The History Hunter takes a museum road trip

My wife Kathy noticed an announcement in a newspaper that Aug. 7 would be Go Klondike Legacy Day at Bear Creek, the historic mining camp 10 kilometres from Dawson City.

My wife Kathy noticed an announcement in a newspaper that Aug. 7 would be Go Klondike Legacy Day at Bear Creek, the historic mining camp 10 kilometres from Dawson City. The event was sponsored by the Friends of the Klondike Corridor.

The last time I had been involved in a project for Parks Canada at Bear Creek, the Gold Room, the building in which the raw gold was converted into ingots, was not accessible. This announcement said the building was being re-opened to the public. Upon further inquiry, I learned that animators would be stationed around the compound, which consists of more than 60 buildings.

That framed the reason for a trip to Dawson City, but why not re-visit some other museums as well? It had been several years since Kathy and I had taken the Silver Trail to Mayo and Keno City.

We left for Mayo on Friday morning. The town was established in 1903 when a road to the neighbouring goldfields was built from this point on the Stewart River. Ninety-four years after being built by Gene Binet for his new bride in 1922, Binet House is now the community museum. It contains displays of early tools, equipment and medical instruments, including the Yukon’s only iron lung. My favourite display item was a piece of artistic botany created by Martha Black, who served as the Member of Parliament for the Yukon from 1935 to 1940.

Nancy Hager, who was born and raised in Mayo, was an excellent hostess, kindly answering numerous questions, and Janece Bell offered a personal tour of the galleries. Later, Sue Laberge, at the Gold and Galena Bed and Breakfast, pointed out three buildings that had been relocated from Bear Creek to their present sites in Mayo.

Saturday morning was wet and cloudy, but the sky improved slowly during the 60 kilometre drive to Keno City. Established in 1920, the town grew rapidly in the heart of the greatest silver-producing district in Canada. It almost died when the mining closed down a few years ago, but tenacious and committed residents have kept the place alive.

Since my last visit six years ago, Keno has gone through a renewal. Many improvements could be seen in the Keno City Museum as well. The museum captures the gold and silver mining history dating back to the early 20th century, and includes early tools, mining equipment and photographs. I was especially impressed by the display of 1950s domestic furnishing which was located on the second floor. This display took me back to my own childhood, which is a point in the not-too-distant past that few museums have yet begun to commemorate.

During our brief visit, Keno was inundated with artists and musicians, who were attending a week of workshops. They were late to rise on Saturday morning, but Mike Mancini, who has been a mainstay in the museum, was there to greet us. Mike took us on an informative, personal tour of the exhibits and shared his memories of growing up in a silver camp. Mike operates the snack bar across from the museum, and his pizzas are considered by many to be the best in the Yukon. It was too early for pizza so we devoured a couple of delicious sandwiches instead.

The sun came out as we continued our trip to Dawson City. Our first stop was the Visitor Information Centre on Front Street, where a new exhibit, a model train layout, has been installed. The creator, Brian Pate, is a master model-maker who is no stranger to Dawson City. During the 1990s, he spent thousands of hours fabricating an award-winning model of Dredge Number 4, which has been on display in the visitor centre for 20 years.

Imagine that the Klondike Mines Railway never closed, and by 1949, had linked up with a rail line in British Columbia. Pate visualized what Dawson City might have looked like if this had been true. The layout had been part of a much larger train system constructed in his basement in North Vancouver, and was recently donated to Dawson City.

On the sunny Sunday afternoon, the Bear Creek historical industrial compound, which has been closed to the public for a number of years, was once again, briefly, open to visitors.

Bear Creek, was the headquarters of the Canadian Klondyke Mining Company, and later, the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation (YCGC). It served as the base of operations for the extensive dredging operations in the Klondike Goldfields from 1906, until 1966, when the YCGC closed its operation.

Hundreds flocked to Bear Creek to participate in the event, many aboard the Husky Bus, which was busy shuttling visitors to the site from Dawson City. Groups of 50 or more were moved from one area of the compound to another, where they were greeted by animators.

In front of Joe Boyle’s house, two ladies in period costume greeted their audience assuming the personae of Martha Black and Laura Thompson (later Berton). At the massive machine shop, visitors encountered “Klondike” Joe Boyle, the man who started the dredging operations at Bear Creek in 1905. At the Gold Room, a man representing an employee of the Yukon Consolidated Gold Company in 1935 talked to guests, while at the general manager’s house, four young people represented Bear Creek in 1966, when the company was shutting down.

“Barnacle” Bob Hilliard provided musical accompaniment, and a special cake, prepared by Bonnie Barber, was served at 2 p.m. A special feature was a display of the research being conducted by the University of Toronto (Mississauga) on levels of mercury recorded in the tree ring record at Bear Creek. Graduate student Sydney Clackett explained the project to the curious.

But the most interesting part of the Bear Creek experience was the Gold Room, where the gold bricks were poured. John (J.B.) Butterworth described how things once worked in this industrial-scale smelter. He speaks with authority on the subject — he was employed by the YCGC in the Gold Room from 1964, until 1966. Butterworth was joined by Ralph Troberg, another former employee of the YCGC. Together, their memories and their descriptions made Bear Creek come alive.

Kathy and I arrived back in Whitehorse Monday, tired, but delighted by the historical feast we had devoured.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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