history that came from the deep

As the curator of collections for Parks Canada in Dawson City, I developed exhibits with message lines consistent with the commemoration of the site. But then, something interesting would come out of the blue.

As the curator of collections for Parks Canada in Dawson City, I developed exhibits with message lines consistent with the commemoration of the site. But then, something interesting would come out of the blue.

It would start with a telephone call, or someone walking into the office at the most unexpected time. They had found something unusual – were we interested?

Do you remember when old silent movie films were uncovered during some construction work back in 1978? How about the more recent discovery that occurred when the remains of several hanged murderers were uncovered while the new sewage treatment plant was being built in Dawson? These were both surprise discoveries.

Other objects have been uncovered during stripping and mining on the creeks around Dawson. Mining tools and clothing often emerged from the permafrost. One miner even found a pair of vintage Levis jeans in a mine shaft. That conjured up visions of a early-day miner working in the depths of his mine without any pants!

The old log cribbing from shafts and drifts of old mine diggings was often exposed as the gravels were stripped away by modern mine operations. This illustrated how they mined underground in the early days. Other miners have uncovered animals in some of the old diggings. A horse was uncovered from an old shaft at one placer mine, and a moose was found far underground in another.

Most of the old diggings filled in with water and were abandoned. They quickly froze solid so that a century later, long rectangular ice lenses would be exposed. A few, however, remained dry, so that you could still see the old tunnels and galleries much as they appeared when the last miner left many decades before.

Some curious things have been captured in the sluice boxes of the Klondike goldfields in recent years. There were spent bullets and buckshot and curious little fragments of steel shaped like tiny pyramids. Those pyramids proved to be the tips broken off picks during underground mining. Blacksmiths were kept busy repairing the broken picks, but the little tip fragments were lost in the gravels, only to be uncovered when trapped in the sluice box a century later.

One of the most interesting such discoveries for me occurred on the Hunker Creek Claim No. 41 Below Discovery. Placer miner David Gould asked if I wanted to come to his claim to see what had been uncovered. Valerie Thorp, the site conservator, accompanied me.

What we found was an old hand-made wooden wheelbarrow, encased in ice about five metres below the current surface. The front of the barrow was partially exposed and bent out of shape where the excavator bucket first made contact. Aside from the physical scrapes, the artifact was perfectly preserved.

We monitored the find until all the ice had melted, and thanks to Gould’s generosity, we were able to take the wheelbarrow back to our laboratory. After it was cleaned and thoroughly examined, we realized that this object was ingeniously hand made from available materials.

Old photos of the early days reveal both the use of wheelbarrows and the working conditions in the frozen gravels. Fire or steam were used to soften the granite-hard frozen deposits, which were chipped out with pick and shovel and hauled to the shaft where a windlass would hoist the thawed paydirt to the surface.

While many miners dug in cramped spaces, often working lying on the frozen bedrock, others had enough room to manoeuvre a wheelbarrow in roomy underground chambers. Most worked by candlelight in temperatures that stayed below freezing.

The wheelbarrow became part of an exhibit that included photos to illustrate the use of wheelbarrows in the old days. Text explained the nature of the find. The exhibit was installed at Bear Creek and seen by thousands of visitors for almost two decades. Last year, at the opening of the outdoor mining display at the Discovery Claim on Bonanza Creek, I noticed that a carefully crafted replica of that wheelbarrow had been used to illustrate early hand mining in one of the display modules.

Another interesting discovery, made in the fall of 1986, was visible from my office window in the old courthouse building on Front Street in Dawson. The river level had fallen with the colder weather, exposing old sandbars that were normally underwater. While scraping the exposed river bottom in preparation for the dike that was to be built around the town, workmen uncovered a cache of old rusting rifles.

I had heard many stories from old-timers in the community of entire buildings being emptied of their contents, which were dumped unceremoniously into the Yukon River, but this was my first proof of the practice.

What were they, and how did end up on the bottom of the Yukon?

David Ross, our military curator in Winnipeg, answered the first question. When the Yukon Field Force was dispatched to Fort Selkirk in 1898 to assist the mounted police, they were issued Lee-Enfield rifles. The 203 officers and men were then transferred to Dawson City, and when they departed in June of 1900, they left the weapons behind.

The question of how the rifles came to be buried in the river was answered during a visit by a retired Mountie who had been stationed in Dawson City in the 1920s. One of the tasks he was assigned by the commanding officer was to take the rifles, which had been stored since the gold rush, and dump them there.

Our conservator had taken one of the least crumpled rifles and stabilized its condition. Meanwhile, our Winnipeg curator acquired a similar rifle in good shape, along with some other related artifacts, and provided us with some photographs and text to explain the story of the rifles and how they came to Dawson in the first place.

The exhibit with the two rifles was installed in an old mercantile display case and placed in the visitor reception centre in Dawson. There, tens of thousands of visitors had a chance to view these remarkable objects and at the same time learn a little bit of gold rush history.

So when you uncover something old and unexpected, don’t throw it away. There are museums in almost every community with curious and imaginative staff who can unravel their mysteries and turn these finds into remarkable displays.

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