortment of random items that mean nothing but for Jones, they tell a story.

“If you’re a dirty gold-rusher who’s just coming up to throw a log building to make it through the next year, you’re not going to put up a wallpaper or try to make it pretty inside,” he said.

Jones discerned that a family lived there and were probably well-to-do considering they actually had ice and ice-tongs to serve it.

“If you have ice tongs, you’re entertaining people and bringing them over for drinks. You wouldn’t use ice tongs for your family,” said Jones. He also discovered a number of milk and bean cans, along with large beautiful ink wells.

“This tells us that they were most likely also running a mercantile out of this building as well, selling goods or foods,” he said. “To have bulk ink, they’re either selling ink to the gold rushers or using it to keep ledgers of what they’re selling.”

Finding ink containers that might have carried the same ink on letters that stampeders sent back home was a highlight for Jones. In a nearby structure, his team found rock chisels with little scientific glass vials. He believes someone must have been living there and testing every mineral they could find for gold.

“There was a lot going on in this little seven-to-10-structure spot,” he said.

But if the Kenny Bridge Complex was impacted by erosion, what about the other sites on the trail? The team decided to conduct a vulnerability assessment of the neighboring sites including the summit.

“Some of the snow patches near the summit were melting after thousands of years. The purpose was to survey the snowmelt to see how it was affecting our erosion problems,” he said.

But the survey quickly turned into a rare archaeological discovery. They uncovered a stick about 50 to 60 centimetres in length, three centimeters in diameter with a conical edge. A photograph of it was sent to Greg Hare, a Yukon archaeologist, specializing in snow melt research and Richard Vanderhoek, chief archaeologist in Alaska.

Jones didn’t think too much about the stick, until Vanderhoek and Hare excitedly informed him that it might be an atlatl, an ancient hunting weapon that pre-dated the bow and arrow.

“An atlatl works like a dog Chuckit. It’s essentially an extension to your arm to give you more velocity,” said Jones, proclaiming himself a geeky nerd as he enthusiastically explained the impressive technology.

“If you attach a dart, you could easily strike game, like, 300 meters away,” he said. The other end of the stick is shattered, leading Jones to believe that it might have been damaged on impact. The only way to confirm the theory is to date the stick.

“We applied to go and retrieve the artifact and date it. It could be historic or prehistoric, we don’t know yet,” he said.

Along with the stick, they also discovered five new historical sites. He expects to find more such sites when they conduct their upcoming surveys of the White Pass Trail, the least explored of the four sites. The discoveries could mean an even more exciting future for the park.

Contact Sharon Nadeem at sharon.nadeem@yukon-news.com & Andrew Seal at andrew.seal@yukon-news.com