In search of treasure — Geologist’s book stakes out important piece of Yukon history

By Keitha Clark Special to the News Geologist Aaro Aho never found the silver jackpot he sought while exploring the Keno district as an independent…

By Keitha Clark

Special to the News

Geologist Aaro Aho never found the silver jackpot he sought while exploring the Keno district as an independent consultant in the early 1960s.

However, he did discover became the mother lode of historical information for the Keno Mining Museum 40 years later.

Aho’s riches were the old timers’ tales that chronicled the early days of the mining industry in the area.

Those early prospectors were already advanced in age when Aho arrived in Keno in 1959 and discovered that no one was recording their stories.

“He was afraid everything would be lost,” said Yvonne Bessette, a curator at the museum and an editor of Aho’s newly released book, Hills of Silver.

An important part of the territory’s history was at stake.

Gold was discovered in the district in the 1890s, and the first galena — the mineral containing lead, sulphur and silver — was found in 1903.

The silver-mining industry opened up this remote area in central Yukon, and the district went on to become the world’s fourth-largest silver producer.

When Aho set out to preserve the oral history of the place, he conducted more than 100 interviews with people who lived and worked in the district.

Even though he cast an intimidating shadow, and was always referred to as “Dr. Aho,” he was very easy to talk to, recalls Dirk Tempelman-Kluit, who worked under Aho, as a junior geologist in the early 1960s.

The stories people told him, combined with Aho’s intimate knowledge of mining development and research abilities, were eventually shaped into a manuscript.

While Aho’s book describes the genesis and geology of galena, as well as the process used to mine it, the doctor’s love of a good story also comes through on the pages.

There are recollections of a Swedish cook who located a rich ore body through a vision in a dream.

Another tale is of a camp dishwasher who sold his claim for $35,000 to buy a series of new cars and a racehorse in Mexico, but was back washing dishes eight months later.

Aho enjoyed sitting around a campfire telling tales, said Tempelman-Kluit from his home in Vancouver.

“Those stories were part of what he lived. He knew those stories first hand.”

While Aho left the Keno district in 1965, the memoirs would not be published for another 41 years.

Aho, whose PhD was in petrology and mineralogy, was a very busy man, said Bessette.

After he left Keno, Aho formed Dynasty Explorations Ltd. He is credited with discovering the Anvil lead-zinc mine in 1965, a natural gas field in Lake Erie in 1967, the Sierra Gorda copper-molybdenum deposit in Northern Chile in 1970, and the Grum lead-zinc-silver deposit in the Anvil district in 1973.

“He wasn’t the type of guy who would have gone into a cabin and written a book for a month,” said Bessette.

Before he could find a publisher, Aho was killed when a tractor rolled-over on his farm in Ladysmith, BC, in 1977. He was 51.

Aho’s book did not resurface until 1999, when his widow, Sylvia, sent it to the Keno Mining Museum (along with another manuscript about the discovery of the Anvil mine).

The manuscript was a jackpot for the museum.

There hadn’t been a lot written about Keno, and this was the first book dedicated exclusively to the area, said Bessette.

“In the past, when the mine was operating, nobody gave a thought to history; everybody was too busy working.”

After the manuscript was digitalized, Bessette, a former mine employee, spent “hundreds” of hours editing the book and adding an index of names.

She’s read the book two-dozen times and still loves it.

The book will open people’s eyes to the area’s history, she said.

“The gold rush is really important, and I think Dawson is fabulous, but I don’t think the Keno area has been given its due. The mine has kept the Yukon going for so many years.”

After the United Keno Hill Mine shut down in 1989, the community’s population dwindled.

Today there are only 16 residents scattered among the abandoned cabins and vintage vehicles.

But the memory of the hundreds of miners who worked in area through the years has not been boarded up, said Bessette.

“Keno is a very spiritual place. This is where all the miners’ spirits congregate.

“Dr. Aho’s spirit is very happy. He was with me when I went to Mayo to pick up the books.”

The Hills of Silver was released by Harbour Publishing in July.

Keitha Clark is a freelance writer living in Whitehorse.