It’s going to be very intense in Dawson City this week.
As they bend over, tense with anticipation, waiting for the starting signal, hundreds of panners from 22 countries are going for gold.
This is serious stuff as the best in the world converge for one week of competition and fun.
The World Gold Panning Championships are taking place in the Klondike capital from August 18th to 26th. As you read this, they will be narrowing the field of competitors to the very best for the finals.
This event continues a legacy of gold panning in the Yukon that’s more than 110 years old.
In the summer of 1896, Nova Scotian prospector Robert Henderson was testing the gravel of Gold Bottom Creek, just below King Solomon’s Dome, for gold.
Running short of supplies, he went back up to Ogilvie, Joe Ladue’s trading post at the mouth of the Sixtymile River on the Yukon, to replenish his outfit.
He returned via the mouth of the Klondike having left the news of his new discoveries with Ladue, who immediately and enthusiastically, spread the word.
Henderson touched shore at the mouth of the Klondike River. Surveying the small camp, the nets, and the fish curing, he saw American prospector George Carmack at a camp a short distance downstream where the Dawson visitor centre stands today.
Henderson hailed Carmack with the news of his find on Gold Bottom Creek. He explained that he was getting a good return for his efforts and invited Carmack to join him.
Henderson also told the American that his Indian relatives were not welcome, an unfriendly act that cost him dearly.
The next day Carmack, Skookum Jim and Jim’s nephew, Charlie, prepared small packs of provisions, and set out to see Henderson’s find.
Rather than follow the Klondike for several kilometres to where Henderson’s creek flowed into it from the south, they turned off at the first tributary to the right, a small stream known as Rabbit Creek, and ascended it, fighting the dense underbrush, and the thick clouds of mosquitoes, prospecting as they went.
At a point not far from what later became the Discovery Claim, Jim and Charlie panned 10 cents worth of gold from the streambed.
The men discussed this and decided that if they found nothing better on Gold Bottom Creek, they would come back to test the gravels more carefully.
George counselled the Indians not to say anything about their find. They would pass the word along to the Henderson party if the prospect panned out.
They climbed to high ground and followed the ridges to the east. They did not know it then, but the creek they had just left was later to become known as Eldorado.
From the ridge, they looked down into the canyon below and saw a wispy column of smoke rising from a tiny camp in the distance.
At Henderson’s camp they tested the prospect, and though finding nothing as promising as what they had just found on Rabbit Creek, they staked claims on Gold Bottom near Henderson’s quarry, and then left.
Before leaving, however, Henderson had an encounter with Jim and Charlie, which sealed his fate, dealing him out of the opportunity of a fortune.
Being nearly out of supplies, and sorely wanting some tobacco, the Indians offered to buy some from him. He declined. As Carmack said later: “His childish unreasoning prejudice would not even allow him to stake on the same creek with the despised ‘Siwashes’ so his obstinacy lost him a fortune.”
Carmack, Jim and Charlie returned to Rabbit Creek, prospecting while they went. After three days, they ran out of supplies.
Jim killed a moose and signaled the others; while he was waiting for them to arrive, he went to the creek to get a drink.
He saw gold in the bottom of the creek in greater quantities than he had ever seen before.
They tested the gravel and were able to fill a shotgun cartridge with gold. The next day, after having tested the stream up and down for some distance, Carmack flattened the sides of a small spruce tree in the middle of the valley, and on it, in pencil, he inscribed his claim.
Carmack took the Discovery Claim for himself and another one above it (#l Above Discovery) for Jim, then the claim below discovery for himself, and #2 Below Discovery for Charlie.
They immediately headed down the valley at top speed, floundering through the swampland, and arriving at the mouth of Rabbit Creek looking like “human pin cushions.”
There, they encountered four prospectors who had been directed to the Klondike by Ladue. Carmack redirected them up Rabbit Creek. At the mouth of the Klondike, they met two Frenchmen, and directed them, also, to Rabbit Creek.
Jim went back up Rabbit Creek to start working the claim while Carmack and Charlie headed for Fortymile, passing the word to more miners along the way, never sending word back to Henderson, who, oblivious to the excitement just over the ridge, was still working with his partners on Gold Bottom.
The two discoverers arrived in Fortymile on August 20th with word of their new find, first making their announcement in a saloon, then crossing over to the North West Mounted Police post to file.
The news of their discovery took root and by the next morning, the town of Fortymile was empty.
Ironically, Carmack was unable to file his claim at that time; he had insufficient funds to file. Inspector Constantine told him that if he had indeed found gold, he could go back to get enough gold to pay his fees.
After rushing to Fortymile, he and Charlie had to turn around and struggle back upstream to pan out their winter grubstake, and their filing fees.
Even before Carmack had returned from Fortymile, on August 22nd, 25 miners met on a hillside 2.4 kilometres below the Discovery claims.
There, in a miners’ meeting, they renamed Rabbit Creek “Bonanza,” and appointed a mining recorder. Someone produced a length of rope with which to measure the size of the claims.
Carmack and Charlie returned to Bonanza Creek as soon as they could, and commenced to mine their claims.
They constructed a low dam from which the water flowed out and down a short length of sluice box about three metres long, with pole riffles in the bottom.
Jim and Charlie hauled gravel on their backs in two small homemade boxes, from a bank 15 metres away, while Carmack tended the sluice box and removed the small amount of tailings, which were produced.
Most of the gold was lost from this primitive system; nevertheless, Carmack was recovering about five ounces per day, and within three weeks, had scooped up $1,400 worth of the precious metal, enough to cover the cost of his filing fee, and his winter grubstake.
Ladue was one of the first to arrive in the Klondike valley. Sensing from experience that a town would spring up at the mouth of the Klondike, he staked a 64-hectare town site.
Realizing there would be a tremendous demand for lumber, he sent his land application by messenger, while he went back to his post upriver at Ogilvie to move his sawmill and supplies downstream to the new town site.
Meanwhile, the steamer Arctic, of the Alaska Commercial Company, pushed up through the ice running in the river to the new town site to drop off 100 miners and a small amount of supplies.
Less than a month after Carmack’s discovery a new town site was created, which would soon be the hub of the greatest goldfield in Canadian history.
William Ogilvie named it after George Dawson, with whom he had explored the Yukon in 1887. The rest, of course, is history.
The gold panning championship is history in the making. Stay tuned for more news on that one.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.