Library donation opens door to history

I learned recently of the donation made by the Yukon Chamber of Mines of a collection of rare books and reports to the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources library.

I learned recently of the donation made by the Yukon Chamber of Mines of a collection of rare books and reports to the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources library.

The collection had been housed at the office of the Chamber on Strickland Street and Third Avenue before the donation. I visited the office and spoke to Michael Kokiw, the executive director of the Chamber. He showed me the room where they were once shelved and explained that it was not suitable for such a valuable collection of reference books.

Kokiw referred to the fluctuating conditions in the room. One cabinet of books often had condensation on the inside of the glass doors. Books were getting mouldy. They were obviously in need of better conditions and care.

Not only that, the library was not easily accessible to the public where it was, so at a meeting of the board of directors, it was agreed to donate them to the EMR library.

I dropped in to the EMR library, located on the third floor of the Elijah Smith Building to learn more about this donation. The library is one of the excellent reference centres in the Yukon, and if you are looking for information related to geological or resource studies, this should be one of your first stops.

According to Brad Cathers, minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, “This donation is a great addition to the library’s existing collection of materials relating to engineering, geology, placer mining and mineral exploration. Everyone from prospectors to history buffs can visit the library and learn more about exploration and mining work done in Yukon.”

I’m one history buff who would agree. I talked to Anna Pearson, an EMR librarian, who showed me some of the newly acquired volumes that have already been added to the shelves. The Chamber donation filled in the gaps in the library’s holdings she told me, so there is now a complete set of bound Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) reports related to the Yukon.

There are also some rare and one-off volumes, including Chamber of Mines reports on the Yukon mining industry, and a number of 19th Century volumes on geology and prospecting. Pearson speculated that one of these, the 1897 Prospector’s Handbook, may have come in to the Yukon during the gold rush days in some prospector’s outfit. I mentally note that he may have given up in despair and returned home, leaving his belongings – and the book – behind.

Another volume is Hugh Bostock’s memoir, titled Pack Horse Tracks. This title is so rare that a couple of copies have disappeared from their shelves. The copy donated by the Chamber not only replaces the missing title, but is also signed by the author. Books like his put a personal face on the mining industry, and tell us more than the technical facts.

Bostock is something of an icon in the mining field in the Yukon. Through the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, he travelled by pack horse to every corner of the Yukon, writing reports on the geology and the mining industry in the territory for miners and prospectors alike. His 1933 compilation of GSC reports is standard fare for anyone who wants to study the geology, or the mining history in the Yukon.

Pack Horse Tracks is a personal narrative of his numerous field trips in the Yukon from his first visit in 1931 till he escorted His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh on a tour of the Yukon in 1954. It is filled with encounters with many of the people who lived here at the time, and describes his experiences while travelling through the Yukon wilderness. The photographs and numerous Bostock drawings detail the trail life and many places he visited.

In a word, his memoir puts a human face on the rather technical body of geological information.

I have come across a number of fascinating narratives of early travel by geologists and surveyors in the Yukon that make the history come alive. George Dawson’s accounts of his travels through the Yukon in 1887 give day to day renderings of where he went, what he saw and who he met. Dawson came away from his one trip to the Yukon announcing that there would be a big find there someday. Nine years later, he was proven right.

William Ogilvie captured life in the pre-gold rush days in his colourful and engrossing volume, Early Days on the Yukon. Ogilvie was here when Skookum Jim discovered gold on Rabbit Creek (Later Bonanza), and he surveyed the town site for Dawson, and unravelled the confusion of the early staking on Bonanza Creek. There aren’t better narratives of the early days than his.

A personal favourite of mine from the early days is J.J. McArthur’s account of his survey of the Dalton Trail in 1897. At that time, it was thought that it would be the prime route for a road or railway into the Yukon.

McArthur and his survey team accompanied Jack Dalton and a herd of cattle from Pyramid Harbour, near Haines, Alaska, over the Chilkat summit and north to Hutchi, which is a small village about 60 kilometres north of Champagne, then west and north past Aishihik Lake, all the way to Fort Selkirk.

According to McArthur, “We had mosquitoes boiled with rice, fried with bacon, warmed with beans, and in fact everything had more than a flavouring of mosquitoes. At first we attempted to pick them out of the food, but for every one we picked out, two would drop in. We soon got used to swallowing them, and I think some of us were almost glad of the chance to get even.”

He further describes the arrival of his pack train at Dalton’s trading post 160 kilometres from the coast, and Dalton’s trade with the Southern Tutchone residents. As they move farther along the trail, Dalton once took his blanket and slept on the trail a short distance from camp to ensure that the animals didn’t wander off in the middle of the night!

Bostock, Dawson, Ogilvie and McArthur are a few of the historical gems unearthed from the shelves of the EMR Library.

If you have the interest, and the opportunity, take some time to visit the Energy, Mines and Resources library and explore the fascinating accounts of geology in the early days. You may find something that you can’t stop reading. And if you have old books relating to mining, geology, or even farming and forestry in the Yukon, don’t throw them away. Make a donation to the library so that they can share them with the public and make their collection even more complete.

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