The Yukon Valley was prospected for nearly a quarter century before the Klondike was discovered and thousands of hopeful people converged on the region during the gold rush. It has been prospected ever since.
Before the Klondike, prospectors poked around the sand bars and creek bottoms along the Yukon River and its tributaries hoping to make the next big find. From the bars along the Yukon, and then the Stewart River, their discoveries progressed to tributary creeks.
The first big discovery of gold was on the Fortymile River in 1886. A small stampede followed, and several hundred miners rushed to the area, prospecting and mining its bars and small feeder streams. A jumbled assemblage of log cabins grew at the mouth of the Fortymile River and supplied the miners upstream until the next big discovery, which was Birch Creek, in neighbouring Alaska, in 1892.
The town of Circle was born of that discovery and the mining that followed on the streams in the area. It wasn’t long before more gold was found in the Sixtymile region, especially on Glacier and Miller creeks. The population of miners moved from creek to creek, following the dream of the next big find. There were as many as 1,600 miners in the Yukon Valley when the Klondike was announced in 1896. The Klondike is still the biggest producer of placer gold in the Yukon more than 100 years later.
The Klondike assumed mythic proportions in the public consciousness, and many of the prospectors who came to the Klondike during the great stampede never left, content to work their claims in the goldfields and eke out a living by mucking for gold in the frozen gravels below. Others never stopped dreaming about making the next big discovery.
The quest for mineral discoveries wasn’t restricted to the Yukon Valley, or restricted to gold. The quest for riches in other parts of the territory also started before the Klondike. Rumours of copper deposits in the southwest Yukon trickled out to coastal Alaska years before the Klondike, bolstered by nuggets of native copper and the First Nation stories about more of the same in the land of the “white river.”
English explorer Edward Glave and frontiersman Jack Dalton ventured into this blind spot on the map in 1891, using the first pack horses ever brought into the Yukon. They wandered blindly about the region around Kluane Lake, but none of the resident population was overly eager to lead them to the legendary “white river.”
While Glave and Dalton were wandering about the southwest Yukon the summer of 1891, veteran Yukon explorer, American Frederick Schwatka, and a rookie geologist from the US Geological Survey named Charles Willard Hayes, ventured cross-country on foot from Fort Selkirk. Reaching the White River region, Schwatka reported a disappointing number of copper nuggets in Kletsan Creek.
Jack Dalton later made a number of trips into this region looking for copper, especially with a mine developer named Henry Bratnober, who was later involved in the establishment of the Kennicott mine in Alaska. American geologist Alfred H. Brooks travelled through the White River area in 1899, and while others explored the region looking for good prospects, no big mine was established.
During the height of the Klondike rush in 1897, gold was found in present-day Kluane National Park on Shorty and Alder creeks near Dezadeash Lake. A large syndicate of prospectors came in during 1898 and staked or bought up most of the claims on these creeks, but despite the initial flurry of interest and rumours of a big investment to follow, they failed to renew their claims the following year.
Shorty Creek was displaced by the next big gold discovery in the fall of 1898 – Porcupine Creek on the Dalton Trail below the Chilkat Pass. The Alaskan newspapers covered this discovery, even predicting that 15,000 miners would soon be there. The small town of Porcupine sprouted overnight, lasted a couple of years, and then was slowly abandoned. A few miners still work the creek today.
By the time that Porcupine was dwindling, new placer streams were discovered in the Kluane region. In late June of 1903, Skookum Jim, Dawson Charley and Jim Boss found gold on Ruby Creek, northwest of Whitehorse. Involvement of the original discoverers of the Klondike gave it credence; in short order, every horse in Whitehorse was bought up and a stampede of 500 prospectors headed to the Kluane district.
In the frenzy that followed, Ruby, Fourth of July, Twelfth of July, Allie, Dixie, McMillan, Lamoureaux, McKinley, Marshal and Granite Creeks were staked. In late September, a party of four miners from Porcupine including Morley Bones, who remained in the region for decades, staked Bullion Creek, a tributary of the Slims River. The four stakers on Bullion managed to recover 43 ounces of gold in nine days, before cold weather set in. Soon, Sheep Creek, Burwash and Gladstone creeks were the subject of interest as well.
News of the gold find on Bullion Creek started another stampede to the area in early spring, 1904. Three hundred men were reported to be in the district by May 11 and 2,000 claims staked in the region. The Daily Evening Star predicted that there would be 10,000 men in the region that summer. As many as 1200 men actually went there to prospect, but most left as soon as the season ended. The following year, the population in the area dwindled to less than a hundred, and then a mere 40 in 1906.
More than quarter of a million dollars was invested in a hydraulic operation on Bullion Creek, which, over three years, is reported to have yielded a meagre $1,000 in gold.
Mining continued on a small scale in the Kluane region over the ensuing years until gold was found in the Chisana region of Alaska in 1913, and then on Squaw Creek, a tributary of the Tatshenshini River near Dalton House, where Paddy Duncan from Klukshu discovered gold in 1927. By the following year, there was a consensus, reported in the Whitehorse Star, that Squaw Creek was the most important discovery since the gold rush. A total of $25,000 was taken from three claims on the creek that year.
In the ensuing 20 years, between 20 and 40 individuals mined Squaw Creek each summer, but never found a rich deposit like those uncovered in the Klondike.
Prospectors are passionate about finding the next gold, copper or other mineral seam, but especially gold. Basking in the aura of the great gold rush, always dreaming about locating the next big find, a small platoon of veteran miners has continued to explore stream gravels and rock outcrops throughout the Yukon to the present day.
For some, the hunt is everything and seeking the next big discovery may be just as important as finding it.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org