The old building was dark and dank. The floor squeaked under our feet and echoed in the corridor. The heat wasn’t working, so it was cool, if not cold, though it was warm outside.
We were in the old administration building that housed the Dawson City Museum. This was a time before the building was restored, and the memories of its past hadn’t been covered by paint and veneer.
My wife Kathy and I were with Pierre Berton.
“This is where my father worked,” he said. “I remember coming down here at the end of his day.”
He gestured toward a large, cumbersome metal-wheeled cart: “He would place all the ledgers on that cart, and while he wheeled it into the vault, I would hang on for the ride.”
Thus, he remembered the time when he was a young lad in the dying old town of Dawson City, and his father was the mining recorder.
Frank Berton occupied this office off and on for more than two decades, with absences to serve overseas in the First World War, and a stint in the small town of Whitehorse.
Frank Berton was an extraordinary man, who was born and raised in the Maritimes, and received a degree in civil engineering from the University of New Brunswick.
Like thousands of others, he developed gold fever during the Klondike Gold Rush.
En route to Dawson City, a letter from Queen’s University caught up with him, offering him a teaching position.
He turned it down to live a life in the eccentric mining town near the Arctic Circle.
Berton was a man of exceptional qualifications for the challenge.
The mining recorder’s job required a knowledgeable, honest person because it had come through turbulent times.
During the gold rush, Thomas Fawcett was appointed the gold commissioner, and if he wasn’t personally guilty of malfeasance, his administration was rife with corruption.
Special treatment of favoured individuals and crooked back-door practices outraged the miners, and brought a storm of protests.
The miners on Dominion Creek were especially offended because behind-the-scenes manipulation of procedures allowed insiders to stake claims before the general public.
Fawcett was demoted and one clerk was found guilty of accepting bribes. Commissioner Walsh, Fawcett’s boss, was quickly replaced by a more reputable man: William Ogilvie.
Perhaps the first woman to hold the office of mining recorder (assistant mining recorder, actually) in the North was Mrs. Frances Muncaster, who held her singular position at Squaw Creek, an isolated creek just south of Dalton Post on the BC-Yukon border.
There, she recorded the mining transactions of a few dozen miners during the 1930s and ‘40s
A petite and charming woman, she was a seasoned veteran of the North, having spent years living off the land in the southwest Yukon and parts of Alaska.
I fast-forward to the present where women mining recorders are the rule, rather than the exception.
Today, three of the four mining recorders in the Yukon are women, and so is their boss.
This was apparent to me when I walked into the mining recorder’s office in Dawson City recently, during the Dawson City Gold Show.
Instead of meeting serious men sitting on tall stools inside cubicles behind massive wooden counters, as one would have expected in the old days, I found a large open room, cheery and well illuminated.
I was welcomed by the pleasant smiles of a bevy of female office staff.
Kathryn Perry, the mining recorder, greeted me and invited me into her office to talk about the mining recorder’s job in modern times.
Mining, as well as the job of the mining recorder, have changed dramatically in the past two decades from the way it was during the gold rush era.
Technology has made significant impacts upon communication, transportation and recording.
Where once it could take a prospector days or weeks to travel to the recorder’s office to file a claim, now, it’s a matter of hours.
Where once a prospector might have been cut off from civilization for long periods of time, now there are satellite phones. Most noticeable, however, is the shift from hand entries in massive leather-bound ledgers, to data entry on digital systems.
Perry is quick to point out that though digital is the way it’s done now, they still maintain the old records. There are still some old-timers who come in expecting to see their claim listed on the page of a ledger or on the typical record card. Some in fact, insist on dealing with the same clerk each time they visit the office.
Another change is found in the expanded environmental responsibility expected of modern day miners.
The Yukon government is interested in encouraging mining development, she tells me, but only if done with due respect for the environment.
After talking with recorder Perry for an hour, it quickly became apparent that she was originally hired for her people skills, and not her knowledge of mining regulations.
Any day, she can expect to deal with a wide array of individuals, from an angry, or occasionally drunk miner, handle a dispute over claim jumping or the correct procedure for staking.
She might have to field questions from tourists, some of whom have arrived at the mining recorder’s office believing that they can buy claims there.
Prior to becoming Dawson’s mining recorder, Perry ran a training organization for the military at Comox on Vancouver Island. She had to go to Anchorage to do some training of the Canadian military personnel who were stationed there, and she fell in love with the North.
Her Swiss father had dreamed about coming to Dawson City, and often read Robert Service poems to her when she was a child.
It must have rubbed off: when she saw the poster advertising the job in Dawson, she thought: “This was meant to be.”
That was more than ten years ago, and she has been in Dawson ever since.
Miners are an amalgam of individualists, each with his or her quirks, and all with different understandings of the application of the placer mining regulations.
Some are not known as meticulous record-keepers, and it is not unusual to attend to a weathered miner at the end of the season, who withdraws from a well-worn wallet, receipts and notes from his summers work, written on odd scraps of paper.
Perry tells me that their job is to encourage mining in the territory, but at the same time, they must ensure that things are done according to the correct procedure.
“One miner told me I was tough, but fair,” she tells me. “He meant it as an insult, but I took it as a compliment.”
After a century and a quarter, the mining recorder’s job has evolved, but really, it’s still about keeping order in a chaotic business.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.