Most Klondike Miners Found Few Gold Nuggets, Left Plenty of History

To the greenhorn Klondike gold prospectors who survived the harrowing Yukon River journey, Dawson City was a welcome sight. But, they had no time to savor its comforts.

The first major wave of novice gold prospectors arrived in Dawson City, Yukon, in the spring of 1898. They soon learned that an advance guard of prospectors had claimed the best locations in 1896 and 1897. If there was any more gold to find, these new arrivals knew they had to work fast. They rushed off to the gold creeks.

Klondike Gold Nuggets Make a Few Lucky Miners Rich

Dawson City lies at the junction of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. The richest gold claims lay east of town up two Klondike River tributaries, Bonanza Creek and Hunker Creek, and their small tributaries, Eldorado Creek and Goldbottom Creek. They produced the richest finds, making a few men millionaires and thousands paupers.

George Carmack, Skookum Jim Mason, and Tagish Charlie struck it rich on Bonanza Creek, then called Rabbit Creek, in August 1896. Within weeks, prospectors from the Yukon and Alaska rushed to stake nearby claims. When the first bags of their gold nuggets reached the United States in 1897, the media created a sensation and the gold rush was on.

The first claim by Carmack and his two aboriginal partners—called the Discovery claim—is now a national heritage site.

The Klondike gold rush was brief. Dawson City had 30,000 residents in the summer of 1898. By 1902, it had just 5,000. By then, prospectors had claimed most of the rich deposits and hauled away the easy-to-find gold nuggets. What gold remained lay on the bedrock of the creek valleys under tons of rock and gravel. Men built shafts to get at it.

Gold Dredges Replace Gold Prospectors

The romantic era of hard-bitten, bearded prospectors with picks, shovels, and a sluice box lasted just a decade. Big mining companies bought up the claims and built monster dredges to get at the hidden gold deep in the gravel.

In 1912, one mining company built two eight-story, mobile dredges on Bonanza Creek at a combined cost of $1 million. Together they recovered $1.8 million of gold in their first summer. (The gold price then was just $16 per ounce.)

When the Klondike gold rush began in 1897, thousands of prospectors, dreamers, and scallywags began their trip to Dawson City-438 miles (705 km) away-in Skagway, Alaska.

Each electric-powered dredge used a chain of iron buckets on a boom to eat up all the gravel in their path. They even chewed into the top few feet of the bedrock. The gravel and rock passed through the dredge where water washed over it to separate the gold. The dredge dumped the used gravel and rocks out the back.

The creeks did not have enough water to float the big dredges. Instead, each dredge was confined to a small pool that it created by digging away the gravel in front. The discarded gravel filled in the pond at the rear. They worked back and forth across the gold valleys moving a half mile upstream per year.

Of the 24 dredges used in the Klondike area, only #4—one of the original pair from 1912—remains. In service until 1960, it lay derelict for years until refurbished by Parks Canada in 1997. Today, it offers tourists a glimpse of a bygone era.

Riverboat Graveyard and Dawson City Today

At 2,000 summer residents, Dawson City today is a shadow of its former size, though what remains offers charm and authenticity. Many period buildings still exist. All new buildings must be designed to look like old buildings. The streets are dirt and the sidewalks are wooden.

The long Yukon winters preserve old gold rush artifacts. In the forests and hills near Dawson City, history buffs can easily find ruined buildings, overgrown grave yards, rusting mining equipment, and other traces of the old city of 30,000 people.

During the last years of the Klondike gold rush, paddlewheelers brought supplies and people up the Yukon River from Alaska to Dawson City, or downstream from Whitehorse, Yukon. When the gold rush ended, many riverboat owners abandoned their ships on a flat patch of land across the river from Dawson City.

Locals recall that this ghost fleet remained intact until the mid-1970s. Today, the rotted wooded structures have collapsed into a tangle of iron and splinters.

Between the rustic architecture, ruins, gold field tours, hiking trails, and Diamond Tooth Gertie’s casino, Dawson City offers plenty to see and do.


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