The ‘little town that wanted to but didn’t quite make it’: Conrad City to become a historic site
Submitted Photo/Murray Ludberg
Local historian Murray Lundberg’s book Fractured Veins and Broken Dreams sums up the man behind the Windy Arm mining stampede and Conrad City, the townsite that appeared and vanished almost overnight more than 100 years ago.
“One of John Conrad’s most distinctive management traits was that he never did anything half-way.”
In his quest for silver in the mountains around Carcross, Conrad founded a short-lived boom town that was once proposed as the next capital of the Yukon, after Dawson City.
But today, all that remains of Conrad City are a couple of decaying buildings, the remains of an old tramway and some garbage piles containing old glass and other artifacts.
Conrad wasn’t the first to see value in the site on the west side of Windy Arm. Long before he arrived in the area, the spot was used by the ancestors of the Tagish Kwan people as a traditional fishing, hunting and camping site. They called it Tsei Zhele Mene — Howling Rock Lake.
Now, plans are underway to turn Conrad into a Yukon historic site, which would fulfill a commitment in the Carcross/Tagish First Nation final agreement.
“I know living elders in the community who were born there,” said Colleen James, a First Nation representative on the steering committee. “Every family has stories about time spent there.”
The plan for the historic site is to protect both First Nation and mining heritage in the area. James said the remaining buildings will be stabilized and one might be refurbished as an interpretive centre. Trails and interpretive signs will help visitors learn about the history of the area. An old bridge that was washed out will be removed and replaced with a footbridge. There will also be a day-use area, though it won’t include a boat launch.
There will also be five or six walk-in campsites, in addition to the new, drive-in campground that was opened nearby in May 2016. People used to drive in and camp on the old townsite, but that is no longer allowed.
Vehicles won’t be able to drive right onto the site, except for elders and those with mobility issues.
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“By gating it off, we’re reducing the traffic, and we’re really trying to enhance the special feel of Conrad,” said Greg Hare, a Yukon government archaeologist who’s also on the steering committee.
The history of Conrad City — “that little town that wanted to but didn’t quite make it,” according to Hare — is closely tied to the personality of John Conrad, who founded it in 1905.
In an interview with the News, Lundberg described Conrad as “a great big swaggering, cigar-smoking” businessman with a “very domineering personality.”
He first came to the Yukon in 1903. By the next year, he was optioning claims around Windy Arm and drumming up money from investors, apparently convinced the region was rich in silver.
Conrad eventually opened a string of mines in the area, including the Venus Mine. Conrad City sprang up to house the mine workers, and was home to about 500 people at its peak, according to Lundberg.
The town boasted a couple of hotels, wall tent restaurants, a telegraph service and even a newspaper office.
Lundberg said people were attracted to the area because the Klondike gold fields had by then “turned into a major corporate operation.”
By contrast, around Windy Arm, independent miners could work for Conrad and pursue their own interests on the side.
“There were all kinds of opportunities to explore and stake properties,” Lundberg said. “That was no longer really a viable option in Dawson. The timing was perfect for it.”
But the promised riches never materialized. At one point, Lundberg said, the miners were running the tramway with loads of waste rock instead of ore. Then in 1906, a federal geologist named Joseph Burr Tyrrell visited the area and gave Conrad some unwelcome news.
“He said that there was no reasonable expectation that a mine of any size could be built there,” Lundberg said.
Though Conrad kicked Tyrrell out of his cabin, the damage was done. The townsite emptied out as quickly as it had grown.
“By 1907, there was basically nobody left.”
Conrad persisted, and even built a mill connected to one of the mines in 1911. But after that, he couldn’t pay his bills anymore.
“The mill finished him off,” Lundberg said. “Grasping at straws is I guess what it came down to.”
After the townsite emptied out, many of its buildings were moved to Carcross, including the Catholic church. A couple of attempts to reboot the Venus Mine in the 1960s and ’70s were just as unsuccessful as Conrad’s had been.
And so the old mines remain, scattered across Montana Mountain, as the few untouched buildings settle into the ground at Conrad City.
Lundberg said it’s important for the history of the area to be preserved, but he’s concerned about the effect the historic site might have on the surrounding mines.
He worries that if more people learn about the site, they’ll head up into the mountains looking for artifacts. And the mines won’t be protected as part of the historic site, he said.
“People will go up there and trash them…. It is a serious concern.”
James said most of the comments she’s heard are positive, though some people are concerned about the impact of additional traffic from the new Conrad campground.
The steering committee released its draft management plan for the Conrad historic site at public meetings in January.
People can submit feedback through an online survey at yukonheritage.com/heritage-plans/conrad.
Hare said the First Nation and the Yukon government will approve the final management plan this summer, and work on the site will likely begin next year.
“It really was a pretty dynamic place at the time,” Hare said. “And I think it’s something that a lot of people will enjoy seeing interpreted.”