The closer you get to Dawson City and other historic mining areas, the more signs you find that steam was the most important form of energy used a century ago.
If you drive out into the Klondike goldfields, and turn up any side road, you will eventually find the telltale signs of century-old mining. The most prominent indication is usually the remains of an old cabin and other structures; there were plenty of them because each placer mining claim is only 150 metres long.
Scan the dense surrounding overgrowth that has recaptured many of these long-abandoned places, and you will find the scattered rusting shells of old steam boilers and the bulky iron corpses of long-forgotten steam engines, pumps and hoists.
There used to be more of these sites scattered about, but both time and the resurgence of mining over the past three decades have taken their toll on the old remains. Even so, they have a story to tell.
The earliest mining in the Yukon was hand-powered. The traditional method of prospecting then, and now, is a matter of scrambling over the mountainous terrain, picking up specimens from exposed outcrops, or panning the gravel bottoms of thousands of tiny streams.
The pick and shovel were the basic tools of the trade. If a promising prospect was found, the necessary equipment could be fashioned from locally sawn wood with a small inventory of hand tools. Flumes, sluice boxes and rockers could be quickly and simply assembled to facilitate the extraction of free gold from the frozen ground.
Within a few years of the arrival of the first prospectors, they had perfected the technique of winter drift mining. This was a great advantage because this made it possible for them to extend their mining from a few warm summer months to a year-round enterprise. No longer did they have to lay idle in their crude log cabins during the long dark cold winter months suffering from boredom and cabin fever.
Drift mining was the process of sinking a vertical shaft into the unconsolidated, though frozen gravels of the valley bottoms until solid bedrock was reached. At that point, the miner changed direction and tunneled, or drifted, horizontally along the bedrock across the width of the valley bottom until, with any luck, the pay streak, gravel peppered with a rich concentration of gold, was found. This was, and still is, the prospector’s fantasy. The paydirt was hoisted to the surface by hand, using a crudely fashioned windlass.
Drift mining was grueling, exhausting toil with an improbable chance of success. In the Yukon, it was complicated by the presence of permafrost, which converted the loose, unconsolidated gravels into a compact, solid mass, hard as granite.
Working the frozen gravels had both advantages and disadvantages. Permafrost made it possible to excavate underground tunnels without timber cribbing to prevent it all from collapsing. The icy matrix was as hard as granite as long as it remained frozen.
The disadvantage was that the paydirt had to be thawed in order to remove it from the drift and hoist it to the surface. To thaw the ground properly required a certain skill at preparing and setting carefully controlled fires that would concentrate the heat on the frozen gravel that had to be thawed, without softening the surrounding excavation, causing it to cave in.
When the fire was set, the miner exited the excavation quickly until the fire died down and the tunnel cleared of smoke and deadly fumes. In the old days, this method of mining was slow, dirty, arduous work.
Once the riches of the Klondike were realized, miners started importing steam boilers and steam-powered machinery. These devices reduced the amount of hand labour necessary to get the gold from the ground. Steam-powered pumps removed water accumulating in the mine bottoms or elevated it for sluicing. Steam engines were used to power saws to cut wood to feed the boilers, or run windlasses of varying complexity, which hoisted gravel and moved it from one place to another.
Steam reduced the amount of costly manual labour, thus increasing the profitability of mining a claim. Simply put, it reduced overhead costs and increased revenue.
The Klondike deposits were discovered in 1896. By 1899, miners on all the creeks were importing steam devices of all shapes and sizes from sophisticated elevating bucket systems and steam shovels, to simple hoists. The innovation of a self-tripping bucket, known as a self-dumper, became the most popular tool of Klondike miners.
The steam-powered self-dumper was able to lift large buckets of pay gravel from a shaft or open pit, move it to where the paydirt was being stored for sluicing, then dump it in the pile, all untouched by human hands.
Steam could also be used to heat buildings and generate electricity, but perhaps its most significant application in those early days was for thawing frozen ground. This innovation came about, so the story goes, when, in the early days of the gold rush, claim holder Clarence Berry on Number 6 Eldorado noticed that escaping steam was thawing a pile of frozen gravel.
Improvising, he connected a steam hose to the gun barrel and shoved it into the frozen pile. The steam worked its miracle and thawed the heap, and so was born the steam thawing point. In no time at all, everyone had replaced the open fire with rows of custom-built steam thawing points to soften the permafrost for excavation.
When the dredges came into common use in the goldfields, entire sections of valley bottom in front of the dredges were punctured by hundreds of steam points, all thawing the ground through which the dredges were to pass. On this scale, a company would require thousands of cords of wood every year to feed the hungry boilers that produced the steam.
Before the internal combustion engine came into common use, steam powered just about everything in the Yukon. Being heavy and obsolete, hundred of pumps, hoists, and steam engines, some crudely fashioned, others massive engineering feats, were abandoned in the hills and valleys over hundreds of square miles.
Only the giant blades of today’s bulldozers, now reworking the ground mined 120 years ago, can erase them from the landscape.
They came from Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Victoria, British Columbia; some were made locally, and they all testify to the optimism and industry that followed the Klondike. Though lying abandoned on every creek and pup, they still speak to the hopes and dreams of the men who toiled for fortune a century ago.
It truly was the age of steam.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based