Drifting for gold was a dirty business
Michael Gates/Yukon News
I came across many signs of mining from Yukon’s early days while travelling about the Klondike goldfields. In fact, the entire Klondike region was a gigantic outdoor museum, but the most recent generation of mining has obliterated most of the gold rush relics. Nevertheless, these remains spoke to a remarkable era of human toil in the quest for gold.
Some of the evidence of this early mining lay on the surface as the debris of the mining process: excavations, tailing piles, dams, big and small. Entire hillsides were washed away to capture the gold. Tools and machinery lay everywhere and hinted at the activities that took place there: boilers, engines, hoists and old riffles.
Even more intriguing were the features revealed as the gravels were processed by modern mining. Old shafts and drifts lay exposed for the first time. One mining operation at the lower end of Hunker Creek was washing the muck out of the hillside using hydraulic monitors. As 20 metres of overburden was swept away, the old mining shafts from the turn of the century were left behind.
The exposed shafts of log cribbing stood like teetering skyscrapers. At the bottom, a horizontal tunnel, or drift of log timbers might extend out from the shaft, but these were often unnecessary. Working in permanently frozen ground was like mining in solid granite. As long as the stuff didn’t melt, huge underground galleries could be excavated, with pillars of frozen material left in place to support the ceiling.
Some of these galleries were exposed by mining a century later, still empty, open chambers. In a few of these, massive ice crystals covered the walls; others looked as though they had been abandoned only yesterday. In some, tools remained, as though abandoned at the end of a final shift. Other tunnels were filled with ice. From one such frozen tunnel, thanks to David Gould, a Hunker Creek miner, an old hand-made wooden wheelbarrow was recovered, restored, and put on display.
What was it like to labour in such workings underground? I turned to Whitehorse resident Earl Bennett who had, in the winter of 1952, partnered with an old-time miner named Jimmy Lanoff. They lived in a small log cabin on Jimmy’s claim on Gold Run Creek. Nearby, they sank a shaft 12 metres down to bedrock. The remains of this work were still easy to find 30 years later.
Everyday, Jimmy operated a small home-made pipe boiler, perched near the mouth of the mine shaft. It produced steam that was sent down the shaft and injected into the frozen ground through hollow steel tubes or points. Earl inserted these points, working four or five of them at one time, into the mine face about 60 centimetres apart, sealing the steam in with gunny sacks.
In about four hours, the steam thawed the ground, which he excavated and hauled to the bottom of the shaft in wooden windlass buckets along pole rails. Jimmy then hauled them to the top using a hand-powered windlass set up over the shaft. To lubricate the windlass, Jimmy would use a hunk of bacon rind as a bearing surface; this would last for about a month.
Earl tunnelled horizontally from the bottom of the shaft through the frozen gravel for a distance of twenty metres. The tunnel was only a metre high, so he spent hours in a crouched or prone position. Only the bottom 15 centimetres was considered pay, so the remaining material above was cast behind him and allowed to freeze again. As the work progressed, he excavated a large circle of frozen ground, 20 metres in diameter, with the shaft at the centre of the circle.
While Earl worked underground, Jimmy kept the boiler fired up and operated the windlass. In this way, a hundred buckets of material were hoisted to the surface and stockpiled every day. That was a lot of work, and it took 25 windlass buckets to produce a cubic metre of pay dirt, or a total of four cubic metres per day.
At the end of the season, they had produced a dump of 10,000 windlass buckets of paydirt, and while that seems like a big number, today’s machinery could move that much material in a very short time.
The underground work was not for the claustrophobic. It was dark, wet and dirty, and the excavation could collapse at any time. Many miners died over the years in this kind of work from cave-ins and falls. Others were overcome by toxic fumes and suffocated. But at least it wasn’t as cold as it was above ground.
On the surface, miners like Jimmy had to contend with temperatures that often fell below minus 40. I didn’t ask if the work was suspended during periods of extreme cold, but I can imagine what it would be like when the mercury was frozen in the thermometer bulb. Frostbite would be a constant companion.
Jimmy had to keep the boiler supplied with water, and he had to be careful not to produce too much steam because there was no pressure valve on his contraption. Miners have been blown to bits in boiler explosions. Meanwhile, he would have to keep the fire burning in the boiler. Any stoppage of work and the boiler pipes could burst as the water froze in them. In addition to that, there would be a steady stream of buckets to raise and lower as they were slid along the drift to the bottom of the shaft.
If you ask me, that’s a hell of a way to make a living, especially if you didn’t know what the outcome would be after clean-up. Would Workers Compensation have approved of the working conditions?