An archeologist looks through finds during a recent excavation in Skagway, Alaska. (National Park Service/S.Spatz)

Archaeologist salvages Skagway’s Gold Rush history by sifting through trash

Newly unearthed site Chilkoot Trail site was at risk of washing away

The bustling visitors centre in Skagway is often the first stop for the 10,000 cruise ship tourists that descend on the town every day. Smiling National Park Service rangers, in their Smokey the Bear hats, direct visitors to tours and museums that tell the enduring story of the Klondike Gold Rush.

It’s a story that evolves with each passing year.

Looking back in time at the lives of people who lived more than 100 years ago is made possible by the job of one man. With his blue denim jeans, casual orange shirt and the tan of a person who spends his time outdoors, Shawn Jones, stands out in a room of grey-shirted, green-trousered park rangers.

Jones is an archaeologist with the National Park Service. He specializes in historical archaeology and has been digging around Skagway since 2009. Excavations are a part of Jones’ job but when dealing with relatively recent history of the Gold Rush, they aren’t always necessary.

“Most of our sites are above ground so we do a lot of surface surveys,” said Jones.

That includes routine assessments of existing historical sites in the park’s four main units: Skagway, Chilkoot Trail, White Pass Trail and Dyea, a town abandoned when the railroad connecting Skagway to Whitehorse was completed.

But a tip from a local hiking guide led to an unscheduled safety check on a historical site half a mile up the Chilkoot Trail. The site, Kenny Bridge Complex, was a 150-metre bridge that crosses the Taiya River, enabling travellers to bypass a steep hill and take a wagon road all the way to Canyon City. The tipster alerted Jones and his team to erosion cutting into the banks of the river, slowly eating away the remains of the buildings at the entrance of the bridge.

“Nature was going to take it back and is currently taking it back,” Jones said. “There’s no point fighting Mother Nature.”

Although the complex was discovered in the 1980s, not much was known about why the structures existed in the first place. Jones and his team decided to excavate and learn as much as they could before it was lost forever.

Accompanying the bridge were a handful of buildings, the largest one right at the beginning of the bridge.

“We knew the large structure was used as a tollbooth but had no other clue about what was going on in there,” he said. But Jones and his team found most of their information]in an unlikely of place: the trash pit.

“A lot of the time, we find the best data in the worst places,” he said.

They unearthed an oil cloth for lining cupboards, pieces of wallpaper, bits of clothing belonging to women and children and a pair of ice tongs. This may seem like an assortment of random items that mean nothing but for Jones, they tell a story.

“If you’re a dirty gold-rusher who’s just coming up to throw a log building to make it through the next year, you’re not going to put up a wallpaper or try to make it pretty inside,” he said.

Jones discerned that a family lived there and were probably well-to-do considering they actually had ice and ice-tongs to serve it.

“If you have ice tongs, you’re entertaining people and bringing them over for drinks. You wouldn’t use ice tongs for your family,” said Jones. He also discovered a number of milk and bean cans, along with large beautiful ink wells.

“This tells us that they were most likely also running a mercantile out of this building as well, selling goods or foods,” he said. “To have bulk ink, they’re either selling ink to the gold rushers or using it to keep ledgers of what they’re selling.”

Finding ink containers that might have carried the same ink on letters that stampeders sent back home was a highlight for Jones. In a nearby structure, his team found rock chisels with little scientific glass vials. He believes someone must have been living there and testing every mineral they could find for gold.

“There was a lot going on in this little seven-to-10-structure spot,” he said.

But if the Kenny Bridge Complex was impacted by erosion, what about the other sites on the trail? The team decided to conduct a vulnerability assessment of the neighboring sites including the summit.

“Some of the snow patches near the summit were melting after thousands of years. The purpose was to survey the snowmelt to see how it was affecting our erosion problems,” he said.

But the survey quickly turned into a rare archaeological discovery. They uncovered a stick about 50 to 60 centimetres in length, three centimeters in diameter with a conical edge. A photograph of it was sent to Greg Hare, a Yukon archaeologist, specializing in snow melt research and Richard Vanderhoek, chief archaeologist in Alaska.

Jones didn’t think too much about the stick, until Vanderhoek and Hare excitedly informed him that it might be an atlatl, an ancient hunting weapon that pre-dated the bow and arrow.

“An atlatl works like a dog Chuckit. It’s essentially an extension to your arm to give you more velocity,” said Jones, proclaiming himself a geeky nerd as he enthusiastically explained the impressive technology.

“If you attach a dart, you could easily strike game, like, 300 meters away,” he said. The other end of the stick is shattered, leading Jones to believe that it might have been damaged on impact. The only way to confirm the theory is to date the stick.

“We applied to go and retrieve the artifact and date it. It could be historic or prehistoric, we don’t know yet,” he said.

Along with the stick, they also discovered five new historical sites. He expects to find more such sites when they conduct their upcoming surveys of the White Pass Trail, the least explored of the four sites. The discoveries could mean an even more exciting future for the park.

Contact Sharon Nadeem at sharon.nadeem@yukon-news.com & Andrew Seal at andrew.seal@yukon-news.com

alaskaarchaeologyhistoryNational Park ServiceSkagway

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley gives a COVID-19 update during a press conference in Whitehorse on May 26. The Yukon government announced two new cases of COVID-19 in the territory with a press release on Oct. 19. (Alistair Maitland Photography)
Two new cases of COVID-19 announced in Yukon

Contact tracing is complete and YG says there is no increased risk to the public

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on April 8. Yukon Energy faced a potential “critical” fuel shortage in January due to an avalanche blocking a shipping route from Skagway to the Yukon, according to an email obtained by the Yukon Party and questioned in the legislature on Oct. 14. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Energy faced ‘critical’ fuel shortage last January due to avalanche

An email obtained by the Yukon Party showed energy officials were concerned

Jeanie McLean (formerly Dendys), the minister responsible for the Women’s Directorate speaks during legislative assembly in Whitehorse on Nov. 27, 2017. “Our government is proud to be supporting Yukon’s grassroots organizations and First Nation governments in this critical work,” said McLean of the $175,000 from the Yukon government awarded to four community-based projects aimed at preventing violence against Indigenous women. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon government gives $175k to projects aimed at preventing violence against Indigenous women

Four projects were supported via the Prevention of Violence against Aboriginal Women Fund

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone

When I was a kid, CP Air had a monopoly on flights… Continue reading

asdf
EDITORIAL: Don’t let the City of Whitehorse distract you

A little over two weeks after Whitehorse city council voted to give… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Northwestel has released the proposed prices for its unlimited plans. Unlimited internet in Whitehorse and Carcross could cost users between $160.95 and $249.95 per month depending on their choice of package. (Yukon News file)
Unlimited internet options outlined

Will require CRTC approval before Northwestel makes them available

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse. Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting instead of 30 days to make up for lost time caused by COVID-19 in the spring. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Legislative assembly sitting extended

Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting. The extension… Continue reading

asdf
Today’s mailbox: Mad about MAD

Letters to the editor published Oct. 16, 2020

Alkan Air hangar in Whitehorse. Alkan Air has filed its response to a lawsuit over a 2019 plane crash that killed a Vancouver geologist on board, denying that there was any negligence on its part or the pilot’s. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Alkan Air responds to lawsuit over 2019 crash denying negligence, liability

Airline filed statement of defence Oct. 7 to lawsuit by spouse of geologist killed in crash

Whitehorse city council members voted Oct. 13 to decline an increase to their base salaries that was set to be made on Jan. 1. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Council declines increased wages for 2021

Members will not have wages adjusted for CPI

A vehicle is seen along Mount Sima Road in Whitehorse on May 12. At its Oct. 13 meeting, Whitehorse city council approved the third reading for two separate bylaws that will allow the land sale and transfer agreements of city-owned land — a 127-square-metre piece next to 75 Ortona Ave. and 1.02 hectares of property behind three lots on Mount Sima Road. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Whitehorse properties could soon expand

Land sale agreements approved by council

Most Read