They sounded like the screaming of lost souls. They moved with glacial slowness, chewing up the valley bottoms. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, as long as the weather permitted them to, they dug gravel on an industrial scale and washed out the gold.
They were gold dredges, and for a half a century, they dominated the mining in the goldfields of the Yukon.
The earliest mining was done by hand on individual claims. Despite the high cost of labour, this worked because the deposits were so rich, but as the rich ground was mined, the miners had to find more streamlined methods of recovery.
They switched to steam powered pumps and hoists to reduce costs, but this too was expensive.
Eventually, investors purchased large blocks of adjoining claims or obtained concessions to large tracts of land so that they could import dredges. These machines could efficiently process large volumes of gravel, and extract enough gold from the low value ground to make it pay.
Since the cost of such equipment was beyond the wallets of independent miners, the dredges had to be financed by capitalists. There were two main large companies formed during this time, the Canadian Klondyke Mining Company, and the Yukon Gold Company.
By the end of the 1920s, these two large companies and a number of smaller ones had all been merged into one large business known as the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation (YCGC). To the locals, it was known simply as “The Company.”
The Company operated until 1966.
Simply put, a dredge is a floating excavator that processes gold-bearing gravel, extracts the gold and dumps the tailings behind it as it moves forward in its own pond. The excavating is done by a continuous chain of steel buckets that dig deep into the ground, wrenching the gravel from the substrate, and raising up to a hopper inside the superstructure of the dredge.
From the hopper, the gravel is moved into a massive rotating drum (the screen) that has huge quantities of water pumped into it to wash the gravel clean. All of the small particles are flushed through thousands of holes in the rotating screen and into several rows of sluices with riffles and matting below it which are designed to capture the dense gold and allow the lighter sand and other material to wash out the back of the dredge and into the pond.
The larger pebbles and rocks, now scoured clean, drop out of the back of the rotating screen and up a conveyor belt (stacker) that carries the material away from the stern and dumps it back into the pond behind the dredge.
Thus the dredge eats its way forward, processing massive volumes of gravel, taking out the small particles of gold, while depositing the barren rock behind it. The dredge tailings are a familiar, though vanishing sight around Dawson.
This sounds simple enough, but behind the operation of these dredges was a complex system of support activities. Water, which is essential to the process, had to be moved to the work site to ensure an adequate supply. Electricity was required to operate the dredges, power the pumps and supply the camps.
Crews were required to drill test holes in front of the dredges to locate the paying deposits of gold. Some crews stripped the trees and the overburden from the ground that was to be mined, followed by crews that installed an intricate system of pipes to supply water to a network of steel tubes (points) that were driven into the ground. The water pumped into the ground through these points thawed the permafrost to make excavation of gravel easier for the dredges.
There was a bull gang that did the heavy work in front of each dredge, moving the power lines forward along with the dredge, and setting the cable system that held the mining monster in position. Other staff ran the power plants and ensured that the system of power poles and lines supplied a reliable flow of electricity.
Each dredge had a support camp to house and feed the stripping and thawing crews, the bull gang and the shifts of men who worked the dredge. The cook and flunkies in each camp kept the men fed.
It took three crews of four men under the direction of a dredge master to keep a dredge running 24 hours a day during the short mining season.
The winch man operated the controls that raised and lowered the digging ladder and moved the dredge forward and from side to side. The oiler moved about the boat ensuring that all of the moving parts were properly lubricated. The bow decker kept the front-end operation working smoothly, while the stern decker watched over the screen and made sure that the tailings were carried away without obstruction.
The telephone system ensured communication was maintained between the camps and the head office in Bear Creek. A fleet of trucks kept men and equipment moving from place to place.
Bear Creek served as the supply and administrative centre for the entire operation. Engineers and accountants studied numbers and processed information to ensure that the operation was well planned, efficient and profitable.
Various shops in Bear Creek housed the blacksmiths, welders, machinists and mechanics who made repairs that kept the dredges running. Bear Creek was so far away from outside suppliers that they had to make their own spare parts.
The YCGC had their own smelter, known as the Gold Room, to refine the gold into ingots. For all the millions of tonnes of gravel that were processed over the years, the gold they produced was measured in troy ounces.
At its peak, the Company employed nearly eight hundred men and operated nearly a dozen dredges. During the period that dredges were king in the Yukon, more than thirty of them mined for gold, mostly in the Klondike and Fortymile areas.
Today, they are abandoned, replaced by caterpillar tractors and portable excavators.
No longer do we hear their screeching noise throughout the goldfields. Some were moved to other parts of the world. Some burned in fires. Others mouldered away and their working parts were scavenged. One dredge, from Glacier Creek in the Fortymile district, was moved to Skagway as a tourist attraction, in a place where no gold was ever found.
The largest of them, weighing more than 3,000 tonnes, was YCGC Dredge Number 4. It is now a national historic site on Bonanza Creek, a few miles from Dawson City. Parks Canada is making a big investment in the restoration of this mining giant to ensure that it will convey the story of corporate mining for future generations.
I’ll tell you more stories of these mining giants in future instalments of History Hunter.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book is History Hunting in the Yukon.