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Stories from Yukon gold mines in 1894

San Francisco Chronicle - Tuesday, October 9, 1894

From Yukon gold mines - Experiences of a party of prospectors, 1894

    A party of five bronzed and bearded men, wrapped in heavy furs and wearing moccasins and leggings which bore many evidences of heavy wear, caused a small sensation on Kearny street yesterday afternoon. Though clad in the garb of the gentle Esquimaux, they were not from the Midwinter Fair, but horny-handed miners who had just returned from the piacer diggings on Forty-mile creek in the heart of Alaska after undergoing privations and experiencing enough adventures to fill a yellow-covered novel.

    The party was composed of W. E. Gilbert, Dr. Gibbs, Henry Cheney, Donald Fraser and J. O. Hesswood. They arrived here on the revenue cutter Corwin on Sunday evening, and their presence in skins on Kearny street yesterday was due to their eager desire to exchange some of their hard-earned gold for the garments of civilization.

    "I'm feeling better now," said Gilbert, after he had shed his outer skin and fitted himself to a business suit. "I've just had a good civilized meal and dropped my furs. Now, as soon as I can get a bath, a shave and a pair of shoes I'll begin to feel like a white man. Our party has just arrived from Forty-mile creek, on the Yukon. Society on the Yukon is not as strict regarding the cut of one's clothes as people are in this city. I was up there about four months, and I shall go back in the spring. How did it pan out? Well, we haven't any more money than the law allows, but I think we will manage to get along comfortably.

    "The party in which I was started from Junean on May 20th. There were about fifty of us, and we were all on a prospecting tour. We went by steamer from Juneau to the head of salt water navigation on the Linn canal. There the people broke up into small parties. I was with three others. We packed our stuff twenty-eight miles over the summit of the mountains through Chilcat pass, which has an elevation of 8000 feet, to Lake Lyndeman, at the headwaters of the Yukon. This is the first lake in the chain of lakes along the Yukon.

Ready to start for Chilkat Pass, 1894

    "The manner of the passage of Lyndeman depends upon the season. If it is an open season and the water is free from ice, you may sail across. There is no timber along the lake shore,m but there is plenty of drift wood from which the prospectors make rafts and thus cross. We were the last party over the lake, and as the ice had formed we sleighed from one end to the other. From Lyndeman we went seven miles to Lake Bennett, which is in the Northwest territory. Lake Bennett is forty miles long. On the shores of this lake we built a boat 18 feet in length and then prepared to sail down the Yukon. Most of the prospectors build their boats, as we did, but some buy boats and carry them in. Of course we had to pack tar, pitch, oakum, nails, ropes and everything else, except timber, necessary for the construction and equipment of the boat.

Camp at the head of the Yukon, 1894

    "After Bennett we struck Lake Taku, a sheet of water thirty-five miles long. Then came Mud lake, twenty-five miles long. From Mud lake to Lake Lebarge there is a seventy-five mile sail through rapids and down canyons, which is the worst of the whole trip. The White Horse rapids are in this part of the journey. We were two and a half days making the distance, and though we met with no disaster, it kept the four of us bustling lively to keep off the rocks and prevent capsizing in the rapids. Five men lost their lives in the rapids this season.

Trading with the Indians at Lake Laberge, 1894

    "Passing through Lebarge, which is forty miles jong, we entered upon the course to Forty-mile creek, our destination. The river is full of sandbars and rapids and the course is very dangerous. The prospectors who journey to the placer diggings of the Yukon enjoy no picnic, I tell you, neither on the way nor while they are in camp. Below Lebarge you strike the Five-fingers rapids and the Rink, which are veritable whiripools where the foam bubbles and steams, and where the waters are lashed to a perfect fury by the swift and powerful current. Navigation here is particularily dangerous. Fifty miles below Lebarge is Fort Selkirk, or 'Stick George's', as the miners call it. It is the first trading post you strike on the road. It is not a very imposing looking place, but it serves its purpose, and the sight of its rude logs has gladdened the heart of many a fortune-hunter wearied with days of battling against the dangers of the treacherous river.

Fort Selkirk, a trading post on the Yukon River, 1894

    "Below Fort Seikirk are the rapids known as the 'Upper Ramparts,' where our rude boat was again in danger. Ninety miles past Selkirk is the junction of the White river, and sixteen miles further on is the junction of the Stewart, one of the most important tributaries of the Yukon. Sixty-mile creek, which has produced great quantities of gold, is twenty-five miles below the Stewart. The somewhat curious name of the creek is given it because it is sixty miles from Fort Reliance. Similarly, Forty-mile creek is so named because it is forty miles from that post. Reliance is between the two diggings. We made our headquarters at Forty-mile creek and were there for four months. I think there are now about 750 miners at these diggings.

    "It is very hard, however, to give an estimate in any degree accurate of the number of prospectors, for they are scattered all through the country. There were a number of men in the Stewart river country, but I think that country is now nearly worked out. There has also been a scarcity of grub there. The latest gold excitement along the Yukon has been caused by a discovery at Birch creek, some 200 miles below Forty Mile. There are about 100 men there, and they say they have very good prospects.

    "The main gold-producing diggings are at Miller creek, which is really tributary to Sixty-mile creek, but everybody goes up Forty-mile to get there. Some claims at Miller ran as high as $4 and $5 to the pan. It is all placer mining on the Yukon. There is quartz, but it is buried so deep under ice and moss that it cannot be reached. The ground up there seldom thaws out more than about eighteen inches. It takes some time to open up the placer mines, because you must get down to bedrock. The gold is free and coarse. Labor is worth $10 day.

    "There are no big companies in the diggings, everything being done on prospect. I heard of a miner on Miller creek who, it was said, had cleared up all the way from $20,000 to $40,000. He will come out this year. The Miller creek mines were discovered only two years ago. It is difficult to tell how much a man cleans up because most of the miners prefer to keep that interesting matter to themselves. At Miller they have to keep hustiing for provisions. Two years ago many prospectors had to go down the Yukon 1650 miles to Fort Michaels for provisions.

    "The steamers of the Alaska Commercial Company and the North American Trading and Transportation Company make two trips a year to the_diggings with provisions. They have all they can do to make the two trips, for the river is open only about four months. It is freezing now. The steamers come up the river from the ocean, but the prospectors who go in as we did travel down the river from its head waters.

    "Forty-mile creek is 750 miles from Juneau. It takes from thirty to forty days to make the trip under favorable conditions. It been done more rapidly. Dr. Gibbs' party claim to have made it in twenty-one days, which is the quickest trip on record. They carried a boat with them, and did not have to build one.

    "At Miller's and at Forty-mile creek the Commercial Company and the Trading company have trading posts. I will just tell you some of the prevailing prices, so if you think of going up there you will know what to expect. Flour is $20 a sack, or $40 per 100 pounds; bacon is $80 per 100; potatoes are very scarce, but when they are to be had in the spring, when the first boat comes up, they sell for seventy-five cents a pound; onions are $1 a pound; sugar, fifty cents a pound, and very ordinary tea, $1.50 a pound. Little coffee is used. Some of the men are raising potatoes and onions up there now, bu they are doing it under cover.

    "The cost of an expedition into the diggings from Juneau, of course, varies considerably. A man with experience who knows how to trade can do much better than a tenderfoot. You must get a mining and cooking outfit at Juneau. This cost our party from $65 to $70 a man, including a month's provisions of flour, bacon, beans, rice, tea, oatmeal, etc. The baggage will amount to about 300 pounds a man. Crossing Chilcat pass the Indians pack for $14 a cental. The steamer charges from Juneau to the head of salt water are $10 a man.

    "Many men buy furs and skins; others, who know better, trade with the Indians for them. Every prospector carries along a little stuff for trading purposes. Some of the miners don't wear furs at all. All nationalities are represented in the diggings along the Yukon. But few of the men who go are experienced miners. Most of them are attracted by the idea of getting $10 a day for labor. Well, some get work and some don't. All payment, of course, is made in dust, which, in fact, is the only currency except the few dollars the prospectors may bring in with them.

    "Personally, I think the country is over-done. You will find others who will not agree with me on that proposition. I think there are enough men there now. There is any quantity of gold, but there is so much prospecting and there is such difficulty in getting grub that it is difficult to do much work. I think the mines are excellent, but the severe conditions under which they must be worked are certainly against their development.

    "We left Forty-mile creek on September 3d last, and went down the Yukon on the P. W. Wear, a steamer of the North American Trading Company. We reached St. Michaels on September 12th and went thence on the Bear to Oonalaska. From that place we came down on the Corwin, getting to San Francisco Sunday night.

    "I wish to say one thing about the diggings at Forty-mile creek," Mr. Gilbert continued. "I think it is the most orderly mining camp in the world. We have no law except miners law, and that is well observed. I wish to deny a statement published in a San Francisco paper as a dispatch from Port Townsend, under date of August 17th last. The dispatch said that two miners had a dispute over a claim at Forty-mile creek and had killed each other. Thereā€˜s not a word of truth in that. There were only three deaths in camp this season, and they were all from natural causes. The same dispatch, which, by the way, was a tissue of falsehoods, stated that Captain Lyon and four other men had been drowned by the capsizing of their boat in the Five-fingers rapids. I saw Lyon on my way down at St. Michaels. Again, it was said that Joe Goldsmith had been frozen to death. Goldsmith was alive when I left. A man named Aleck McDonald, however, was frozen to death. His body was found by Indians in his cabin on the banks of the Yukon, near Sixty-mile creek. McDonald was one of the oldest prospectors up there. Alfred Olsen was drowned under the ice on May 7th about half way down the river. He had shot a duck, and going out on the ice for it, he fell into the river and was drowned. A man named Wolf was also drowned. His boat upset in the river.

    "Recurring to the order of the camp, I will tell you some interesting facts. Miners leave their cabins with bags of gold dust on the floors and the doors wide open, and nothing is stolen. I slept one night in a cabin belonging to the trading company. It had over $1000 worth of provisions in it unguarded. On the door was a sign reading: 'Walk right in, gentlemen, end make yourselves at home. Be careful of fire and close the door.' A man is entitled to a bunk wherever he can get it. You may also get a meal at any cabin. That is the law of the country, but see to it that you take nothing. The penalty for theft is death.

    "Like all miners, those on the Yukon are great gambiers. During the winter that is about all they have to do, except to drink and smoke. There are twelve saloons at Forty-mile, and whisky is 50 cents a drink. At Miller creek whisky is $40 a gallon. Most of the liquor is smuggled in. As to gambling, it is nothing uncommon to shake dice for $100 a throw. With all that, however, it is very quiet for a mining camp. Bad men are given an invitation to quit the country. They usually accept it.

    "Four Chinese tried to get in last spring. They were told at Chilcat pass to 'pull their freight' and they did so. They never came back. They want no Chinese on Forty-mile creek.

    "I want to tell you one thing about the Yukon. It is absoluteiy the worst infested country on earth so far as mosquitoes are concerned. Why, they grow there as big as eagles, with bills like augers and a suction power equal to an air pump. Some of the old-timers among the prospectors are thinking of capturing a few of the birds and training them to drili under the moss and ice for gold quartz. It would be a great scheme. There's millions in it. There were seven horses in the diggings when we left, but I fear the mosquitoes will carry them away. The horses were brought in by Jack Dalton, one of the notorious Dalton brothers. He killed a man at Chilcat about a year ago and was acquitted at Juneau. Dalton received an invitation to quit the diggings and eh did so. Captain Healey refused to give him passage on the Bear. Dr. Tam, who was foreman of the jury which acqnitted Dalton, is in the diggings now with his wife. She is one of about nine white women at Forty-mile.

    "The winter season is just closing in now at the mines. Last winter was the hardest known. It registered 82 degrees below zero. In the spring it is often very warm. The Yukon opens up about the middle of May, and begins freezing from the 9th to the 15th of October. There is plenty of game along the banks, including moose, cariboo, bear and ducks. There is plenty of salmon in the river. One has not much time to hunt, though, nor inclination either, for where the country is not mountainous it is boggy. It is hard enough work to carry a gun alone without thinking of hauling a moose. It's a great country, though, and I shall go back in the spring."

    Mr. Gilbert is from Iowa, Dr. Gibbs is from Los Angeles, Mr. Cheney is from New York and the others of the party hail from "the earth."