the secret language of gold

It didn't take me long to learn that placer mining has its own vocabulary and traditions. John Gould, my mentor in the area of gold mining, introduced me to this unique world when, shortly after I arrived at my new job in Dawson City, he took me out into...

It didn’t take me long to learn that placer mining has its own vocabulary and traditions.

John Gould, my mentor in the area of gold mining, introduced me to this unique world when, shortly after I arrived at my new job in Dawson City, he took me out into the Klondike gold fields.

Gould drove me around the Granville Loop, a circular route that follows up Hunker Creek, and descends Dominion Creek into the Indian River valley on the far side of the divide, below King Solomon Dome.

Granville is the most distant point on this route, 100 kilometres distant from Dawson, and from there, you can drive even further south, if you choose to, until you find yourself on the tributaries of the Stewart River, or you can continue on the loop, which ascends Sulphur Creek until you reach the base of King Solomon Dome.

At this point, you can drive up a short, wretched road, best traversed in a four-wheel drive with plenty of clearance, to a viewpoint with a microwave tower on it, and look out in all directions. From that height, the gold creeks radiate like the spokes on a wheel. All of them contain gold.

From King Solomon Dome, you can follow the road along a rocky ridge that divides the creeks into north-flowing and south flowing. Eventually, you will reach the summit above Bonanza Creek, and driving down that storied tributary, you will pass through some of the most historic ground in the Klondike.

Gould introduced me to a human landscape with the marks of history cut into its surface everywhere. Along this route, he also taught me a vocabulary that has meaning to the people who mine gold for a living.

There are the place names. Many of these have been lifted from the gold fields in other places: Black Hills Creek (South Dakota), Ballarat Creek (Australia) and Cripple Hill (Colorado). Others come from classical literature and ancient civilizations. Ophir (creek) is derived from a Hebrew word for a place noted in the Bible for its wealth.

There are place names derived from the Spanish tradition of gold seekers in Mexico and South America, for instance El Dorado, Oro Grande and Oro Fino, and references to Greek (Eureka).

To reinforce the optimism of the early prospectors, other places were named for gold as though the naming would draw the much-desired mineral out of the ground. There are Gold Bottom, Gold Run, Big Gold, Little Gold, All Gold, and Too Much Gold creeks, Nugget and Gold hills in that category.

In addition to the language borrowed from other places and times, there are those names that enshrine the specific history and traditions of the Klondike. There are Creeks named after the discoverers of gold: Carmack Fork (George Carmack), Henderson Creek (Robert Henderson), Skookum Gulch (Skookum Jim), and Hunker Creek (Andrew Hunker).

Placer miners have their own form of creation story that can be pinpointed to a specific location: Discovery. The discovery claim in any drainage system is the point from which all other places are measured, and since the universal geographical unit of placer miners is the mining claim, all points and places can be measured in units equated with mining claims. The Discovery Claim on Bonanza Creek is now enshrined by the Canadian government as a national historic site.

Thus, Bonanza Creek, like many others, is divided into claims that are numbered up and down the stream in relation to Discovery Claim. When you visit Bonanza Creek during your summer vacation, for instance, you might visit Claim 33, which is actually 33 Below Discovery on Bonanza Creek, to pan for gold.

In a similar fashion, the small tributaries of the main creeks, which are called “pups,” are also numbered in relation to Discovery. You might see 2 Below Pup, or 23 Gulch on a map of the Klondike and sagely tell the less informed that the number tells you how far that stream was from the discovery claim on that creek.

If there are many names to describe the places that dot the hills and valleys of the Klondike, there is even more language used to describe the actual act of gold extraction. To not know this vocabulary is to display your ignorance of placer mining.

Miners talk about (cubic) yards of gravel moved. Historically, they measured the supply of water available for mining in “Miners’ Inches.” The sterile overlying deposits, which consist of “muck” and gravel, have to be stripped off to get down to the rich “pay streak” that generally lies on “bedrock.” The amount of overburden removed is measured in cubic yards, as is the smaller volume of paydirt that is actually shovelled into the “sluice box.”

This paydirt, is flushed with large volumes of water over “riffles” that are used to trap the dense particles of gold (flakes, dust and nuggets) that are scattered widely (and hopefully in abundance) in the gravel.

Miners measure their gold in ounces, but the Troy ounce, not the ounce that most of us are accustomed to, and when the miners have a “clean-up,” they all hope that there are plenty of ounces of gold left behind.

In the early days of the gold rush, the miners sank shafts and “drifted” (tunnelled horizontally along bedrock) by “burning” or thawing the frozen gravel, often using “points,” long steel tubes through which steam could be injected into the permafrost, to melt the material so it could be excavated.

Dredging, too, had its own language with “thawing” and “stripping” being performed before the boat (dredge) could excavate and process the gold-rich gravels of the valleys. They had special tools such as “point drivers” and “point jacks”, and specialists or “point doctors” who knew how to keep the water flowing through the points. There were also special jobs related to dredging, like “bow deckers,”“stern deckers,”“oilers” and “winchmen.”

Many of the terms that were used in mining have come into general use in the English language. To “strike it rich” refers to finding a windfall, at which point you would “stake your claim.” Today, if things don’t “pan out”, which means you don’t strike it rich, or find only “skim diggings,” then you can always go back to your old job stocking shelves at the supermarket.

The language of the Klondike goldfields is rich with lore and traditions. If you want to understand the 135 years of placer mining history, you will have to learn the language too.

If you don’t, then you may miss the point, and your expectations may not pan out for you.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer

based in Whitehorse.