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Boot Hill is all that survives of grandest town in the gold fields

Ed Jones is one of the most remarkable history hunters in the Yukon. He and his wife Star have carved out a sizeable niche in the study of Yukon's history.

Ed Jones is one of the most remarkable history hunters in the Yukon. He and his wife Star have carved out a sizeable niche in the study of Yukon’s history.

On Discovery Day this year, I found myself struggling up a steep, wet, tree-covered hill, trying to keep up with Ed, who was leading us unerringly to our destination: the Grand Forks cemetery.

For the last dozen years or so, Ed and Star, who first came to the Klondike 47 years ago, have devoted themselves, among other interesting projects, to recording the deaths of thousands of early Yukoners. With the help of many friends, they have restored numerous cemeteries in Dawson City and the gold fields.

This summer, Ed and Star chose the surviving remains of the Grand Forks cemetery as the target of their conservation efforts.

First of all, they expanded the inventory of surviving markers from two to six; next, they provided new supports for the markers so that they wouldn’t lie in the grass, rotting away. In some cases, special bases were manufactured and staked into the ground as supports for the markers.

Where the lettering was still visible on the markers, they in-filled them with fresh paint to both protect and emphasize the lettering.

All around me I could see mounds and depressions carved into the hillside. Ed estimates that as many as 130 people were buried on this hillside, which was about the only place in the vicinity that was safe from disturbance by mining.

One of the surviving markers, an unusual tall, cylindrical feature, was badly eaten away at the bottom by ants. Only the upper portion of the marker was sound. With help from local miner Jim Archibald, Ed fashioned a special wooden base, which was staked deep into the ground, to support the marker.

After the ant-ridden material was cut away, a metal plate was screwed into the sound wood at the bottom of the marker. This was then mounted on the base. Surely this would hold the remainder of the marker firmly in place, yet within weeks of installation, we saw that the marker had been pushed off of its base and tilted crazily.

We speculated that either bears, or vandals, were responsible for the damage. I prefer to think that a bear, rather than humans are at fault.

Looking down into the valley through the trees from this vantage point we could see two small streams, Eldorado and Bonanza, snaking their way along the valley bottoms to their confluence below us. There are piles of gravel tailings down there, now overgrown with willow that testifies to past mining activity.

All we could hear at the time of our visit was the quiet of the hills, the burbling water on rocks, and the voices of a couple shovelling the nearby gravels of the free claim sponsored by the Klondike Visitors Association. No mining machinery disturbed the stillness.

A derelict building collapsing into the hill by the side of the road is all that remains of what was once a bustling, dynamic community, the second largest in the Yukon.

When Dawson was at its peak, it had a population of at least 15,000; at Grand Forks, there were 4,000. So what happened to Grand Forks?

Nestled at the junction of Eldorado and Bonanza Creeks, “the Forks” was a natural place for people to gather.

While smaller settlements grew up at Gold Bottom, Caribou City, Gold Run, Bear Creek, Sulphur and Granville Creeks, Eldorado and Bonanza were the two most spectacular and richest creeks in the Klondike.

By 1897, the summer after the discovery of gold, there were already 30 or 40 buildings clustered there. Then, in the fall of 1897, Belinda Mulrooney, soon to be the undisputed business queen of the Klondike, built the Grand Forks Hotel.

Other businesses soon followed. The North American Transportation & Trading Company of Dawson had a branch store there, as did Oak Hall, the mens’ clothing store, and Dawson merchant Emil Mohr.

By 1900, there were at least ten hotels, including the Gold Hill, the Dewey, the Blanchard, Vendome, Butler, Garvie, Eldorado and the Grand.

Grand Forks could boast of two blacksmiths, three drug stores, including one owned by Walter Woodburn, who was, for a time, the closest thing that “the Forks” ever had to a mayor.

There were two butchers, a laundry, two freighting businesses and a livery stable. There were two photo studios, bakeries, restaurants and a variety of mercantile outlets appropriate for a town of such size.

At its peak there were 3,727 men, 283 women and 123 children.

The community could boast of a variety of services. It had a hospital, a doctor and a dentist. There was a branch of the Standard Circulating Library. There was a fire department, electricity, and telephone service (for $30 a month) that connected with Dawson City and the gold fields.

There were three churches, the Roman Catholic, the Anglican and the Presbyterian, the latter of which also provided space for a school until the government paid for one to be built in 1903, and hired a teacher.

Grand Forks had its own detachment of Mounted Police, and nearby, a red light district. There was a post office for the delivery of mail, under the official community name of “Bonanza.”

If Dawson had Joe Ladue, the Forks had its own king - Max Endelman, who owned much of the land and many of the businesses. Endelman imported Violet Raymond, an entertainer from Juneau, to be his mistress. Raymond was lured away from Endelman with gold and jewelry by Eldorado millionaire Antone Stander, and Endelman seemed to be too busy to care.

The Forks had a social life, with gambling, dancing, social events, sports, and of course, celebrating the Queen’s birthday on May 24th, followed some time later by Dominion Day (July 1st). The Fourth of July was also a favourite event; after all, there were plenty of Americans mining in the Klondike.

Grand Forks was accessible from Dawson by a government road. By 1905, the Klondike Mines Railway had been constructed, with a station at the Forks; this heralded the undoing of the town.

The railroad brought in much of the equipment used by the corporate mining interests, who were buying the claims along the creeks. The miners who sold out moved away, and by 1906, Grand Forks was in decline.

By 1911, the gold-mining dredges dug their way through town, so little remains today to remind us of the town that was once the hub of the gold fields.

But the dredges didn’t touch the cemetery, which was perched high up on the side of the hill, beyond their reach. Instead, it stayed there, neglected and almost totally forgotten, until only a few of the markers remained to remind us of the lives lived and concluded in this once bustling gold mining centre.

Michael Gates is a local historian

and sometimes adventurer

based in Whitehorse.