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The towns where silver was king

Much Yukon history has been hidden by the immense shadow of the Klondike Gold Rush. Such was the case with the silver mines of the Keno district.

Much Yukon history has been hidden by the immense shadow of the Klondike Gold Rush. Such was the case with the silver mines of the Keno district.

The mining history of the Mayo-Keno area dates back to the Gold Rush. Placer deposits of sufficient value were found in the Duncan Creek district that in 1903, the government decided to build a road from Mayo (named after the early trader Alfred Mayo) to nearby placer diggings.

The road was extended to Huffman’s roadhouse on Duncan Creek, then farther up Duncan Creek with another to Highet Creek, while a branch was extended to the placer workings on Haggart Creek. The government then started building a winter road to the district from Dawson City.

Alex Nicol, a wiry prospector was building the first cabin at the Mayo landing when the surveyors arrived in 1903, but it was Eugene Binet who snapped up the townsite when it was laid out.

Binet started building as soon as the ice broke up on the Stewart River, and quickly had a two-storey hotel almost 10 metres by 60 metres in size. The first rooms were available for lodging by the end of July. The town soon included a livery stable, church, liquor store and numerous cabins. Binet quickly added a store to his structure, then doubled the size of the hotel.

Jacob Davidson staked a quartz claim on what later became known as Keno Hill in 1903 where he found the first lead/zinc exposure, but then abandoned it. But he showed a sample of the ore to Harry McWhorter, who restaked the claim as the “Silver King” in 1913. Mining the deposit by hand, McWhorter and his partners each netted $5,000 for the ore they shipped out.

Within three years, McWhorter found a financial backer, who purchased the claim and reportedly realized a $500,000 profit. War intervened and little action occurred until 1919 when Louis Bouvette staked a claim he called the Keno, and the site of the claim became known as Keno Hill. Samples from this claim were assayed by the Yukon Gold Company in Dawson, who acquired Bouvette’s property and formed the Keno Hill Ltd. mining company.

A stampede resulted and hundreds of claims were quickly staked. Keno City was established at a point centrally located to the rich silver-laden peaks surrounding it. Rodolph Rosmusen reportedly built the first structure there — a cache — while John Kinman, later to become known as the “mayor” of Keno City, built the first cabin in 1919.

The area was heavily prospected, and other mines established, most notably the Treadwell Mine under the direction of Livingstone Wernecke. Due to its central location, Keno City flourished. Yukon Gold built a mess house and stable at Keno City, as did other mining companies. Harry Yamasaki was put in charge of the roadhouse there, eventually becoming the proprietor. By 1922, Keno City had a post office, a government assay office and a Royal Canadian Mounted Police post.

There were at least four hotels, and several general stores, including one operated by returned war veteran Norton Townsend. Jackson and Major operated a pool room and barber shop. Jessie Stewart ran a novelty store. At least 30 cabins were built at Keno City, with more down in the valley or on nearby hill claims. The unsurveyed townsite was laid in disarray as if a child had thrown down a handful of giant Lego blocks on the landscape.

Realizing the potential market, Burns and Company sent T.C. Richards from Whitehorse to Keno City with a herd of cattle. When they arrived in late September of 1921, they slaughtered the herd on top of Keno Hill and the meat hung in a mine adit, until it was needed.

In November, 1921, George Black, the Conservative candidate, trekked cross-country from Fort Selkirk on snowshoes to campaign in the new mining camp for the coming federal election. He addressed a crowd of 60 miners in the Keno Hill Hotel, then more at the Keno Hill Ltd. camp and the Wernecke Camp. He then returned to Mayo, where he spoke to a crowd of 150. His efforts paid off: when the ballots were cast, he received the most votes in the bustling mining district.

Mayo grew rapidly too. By 1922, it had a fine two-storey hospital, and an Anglican Church and Manse (The Catholic church was built in 1923). The waterfront had built up rapidly with docks and warehouses. The Northern Commercial Company had a store and warehouses as did other companies. According to the Dawson Daily News, the two-storey Broadway Hotel was located on First Avenue at Montreal Street. The Binet Brothers still ran the hotel and store, in competition with the Taylor and Drury store.

Binet and Lefebvre also ran the local sawmill. G.S. Churchward from Dawson had erected an impressive two-storey business block close to Broadway on First Avenue. Fannie Mitchell ran a bakery on First Avenue, near Centre Street, competing with another operated by Agnes Kinsey. Mayo could even boast of having some board sidewalks in place, a feature not present in Keno City.

The Yukon Order of Pioneers built a large log meeting hall in 1921, and it was here that the Governor-General, Lord Byng, was greeted during his visit the following year. He travelled to Keno City to visit the mines, but the road was still under development. When the car carrying His Excellency became mired up to the axles in mud, and he rolled up his sleeves and lent a shoulder to aid the others in extracting the automobile from the bog.

Mayo had a RCMP post, under the command of Sergeant Dempster, and a mining recorder’s office. By 1923, the public school was large enough to support a high school class (Keno City had a small assisted school). And the government had brought Mayo closer to the outside world by establishing one of the first radio telegraph stations in northern Canada. News received by the new radio system was published in the Mayo-Keno Bulletin, a community newspaper issued semi-weekly by journalist Marie Fotheringham.

From a sleepy landing point on the banks of the Stewart River, Mayo had grown into a bustling concern, while at the other end of the road, 70 kilometres away, Keno City had been born and grown quickly into a busy, if jumbled mining town.

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