Dawson pioneer John Gould, one of the Yukon’s most passionate history hunters, died on Boxing Day in Dawson City. He was 92 years old.
John will be missed by many, and I’m one of them.
Everybody has their own memories of him, and only through the compilation of these stories will his complete legacy be calculated. Here, in part, is my contribution.
I first met John in 1977, when I was applying for the job of curator of collections at Klondike National Historic Sites in Dawson City. John welcomed me when I arrived in Dawson the following spring.
He became my mentor in mining history and technology, a topic that was completely new to me when I started my Parks Canada work. In the years that followed, he took me on field trips into the goldfields to visit various abandoned mining sites and examine derelict artifacts. He patiently introduced me to the workings of placer mining, and the purpose for all of the strange pieces of abandoned equipment lying abandoned about the countryside.
I had driven into the goldfields on my own, tentatively exploring the dirt roads and back trails, but with John as guide, I revisited the same places and learned to understand the meaning of the scars on the landscape. What to me had seemed rough and isolated country proved to be a living museum of the early mining in the Klondike. I just needed John to help me to see it.
While we worked together at Parks Canada, John, who was curator of mining technology, conducted surveys in the Klondike goldfields, locating, recording and explaining many of the mysterious features found there. This project, was, in part, translated into a manuscript on the early gold mining, and finally into his book, Frozen Gold.
The legacy of his goldfields work was a detailed inventory of the old mine workings, artifacts and communities, most of which have since been obliterated by recent mining. John’s legacy for me was that the abandoned piles of junk spread across the landscape acquired meaning and took on a human face.
Another of the diverse projects that John became involved in was the old Ridge Road. This was the government road built in the early days on the spine of one of the ridges radiating out from King Solomon’s Dome. I remember when he loaded up his pack at least 30 years ago and, accompanied by Linda Bierlmeier and Sylvie Gammie, spent a weekend following the overgrown route built long ago to provide better transportation to the mines outside of Dawson. John championed this trail, which descended from the summit above Bonanza Creek into the Callison industrial area just outside of Dawson. Almost 20 years later, I joined him and members of the community in celebrating the opening of the Ridge Road Trail, which had been cleared and developed by the territorial government.
John earned his credentials in the study of mining technology by doing it, rather than by merely reading about it. His father had mined on Nugget Hill, above Hunker Creek, for many years and John, who had grown up among the rocks and forest situated there, continued the family tradition. My wife Kathy and I visited John and his wife Madeleine on their claim many times over the years. I remember one visit when he and his brother Alan were preparing a piece of ground for sluicing. They had ingeniously developed a ditch and reservoir system, above the area they were clearing, which stored the water they needed to wash away the overburden above bedrock.
I was taken by the simplicity of the arrangement, which only required gravity, and not pumps, to provide the water pressure to wash away the muck. John sat atop a small John Deere bulldozer while Alan handled the hydraulic monitor.
On another occasion, in 1998, we took a trip on the Fortymile River as a centennial project. With Larry Taylor, a local Fortymile resident as our guide, John, Bill Berry (nephew of the Klondike king Clarence Berry) and I explored the old cabins and mine workings on the Fortymile and its tributaries. Whenever our riverboat landed, John would climb out and quickly start exploring the vicinity. I had a hard time keeping up with him as he clambered through the heavy vegetation and climbed the steep hills flanking the river. At the time, John was just shy of 80 years old!
It is further testament to his nature that, despite his age, he was the only member of our party that Taylor was willing to take through the heavy rapids on the Fortymile in his river boat. Bill and I had to get out and walk around.
John Gould was one of the mainstays of the Klondyke Centennial Society, which championed many projects during the 1990s. He advocated the placement of a statue on the Dawson waterfront that honoured the miner – and saw it done. The Centennial Committee also petitioned the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, who responded by declaring the Discovery Claim on Bonanza Creek a site of national historic importance.
The Centennial Committee, in partnership with the government of Yukon and Parks Canada, opened an exhibit on the original four Discovery claims on Bonanza Creek, explaining early mining history and mining technology in August of last year. The exhibit had been conceived in the 1970s, and I believe that John was the guiding spirit that brought the project to its completion nearly 40 years later. This was his final success.
But John Gould’s historic interests were not limited to the goldfields. For many decades, he was actively involved with the Dawson City Museum. He inspired many projects there, and during the 1990s acted as a Klondike ambassador, accompanying a major travelling exhibit, developed by the Dawson Museum, to points all over the continent. Visitors who came to the Dawson City Museum seeking information about a relative who once lived in the Klondike were frequently referred to John, who held a vast amount of community knowledge in his memory banks. These inquiries often culminated with him guiding them to a claim on a tiny creek somewhere in the goldfields. He did all of this with patience and good humour.
John received much of the credit for getting his childhood school chum and long time friend Pierre Berton to invest in the restoration of his Dawson home. This led to the establishment of the Berton House for visiting writers, a highly successful investment in the community and in the arts. It was like him to be involved in so many projects in the community. He was a quiet and positive force in making historical things happen.
John also took countless photographs of the Klondike region. I spent some time with him a couple of years ago, during which he showed me pictures he had taken of the cat trains that supplied the oil exploration on the Eagle Plains in the 1950s. We assembled some of them into a slide show and composed a narrative to accompany them. I hope that his collection of photographs remains in Dawson and contributes to the history of the community.
He was patient and persistent, and saw many of his ideas come to fruition during his 92 years. With gentle good humour, he encouraged and inspired others in their pursuit of Klondike history.
John Gould was involved in so many facets of Dawson history that it will be hard to measure his impact. He was the heart and soul of community history in the gold rush town, and his passing leaves a gap that will never be filled.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book History Hunting in the Yukon, is now available. You can contact him at email@example.com.