fond memories of life at bear creek

As we sat in their top-floor apartment overlooking downtown Whitehorse, Basil and Daphne Charman shared their reminiscences of life at Bear Creek…

As we sat in their top-floor apartment overlooking downtown Whitehorse, Basil and Daphne Charman shared their reminiscences of life at Bear Creek with me.

It’s been more than 40 years since the company that was once the Yukon’s largest employer shut down in 1966.

“We brought the things to Whitehorse that we should have left behind,” said Basil, “And we left behind the things we should have brought.”

But their memories of life in Bear Creek, the community that once housed the staff of the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation (also known as the YCGC), are still vivid.

Bear Creek is located 12 kilometres from Dawson in the Klondike River valley, nestled into the dredge tailings near the mouth of the creek of the same name.

Daphne tells me that it was a great place to live, and a great place to raise a family.

The men worked Monday through Friday and half days on Saturday while the women stayed home and took care of the kids. The hours were long and the work was very structured.

Most didn’t have automobiles, so even the trip into Dawson City was an exceptional event.

There were no computers; telephone was a local network. The radio station was a local operation and the social welfare net wasn’t there to catch you if you fell. But over the past year, I have heard them describe to me what life was like in this small community built on gold dredging.

Basil first came to work for the YCGC in April of 1948, and his new bride Daphne, whom he had married in October of the previous year, followed him a month later.

Their first home, perched above the industrial complex that had grown up at the mouth of Bear Creek, had outdoor plumbing and no running water.

The building cost them $400 and was about four metres square. They purchased a second cabin, which they attached to the back of the first as a bedroom.

At first, Basil received the labourer’s wage of $1 an hour, and the work was seasonal, from April through November. He cut firewood and did odd jobs in the winter.

The businesses in Dawson carried the seasonal employees through the winter on credit until they could start working again in the spring.

He spent a year working at Granville about 80 kilometres away, and another in the warehouse at Bear Creek.

Life got better when he began working year round.

Basil got a job in the gigantic machine shop, which was the centrepiece for the entire Bear Creek operation. Bud Rogers, the shop foreman, and Teddy Ashton taught him to be a machinist, but he learned many other things that were required to keep the company running smoothly.

Once Basil became a full-time employee, the couple moved into housing on what was known as “The Island,” which was an area of undredged ground on the opposite bank of the Klondike River, which once ran beside Bear Creek before the dredges moved the river to the far side of the valley.

Electricity, which was provided by the company, cost $2.50 a month, and was reliable except in the fall, when the slush ice in the water supply interfered with generation of current by the big turbines.

Their house had only a 30-Amp service, which meant that if they were heating food on the electric hot plate, they had to be careful not to run any water, as the pump would place too much of a strain on the system, and the fuse would blow.

But Daphne, who was raised on a farm didn’t mind.

When they lived in their first Bear Creek cabin, Basil would bring home, in 22.7-litre pails carried with a shoulder yoke, water supplied from a tap in the machine shop.

When they moved onto the Island, they were supplied with cold running water.

Telephone cost $1.25 a month, if you could afford it, and operated on a party line. Each household had its own sequence of rings so that when the phone rang, you would know who was to answer the call.

There were as many as a dozen men working in the big machine shop, which continued to operate through the winter to repair faulty equipment and parts in preparation for the busy summer season.

Basil spent 90 per cent of his time working on the lathe. If one of the welders repaired a broken shaft, it would then come to him, and he would then trim the excess material off the surface until it was smoothed precisely to the desired dimension.

Even today, the machine shop at Bear Creek is an impressive site. Long and dark inside, with a high ceiling, it is still filled with the countless vestiges of its busy working days.

In one corner, row upon row of blacksmithing tools hang on racks on the walls, surrounding a large forge and a gigantic mechanical hammer, which was used to shape pieces of red-hot steel into useful machinery parts.

Farther inside the building is the area where the welders worked; opposite that is the babbit area, where special alloys were poured into bearings to reduce friction.

A small tool room is filled with cupboards and shelves upon which rest rows of chisels and drill bits and countless tools, each with its specific function.

I can visualize Basil retrieving the tools he needed for his work from this room.

In the centre of the building stands the pit, which once housed a 900-tonne press, which would slip massive shafts into place on the large digging ladder tumblers. Before this machine was installed, they sweated these parts together outside by the big crane.

At the far end of the building were the drill presses and the various sizes of lathes. The largest of the lathes was five metres long, and dwarfed the stature of the men who worked at it. These lathes were the tools of Basil’s trade, tools that he came to know intimately during his many years with the company.

By sharing their personal knowledge and memories from their years of work for YCGC, people like Basil and Daphne Charman are helping to make these buildings and the inanimate objects they contain come alive for following generations, and we thank them.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.