‘Empty cabins, haunting ghosts, loved the life that could not last,
Tattered curtains on the windows of the memories of the past.”
From: Tattered Curtains by Lana Rae
Old things often evoke strong feelings of a lyric past, as an old cabin with tattered curtains sparked award-winning Yukon musician Lana Rae to write a song about her personal encounter with history.
I had that experience too, many years ago. Inspired to take my wife Kathy out for a Sunday drive into the Klondike goldfields following a chance sighting from a helicopter the previous spring, I found myself driving up an overgrown road on Gold Run Creek.
Gold Run is a tributary of Dominion, near Granville.
Little was known about this creek when I first travelled there in 1982. It didn’t conjure up the tangible images of the gold rush, as did Eldorado and Bonanza Creek. In fact, like many of the creeks in the goldfields, there wasn’t much left but old boilers, artifacts scattered about and old rotting cabins with tattered curtains in the windows.
People had lived there, but who were they, and what was the life they lived?
I couldn’t see much because the brush had grown up along the side of the road, obscuring the landscape and hiding things from my view. It was Kathy who saw the cabin first, and when she brought it to my attention, I stopped the truck and climbed out of the truck to investigate
I clambered up the bank and through the roadside vegetation until I could get a better look. I didn’t know that this chance encounter would lead me to years of discovery on this tiny, anonymous tributary.
There, before me, lay the remains of an old mining claim. Before me, lay the tattered remnants of someone’s life.
Stimulated to discover and identify more of these remains, I applied for and received a small grant from the Canada Council to investigate the abandoned relics in the Klondike goldfields.
With Yukon photographer and friend Richard Hartmier, I set out to record the remains before they became victims of the renewed mining activity in the early ‘80s.
We travelled all over the goldfields taking pictures, talking to residents, and gathering a small, select sample of artifacts for the Dawson Museum.
But this site, for some visceral reason, drew me back many times. I sought answers from the remains.
Using my archeological background to guide me, I carefully photographed and recorded all of the artifacts: a small log cabin with an outhouse nearby; a woodpile and a collapsed shed, and a second, smaller log structure with a large steel boiler within its collapsing walls.
Nearby, was an abandoned mine shaft, now frozen in, from the mouth of which an old hand-made ladder protruded.
In the other direction was another similar shaft, but this one had a small homemade pipe boiler beside it, and various pieces of mining paraphernalia lay scattered about the boiler and the entrance to the shaft.
On the pile of tailings surrounding the shaft lay old sections of riffles and fluming.
I made a simple sketch map of the location of these features as well, and once I had compiled a description of the site in the report I prepared for the heritage branch of the Yukon government, I speculated about what went on here.
Based on all of the things abandoned at the site, I concluded that late in the 1940s, two men had spent the winter at this site, hand mining in the fashion employed in the early days of the gold rush.
I came to a number of other conclusions that turned out to be inaccurate, but that’s another story.
Checking the mining records, I learned that a miner named James Lanoff had purchased claim number 24 from another man in the 1930s, but I could find little about James Lanoff in the archives or any other written source.
This all changed when in a conversation with long time Yukon resident Earl Bennett.
I learned that he knew James (Jimmy) Lanoff; what’s more, they both worked for the Yukon Consolidate Gold Corporation, the company that dredged in the goldfields for decades.
To my astonishment, Earl told me that he had spent the winter of 1952, as a young man, mining with Jimmy Lanoff on this very claim. Over the next few years, we had several conversations about that winter and what went on that claim.
I learned that the little homemade boiler produced enough steam that they could direct it through a hose to the bottom of the mineshaft, where it was used to thaw the permanently frozen gravels that lay on bedrock.
There, over a period of several months that winter, Earl, labouring in ill-lit cramped conditions, filled wooden windlass buckets with the frozen material that Jimmy, working up top, hauled to the surface with a hand windlass greased with a slab of bacon.
They maintained a structured routine in which, each day, they extracted a hundred buckets of thawed paydirt and piled it up on the surface. Ten thousand buckets of material were dumped in anticipation of a spring “clean-up.”
Ironically, when spring came, they had to go back to work for the dredge company, and they never got to recover the gold from the gravels they had laboured for months to dig up.
When I stood on that tailing pile photographing the abandoned remains of their mine, I was actually standing on that pay gravel. It reminds me of the passage from Robert Service: “… it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting, so much as just finding the gold…”
Gold Run proved to be one of the richest creeks in the goldfields, and I speculate about how much of gold was hidden in that mound of gravel.
We’ll never know, because in 1988, Teck Corporation, which was mining the block of claims on which this amazing treasure was found, bulldozed everything aside in preparation for mining the ground below.
In fairness, the 10,000 buckets of pay were insignificant to a mining operation the scale of the one that Teck was operating. The material that two men had laboured so hard all winter to recover would have been processed in an hour by their modern screening plant used by the mining giant.
Since 1982, I have visited Gold Run Creek many times, documenting the remains that lay scattered up and down the valley, as well as recording the progress of the new era of mining as Teck systematically worked its way up the valley.
Never have I found another site that intrigued me as the one on claim number 24.
What remains is a record of what was there before it succumbed to the bulldozer’s blade.
I learned more about Jimmy Lanoff, though the story is not yet complete. He was probably of Russian extraction, and mined in the Klondike region for decades.
He was winch man on Dredge Number 9 on Sulphur Creek. When the dredging stopped because of the cold, Lanoff would go into Dawson where he loved to gamble at the Royal Alex Hotel.
After Christmas, he would go out to his claim on Gold Run to mine with his partner, but in 1952, his partner went outside for the winter, and young Bennett was recruited into the job.
Bill Diment, a resident of Marsh Lake, tells me that Lanoff almost married his mother, but backed out because of the age difference (nobody ever learned how old he really was). They remained good friends for many years. Lanoff even supported the Diment family while Bill’s father, Dick, received treatment for tuberculosis.
So a chance encounter with an abandoned mining claim on an obscure creek in the Klondike evoked strong images, but the story that continues to unfold about this site and the men who lived and worked there, is more touching, more genuine, if less exciting than anything that one could imagine.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.