If it rained on August 17 when he was a boy, John Gould had to stay at his father’s mine on Nugget Hill and work. Luckily for young Gould, it never rained on that day.
If he had his way, Yukon’s annual summer holiday would always be celebrated only on the 17th of August.
Now 92, his earliest memories of Discovery Day, the Yukon’s signature annual event, were of all the events going on in Dawson City: the races run and the prizes awarded. It was only later that he learned that it celebrated the discovery of gold on a tiny creek in August of 1896, which sparked the Klondike gold rush and created the Yukon as we know it today.
John Gould was one of the guest speakers celebrating the official opening of the new interpretive trail on Discovery Claim, located on Bonanza Creek, a few miles outside of Dawson City on August 17 this year.
The speeches were followed by a ribbon-cutting ceremony, an outdoor barbecue for the 150 people in attendance, demonstrations of gold panning, and tours of the new historical trail. Fortunately, the sun broke through the clouds at the right time.
The Discovery Claim Trail resulted from the collaboration of many individuals and organizations, most notably Parks Canada, The Yukon Government, the Klondyke Centennial Society, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, the town of Dawson City, and the family of Art Fry, on whose former claim much of the exhibit was placed.
This collaboration was also evident at the ribbon cutting. Ten people lined up with scissors to make the symbolic cut opening the interpretive trail, which winds its way over a well-designed and scenic one-kilometre route that includes interpretive signs and didactic displays.
Sally Robinson, interpretive planner for the Yukon government’s historic sites division, played a major role in the designing of the trail. She took an enthusiastic group, including me, on a personal tour of the trail after the barbecue was finished and the food digested.
It’s quite a story, and it’s quite a trail.
The trail starts between a large introductory panel at the north end of the parking lot and the boulder-mounted plaque that explains the national significance of the event. The path is well sculpted on finely crushed gravel.
There are 11 nodes along the trail where clearly written panels combine with well-chosen photographs to tell the story of the land, the people, the discovery and the mining that followed.
The story starts with the First Nation people who lived here before gold was discovered, and the impact that the discovery and the ensuing gold rush had on their lives.
It then explains the remarkable partnership between George Carmack, an American, and Skookum Jim’s Inland Tlingit family. Carmack was married to Jim’s sister, and, when she died, to a second sister named Kate. Carmack and Jim worked as packers on the Chilkoot trail, and then prospected and mined for gold in the Yukon basin for several years before finding gold on Rabbit Creek, which we now know as Bonanza.
At the time of the discovery, gold was being found along the Yukon River and its tributaries. The major centre at the time was Forty Mile, approximately 80 kilometres down the Yukon from the mouth of the Klondike River.
On an invitation from Canadian prospector Robert Henderson, who was taking gold out of Gold Bottom Creek, Carmack, Jim and Jim’s nephew Charley left their Yukon River camp and went to check out the prospects .
Rebuffed by Henderson’s frosty reception of Carmack’s in-laws, the three men returned over the hills to Rabbit Creek, where Jim found gold lying in the bottom of the stream. They chose the most favourable site and staked four contiguous claims between them and then began digging and sluicing.
News of the discovery sparked a stampede within the Yukon basin, and then a major one when word reached the Outside world a year later.
Working their claims made George, Jim and Charley wealthy men. In fact, they made millions. Jim left his estate in a trust fund that continues to support the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre and its many programs more than a century later.
The discovery claims were mined first by crude hand methods, then more efficiently with steam equipment. The cleanup on the claim in the spring of 1900 was the largest in the Klondike and yielded $4,000,000 in gold.
In 1903 a dredge was moved onto the claim, which Skookum Jim had purchased from Carmack, and he received substantial royalties until he sold the claim to the dredging company the following year.
Meanwhile, Jim and Charley had staked claims on Fourth of July Creek in the Kluane region of the southwest Yukon and sparked another stampede.
The Discovery Claim has remained in good standing to the present day, with Art Fry being the last active miner to own the claim before his family turned it over for commemoration.
The remainder of the story told along the trail touches upon the various methods of mining employed over the years, starting with crude excavation of shafts, drifting underground, and hauling the paydirt to the surface by hand using windlasses.
Where the pay streak was shallow enough, the ground was readily mined by open-pit methods, which often used elevated flumes to move the water through the excavations. Where bedrock was deeper than 15 feet, the drift method was employed, with huge galleries often being excavated underground and the paydirt hoisted to the surface using steam-powered winches. Self-dumping apparatus made the work easier and more cost-efficient.
Eventually, modern traction-powered earth movers were employed to do the heavy work. Today, the placer mining is done this way by families, most of whom are local residents.
To complete the story, additional panels explain the sluicing and clean-up operations, and the challenges of working in frozen ground.
The exhibit panels are complemented with a selection of artifacts, donated by local residents, and replica workings that illustrate many of the mining methods that are described. Some of the interpretive panels have push-button audio units that play sound bites that make the story come alive.
Beside one of the interpretive nodes are a series of dredge buckets upon which are mounted a plaque acknowledging the contributions of Art and Margie Fry and a second one honouring miners, past present and future.
A third plaque acknowledges the role of francophone miners who were in the Yukon before the gold rush, including Francois Mercier, Joseph Ladue, and Jack and Emilie Tremblay.
A masterful finishing touch to the exhibit consists of life-size human silhouettes cut out of plate steel by Duncan’s Limited, of Whitehorse, and placed at various locations along the trail.
You will want to add a visit to this exhibit to your next trip to Dawson.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is now available.