Memories of Bear Creek wanted

For three brief years, Dawson City was the epicentre of excitement. Ground zero for the Klondike Gold Rush. The Paris of the North.

For three brief years, Dawson City was the epicentre of excitement.

Ground zero for the Klondike Gold Rush.

The Paris of the North.

For six decades after that, it slowly sank into the shadow of its smaller but very influential neighbour, Bear Creek.

In fact, Dawson City became a company town.

If you talk to the oldtimers, I learned, you quickly understood that they knew it simply as “The Company,” though it was known officially as the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation, or YCGC.

The riches of the Klondike were released from the frozen ground with the greatest of effort.

In the earliest years of the gold rush, this was accomplished by human sweat and hard labour, but only the richest ground could make you rich in this way.

Eventually, the miners worked out less productive ground, using more efficient steam technology, but there was still plenty of gold locked in the icy Klondike gravel.

The problem was, to make money mining this marginal gravel it took massive, sophisticated machinery, large tracts of land and piles of money. That’s where the big capitalists became involved.

Spurred on by two great entrepreneurs, Joe Boyle, and Arthur N.C. Treadgold, big money interests from the United States started investing in the gold fields.

They built hydro projects, and huge water diversions, massive dredges and support camps to keep everything running.

Despite being great promoters, neither Boyle nor Treadgold proved to be inspired managers, and by the 1920s the big dredging interests were in a state of chaos — in particular the Canadian Klondike Mining Company, centered at Bear Creek.

Eventually, through various deals and corporate manoeuvrings, all of the different mining interests were assembled under one gigantic corporate monopoly, and thus was born the YCGC.

The doubling of the price of gold in the 1930s was a shot in the arm for the interests of the YCGC, which invested in extensive testing to locate and prove the extent of the gold trapped in the ground, and constructed a fleet of new dredges to replace the aging machines built two decades before.

By the late 1930s, YCGC had a fleet of 10 dredges working in the goldfields, and 700 employees at peak operation.

A fifth of these, the most skilled and highly trained, worked and lived at Bear Creek.

Dawson City functioned completely in harmony with the YCGC, who was the biggest customer and biggest employer in the Yukon.

After the layoffs in the fall, local businesses carried employees on credit through the winter, expecting them to return to the payroll in the spring.

For other employees, company paycheques went directly into the bank, which paid bills submitted by local businesses.

In the 1930s, YCGC became the largest dredging company in Canada.

Power generated at the North Fork and Twelve Mile plants was distributed to the main camp at Bear Creek, the thawing and dredging operations in the goldfields, as well as Dawson City.

I have heard many Dawson residents from this era complain of the poor quality and restricted hours of distribution of electricity to their homes.

The company operated their dredges and had large crews throughout the goldfields thawing the frozen ground in advance of the large monsters chewing up the gravels to recover the gold.

A transportation network tied them all together.

Meanwhile, Bear Creek was the operational headquarters that serviced the equipment and kept everything running.

During the short dredging season, everything had to be kept running to make a profit. In the winter, a small crew of skilled tradesmen repaired and replaced worn out parts.

Located at Bear Creek were shops for sheet metal work, carpentry, blacksmithing and machining.

Bear Creek was where the accounting books were kept, and the engineering plans drawn up.

Because of its isolated location in the North, materials and spare parts weren’t readily available, so the company stored large quantities of raw materials and spare parts to replace broken ones.

Gold recovered from the dredges was brought to Bear Creek in its raw form where, in a special smelting facility called the Gold Room, it was separated from impurities and melted down into ingots.

The millions of cubic yards of gravel processed by the dredges was reduced to a few small, heavy bars of pure gold.

Homes were provided for the senior staff and the skilled craftsmen working at Bear Creek.

The company provided tennis courts, garden plots and a ball diamond.

They stored employee perishables in refrigerated space in one of the buildings.

Later, a community hall and curling rink were added to the social amenities.

I heard former residents talk fondly of the Tom and Jerry parties at Christmas (Do any of my readers remember these?).

Bear Creek was a vibrant corporate community, which kept Dawson from becoming a ghost town through the lean years and survived as long as the company continued to operate.

In 1966, after more than 60 years, dredging ceased in the Klondike.

Bear Creek was abandoned, the calendars on the walls forever displaying the month of November.

Nine years later, it was purchased by Parks Canada, which has adapted some of the old buildings to support its historical restoration work at Dredge Number 4 and Dawson City.

For years, it was open to the public for guided tours, but that is no longer the case.

Many of the 60 or so old buildings now lie abandoned, their shelves filled and walls covered with the paraphernalia of bygone technologies.

As time passes and the buildings age, things don’t look good for their survival.

The team of Parks Canada staff are now looking at the future of Bear Creek, and the preservation of its past, but they can’t do it alone.

They need the recollections of former residents and employees to help preserve the memories of this once-important community.

Does anyone reading this have personal memories of Bear Creek that you would like to share, to help keep the story alive? If so, I’d like to talk to you. You can contact me at: Michael.gates@pc.gc.ca

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