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Finding the story within a story: logging on the Yukon Ditch

It was an interview that I conducted 29 years ago. I was reminded of it when my wife Kathy and I met recently met former Dawson residents for coffee and conversation.

It was an interview that I conducted 29 years ago. I was reminded of it when my wife Kathy and I met recently met former Dawson residents for coffee and conversation.

Al and Lorraine Fisk were homeward bound to New Brunswick following an extended northern visit that took them as far as Dawson City. Al was the superintendent of Klondike National Historic Sites in Dawson City for 10 years back in the 1980s and 1990s.

Our interview back then took place during a lull between Christmas and New Year, 1986. Al referred to a photograph that we had looked at together back then. Returning home, I went to my files to see if I could locate the photograph in question. Fortunately, I had saved photocopies of the images we had looked at during our conversation three decades past. Sure enough, I found the picture in question. Taken in 1907 on the Twelve Mile River, north of Dawson City, it was part of a collection of photos taken to document the construction of the Yukon Ditch.

I have written in a previous column about the Yukon Ditch (“The Yukon Ditch was an engineering marvel,” Nov. 12, 2010). It was a major engineering project to generate electricity and direct water 110 kilometres from the Twelve Mile River to the placer mining on Bonanza Creek. Many of the photographs in this collection, however, related to the secondary work of converting logs into lumber for the massive construction project.

The 1907 photograph I refer to showed a man sitting on a plank chair in front of a canvas-covered tent frame. Behind him are spindly burnt-out spruce trees. In the background are more tent frames, and behind them a massive rocky ridge. This man had attempted to make his wilderness camp more homelike. In front of his tent, he had cleared a small plot and planted some flowers. A small yard was enclosed by a picket fence over which he had draped three flags: the Union Jack, the Red Ensign and the Stars and Stripes.

Al had remembered that the man in the photo was holding a copy of the Fredericton Daily Gleaner, which was published in New Brunswick, close to where he grew up. He must have been very observant; when I examined the photo in question, I had to enlarge it more than 300 per cent to see the banner across the top of the page. Back in 1986, we must have looked at it with a magnifying glass to note such a detail.

It was remarkable that he had retained such a minute detail from a single photograph from 50 that we had examined three decades ago!

Al had experience and schooling in forestry. In his younger days, horses were still being used for logging, so he learned the traditional logging methods. He had gone to forestry school during the 1950s and worked for a pulp and paper firm which operated from Cochrane, Ontario, as far north as James Bay.

Al said that he could tell from the air the difference between a logging operation that used horses, and one that used mechanical means for hauling the timber out of the bush. When logging with horses, he said, they selected and removed only mature trees from the forest. There was a wood lot back in New Brunswick near the tiny town of Pokiuk that was harvested this way. He said that they removed “a million feet” of lumber plus 15-20,000 cords of pulpwood from this plot every year, year after year, without depleting it.

By comparison, he said, when a plot of timber was harvested mechanically, every scrap of wood was stripped from it, in order to cover the high cost of the mechanized equipment that was employed. Prior to our interview, he had seen a New Brunswick wood lot that had been cleared in this modern fashion. The wood lot, he said, was bald. There was not even grass. “If that’s progress,” he said, “I don’t want any part of it.”

There were many lessons learned in that 29 year-old conversation, not the least of which was learning about the dark side of modern technology in a traditional industry. But the big lesson for me was about history. I learned that there were smaller historical lessons hidden within larger historical events.

The big event in this case was building a hydroelectric generating plant and a system for conveying large volumes of water from the Tombstone Mountains to mining operations on Bonanza Creek. There are excellent articles describing this project, most notably T.A. Rickard’s article from the Mining and Scientific Press (1909) titled “The Yukon Ditch.” The logging and lumber manufacturing that was set up to support the construction of the ditch was only mentioned in a few brief passages in this writing.

The ditch cost millions of dollars, employed upwards of 1600 to 1700 men, and continued over three years. A steam-powered sawmill was established on the right bank of the Twelve Mile River not far from where the power plant was constructed. The mill was situated near a stand of timber that was sufficient to supply the lumber required for construction of the ditch. The main need was for lumber to construct over 30 kilometres of wooden flume that carried water to Bonanza Creek. More than 16 thousand cubic metres (7,000,000 board feet) of lumber were milled before the stand of timber was depleted and the project finished.

I selected 48 photos that depicted the logging and sawmill operation from a collection of several hundred of the operations of the Yukon Gold Company. Together, Al and I went through the photos, with me asking questions, and he answering them. Our conversation was captured on tape while I carefully circled and numbered the features he pointed out to me in each image. Together, the interview and the notated photographs make up a powerful description of logging in the Klondike during the era of horse and steam. They represent a master class in historical description of technology from a bygone era.

There is more than one story that can be gleaned about the past in old historical photographs. In this case, the details of logging technology were hidden in plain sight in these photos; it only took the personal knowledge and experience of someone who grew up using these old techniques to bring the story to light.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at