porcupine had its own gold rush in 1898

While thousands were stampeding to the Klondike in 1898, gold was also found in Atlin, B.C., and more along the Dalton Trail.

While thousands were stampeding to the Klondike in 1898, gold was also found in Atlin, B.C., and more along the Dalton Trail.

The problem with Atlin for Americans was that the British Columbia government had passed legislation that excluded them from staking in that province. Although the law was later overthrown by the Supreme Court of Canada, it meanwhile left American prospectors with a bitter taste in their mouths, and a determination to find gold in American territory.

There was a syndicate from the New England states known as the Mysterious Thirty Six that looked for gold in the area west of Dezadeash Lake, off the Dalton Trail, but by the end of the summer of 1898,the syndicate had lost momentum, and never returned to the region.

Meanwhile, farther south along the trail, gold was discovered in American territory on Porcupine Creek. In the late summer of 1897, Sylva W. Mix discovered showings of gold near Pleasant Camp when passing through the area with a cattle herd.

Mix came back the following year and partnered with Ed Fenley and Perry Wiley. The partners tried their luck on Boulder Creek with slim results, but later found themselves taking out $10 per day on Porcupine Creek using a small hand rocker. Mix and Fenley continued to prospect after Wiley headed Outside. They found ground that produced $1,150 worth of gold in 10 days. They took it to Juneau and put it on display in the Circle City Hotel. It sparked a lot of interest, but the prospectors and miners could do little until the deep blanket of snow was gone from the region in the spring.

American miners were still smarting from the treatment they received in Atlin, and were eagerly looking for good prospects on American soil. Despite the weather and six feet of snow on the ground, miners stampeded to Porcupine in droves, staking wildly, until the creeks were littered by a bewildering profusion of stakes placed by men who had seen neither gold, nor even the ground beneath the snowdrifts.

The Juneau newspapers trumpeted the Porcupine as the next big Klondike, and hundreds of miners stampeded to the region. Jack Dalton took full advantage of the situation. He gained control of the most productive mining ground on the creek, brought in a sawmill, opened a hotel and a mercantile store. He had a townsite surveyed and soon the lots were selling for $300 apiece.

A tent city exploded on the scene, and soon there were “several substantial buildings,” including two stores and a sawmill. Two hotels were added to the community: the Lindsay (owned by Dalton and operated by John Lindsay and his wife, Irene) and the Burkhardt (operated by F.F. Clark, formerly of Skagway).

The Lindsay started out as a canvas tent structure and evolved into a wooden building of two and a half storeys. Many of the other winter tents of Porcupine were replaced by more permanent structures during the summer months. By September the Dalton Company’s big store and warehouse were complete and several other buildings were going up, including a handsome residence for Jack Dalton and his family.

The town of Porcupine expanded rapidly and by the summer of 1900 it had four saloons, two hotels and two dance halls with ladies euphemistically known as “petticoat attachments.” Blackjack and poker games were running high, and tents and cabins sprouted at Porcupine faster than spring wildflowers. There were five sawmills running full time. The following year a mining recorder’s office and a post office were opened.

Everybody was convinced that Porcupine would be another Klondike. One account described a thousand dollars in gold being taken from a mine working of four square feet, while another reported two partners taking out 40 to 100 ounces a day from a square of bedrock between six and eight feet on a side.

There was some unrest, however. Jack Dalton was busy hauling supplies into Porcupine and he was still collecting tolls on his trail. He charged one and a half cents per pound on anything brought in and four cents a pound to do the shipping. Discontent grew over Dalton’s monopoly, and residents began calling on the government to rescind Dalton’s trail licence because he was charging more than the permitted government rate.

Meanwhile, construction began on an alternate trail which ran down the opposite side of Chilkat Inlet from Dalton’s route. This was the route that roughly follows the course of the modern Haines Highway into the Yukon.

The mining bubble at Porcupine burst in the summer of 1902. The Porcupine placers were not easy to work: the gold was buried deep beneath the surface and required costly equipment to extract it. The creeks of the Porcupine district were under an ever-present threat of flash flooding that could destroy the summer’s work in a few hours. Two such floods occurred in the late summer and fall of 1901.

Dalton removed his sawmill from Porcupine at the end of 1902. By 1903 Porcupine was filled with abandoned cabins and only a few miners were left hand-working their claims. Dalton’s store and the Lindsay Hotel remained open for business, but the other entrepreneurs had disappeared. By 1905, the Mounted Police were gone, as was Dalton’s lucrative government contract. He put his claims up for sale and was soon gone from the Porcupine district.

When I visited the area a couple of years ago, there was little left to suggest there had ever been a thriving little community at Porcupine. Recently, though, Porcupine Creek once again came to the attention of the world, when a reality show chronicling a mining venture on the creek was broadcast on the Discovery Channel. Anybody want to buy a share in a mine?

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net