ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

Fractured Veins and Broken Dreams:

The Mines of Montana Mountain, Yukon, 1899-1920

By Murray Lundberg

    Three years before my history of the silver mines above Carcross, Yukon, became a book ("Fractured Veins & Broken Dreams: Montana Mountain and the Windy Arm Stampede"), it was a 19-page paper for a History 136 course at Yukon College. It's funny to look back now, over 20 years after it was written (it's dated March 28, 1994), and see the comment from my instructor, Lynn Ogden, who said, among other things, that "... a few minor adjustments and I believe it might be publishable!". What follows is that paper, with the references removed. To go from this paper to a book required, not "a few minor adjustments", but thousands of hours both on the ground in and around the mines, and in museums and archives, but it was a great adventure.

    "Fractured Veins" has been out of print for many years, and I get regular requests to make it available again. I've done some work to rewrite and expand it for a new edition, but there's a lot more work to do, and it just hasn't reached high enough for long enough on my lengthy "to-do" list.

    The first stakes were hammered into the ground around the silver and gold deposits of Montana Mountain on July 13, 1899. As rapidly advancing mining technology after the turn of the century allowed miners to broaden their horizons, there was a period of three years, from 1904 until 1906, when intensive staking and development work was done over an area of approximately forty square miles around, and to the south of, the summit of the mountain. In an intricate web of complex geology, difficult engineering, and managerial intrigue and incompetence, all of the mines eventually failed, and the service town of Conrad was born and died within six years. There has been sporadic interest in Montana Mountain's resources up until the present day, but there have been no long-term successes. While the town of Conrad has vanished, the many mine ruins on the mountain remain as largely unrecognized monuments to the determination of pioneer hardrock miners in the Yukon.

    Revolutionary changes in the nature of North American working-class society, immigration laws, corporate and investment structures, and hardrock mining techniques were all prerequisites to the flurry of activity on Montana Mountain, as well as in many other areas including, most notably locally, the Wheaton River valley and the Whitehorse Copper Belt.

    The Klondike gold rush had turned the eyes of the western world towards the Yukon and Alaska, which became a mecca for the ambitious, the adventurous, and the disillusioned. When the madness of 1898 was past, most men who had missed out on the riches of the Klondike left the country forever; others acknowledged that mining was hard work, and, with widely varying levels of expertise, went prospecting in other areas of the northern territories. The most easily accessible areas were of course the first to be covered by these prospectors; from the White Pass and Yukon Route railway station at Caribou Crossing, the slopes of Montana Mountain, reaching to 7,233 feet, almost 3,000 feet above the treeline, would have been irresistible to many.

    Not all of the men combing the mountains and valleys were Klondike veterans; the Yukon attracted a seasonal influx of people who left again as soon as the first snows fell. Their reasons for coming north were as varied as the men themselves, but for many, it was an escape from difficult conditions Outside.

    After the economic depression of the early 1890s, there was a period of recovery, but by 1904, another of the cycles of recession had hit. Combined with fundamental changes in the very nature of capitalist structures, these economic cycles made life for many working class Canadian families more difficult in both economic and psychological terms. Capital was increasingly becoming controlled by larger and larger corporations, and concepts of scientifically managing their workforces were rapidly being introduced. Many workers were losing much of their sense of autonomy and self-worth, as well as having their wages lowered in many cases. With employers often being aided by strong government intervention in labour disputes, including increasingly-common military intervention, the working class was a community under siege. Poverty, and the associated health problems in the industrial centres was appalling: one in three Montreal infants died before reaching the age of 12 months in the years 1897-1911, with gastro-intestinal diseases taking a particularly heavy toll. To many men in such situations, the Yukon would have obvious attractions, even if just for a temporary job as a wage labourer in one of the many mines opening up.

    Wages across Canada in the early years of the century were characterized by enormous fluctuations and disparities both within and between various industries and regions. A fairly representative sample shows that in Winnipeg in 1905, a carpenter earned 35 cents per hour during a 54 hour work week; a construction labourer earned 25 cents per hour for 60 hours. At the same time in Vancouver, socialist labour organizations such as the Provincial Progressive Party and the International Workers of the World were achieving important labour reforms; a carpenter earned 43¾ cents per hour in a 44 hour week, and a labourer received 34½ cents in the same time. Wages in the Montana Mountain mines controlled by Col. J.H. Conrad increased dramatically at this time in order to attract qualified miners from Outside. In 1905, miners received $3.50 plus room and board for an 8 hour day, and labourers earned the same amount for a 10 hour day; one year later, miners were earning $5.00 per day, plus room and board.

    Among the many concerns of Canadian workers was the exploding immigration rate; particularly in the West, visible minorities were the recipients of increasingly hostile reactions from workers who saw them as taking jobs away and further lowering their standard of living. The extremely limited number of transportation routes in the North made effective racism especially easy; in Stewart, B.C., "celestials" were not allowed off the ships, and in Whitehorse in June of 1902, a delegation of townsmen refused to permit five Chinese from Victoria to board the ship which was to take them downriver to Dawson; they were forced to take the next train out of the Territory. Indians in the Yukon were virtually never hired in mining, although they occasionally derived some minor benefit by supplying fresh meat to the miners.

    Much of the lack of success of the mines attempting to extract Montana Mountain's riches has been due to the extremely complex geology of the region. Montana Mountain lies at the juncture of the Whitehorse Trough and the Coast Plutonic Belt, resulting from the collision of a terrane from the south with the coast of North America about 150 million years ago. Movements along the faults and fissures associated with this juncture has resulted in an intricate weaving of variously-modified volcanic and sedimentary rocks which have formed at various times over the past 50-150 million years. In this formation, minerals have been deposited in the fissures opened and closed by those movements; this is particularly true in a band of porphyrites which forms the shell of much of Montana Mountain. Gold and silver specifically have been deposited in these fissures by ascending mineral-rich thermal waters. Locating mineral deposits which are economically viable for mining is especially difficult on Montana Mountain because of both the irregular nature of the veins thus formed, and the microscopic form of the minerals, which generally occur in a quartz matrix. Although the presence of certain indicator rocks such as galena and pyrargyrite hints at the presence of the sought-after minerals, only assaying can confirm their presence or absence.

    The history of the mines of Montana Mountain focuses primarily on the activities of one man. Little is known about Col. John H. Conrad except in the direct context of the mines which he controlled here. He arrived from Montana in 1905, a member of a family with extensive holdings in both the western United States and Canada, mainly in silver mining and cattle ranching. He quickly consolidated more than one hundred of the most important claims on Montana Mountain and the surrounding district, most of which were staked in 1904 and 1905. Three companies were formed with financial backing from Canadian railroad tycoon William Mackenzie; the companies were Conrad Consolidated Mines, Canadian Yukon Mining Co., Ltd., and J.H. Conrad Bonanza Mines. These companies were under the management of Col. Conrad himself; J.P. Rogers, Mackenzie's local manager; and accountant H.M. Lay. Mackenzie had guaranteed close to one million dollars for development work, to gain a 50% share of the companies. Extensive exploration and development work on the Montana Mountain properties began in the late summer of 1905.

    Development work in 1905 proceeded on over a dozen claims; the main work was done on the adjoining Mountain Hero and Montana claims, and on the Venus. Construction of an $80,000 Riblet aerial tramway was completed, although a capstan which broke during cable stretching delayed its being put into operation until the 1906 season. This tramway ran from the new townsite of Conrad, on the shore of Windy Arm of Tagish Lake, 18,697 feet to the Mountain Hero claim, 3,464 feet above the level of the lower terminal. D.D. Cairnes, GSC, reported values of $80 and over per ton, mainly in silver, from the vein which the Montana shaft had struck, and which the cross-cut tunnel on the Mountain Hero claim was reported to have found. On the Venus claim, a 52 foot deep shaft had already produced fifteen tons of ore which was shipped to "outside smelters", probably in Tacoma.

    Reports on the future of the Windy Arm district were unanimously optimistic in the fall of 1905: in his Summary Report for that year for the GSC, Cairnes described the new mining area in glowing terms: "the general outlook for the camp is exceedingly promising, and its opening marks an important event in the mining history of the country". In Whitehorse's "Daily Evening Star" of October 30, 1905, there is an interview with William Clark, who is described as "one of the most conservative Quartz miners ever to come north". Clark visited the major properties at the request of Toronto M.P. Hon. Edmund Bristol, who was interested in investing. Clark's opinion was that:

Undoubtedly the Windy Arm country is the richest and most extensive mineral belt discovered on the North American continent in many years. ...I believe from 5000 to 10,000 men will be employed there within a year. [On the Mountain Hero property] a veritable mountain of ore has been located. ...Billy Weisdeippe, operator of the mule pack train, has packed 4000 tons of freight, ore, wood and supplies during the past ten weeks.

    In 1906, Cairnes was in the southern Yukon for the Geological Survey from late May until October, and conducted extensive surveys of what had officially become the Conrad mining district. This was the high point of the Montana Mountain boom: Cairnes reported that the town of Conrad "has now several hotels, stores, restaurants, churches and so on, and a mining recorder's office". On July 1, 1906, James Murray was hired as Conrad's first postmaster. The sternwheeler Gleaner, a 24l-ton steamer operated by The British Yukon Navigation Company (Lake Division), a White Pass subsidiary, was running twice-weekly service around the southern lakes, stopping at Conrad.

    In 1903, the Territorial council had initiated various forms of assistance to hardrock mining operations, in an effort to stem the rapidly-dropping population of the Yukon. This assistance included "assaying assistance to miners, building roads and trails into promising districts and a 10-year moratorium on royalty and export tax payments for gold extracted through quartz mining". Through this policy, the government had built 23¾ miles of wagon roads and 12¼ miles of pack trails between Carcross (the name of the post office at Caribou Crossing since 1902), Conrad, and the major claim blocks. Much of the current Klondike Highway from Carcross to the old Conrad townsite lies on top of the wagon road which was completed in 1906, and the road that climbs from Carcross up the north side of Montana Mountain is the wagon road to the Big Thing property, upgraded.

    Extensive work was being carried on at many claims, and every mining camp was connected by private telephone line to either Conrad or Carcross, or both; a total of over 20 miles of lines had been strung. Large stone houses, 100 feet long and 16 feet wide, were built on the Mountain Hero, Thistle and Aurora, and Big Thing claims. The ruins of these stone houses shows that they were built with no mortar; the country rock fractures in a rather squared manner, and they were merely set together to form a wall about eighteen inches thick, and the spaces were filled with smaller stones and dirt.

    Despite the reports of one year previously, the tunnel on the Mountain Hero claim had not found the Montana vein, and work was suspended; the location of the tramway was now quite inconvenient, although it was used to carry supplies to the other claims near the summit of the mountain. Unfortunately, the tramway was powered by gravity, as it was designed primarily to carry ore down the mountain. To get buckets carrying 200-250 pounds of supplies to travel up the slope, it was necessary for the down-going buckets to be loaded with 1000 to 1200 pounds of rock;

as no ore was available to load the buckets it was necessary, in order to work the tramway, to keep several men shovelling loose rock from the mountainside into the buckets, this rock being afterwards dumped near the lower end of the tramway.

    Two other tramways were in operation as well as the one to the Mountain Hero; these were built on the Vault and Venus claims, which were lower on the Windy Arm side of the mountain; an extension to the Vault tramway was under construction to reach right from the beach to the mine site, where a comfortable camp had been built on ledges blasted into the canyon cliffs.

    As well as those properties consolidated by Col. Conrad, a block of claims which had been staked in 1904 to the south of the Venus were being worked in 1906. These claims were on the lake side of what is now called Dail Peak, and were staked by one of the Yukon's more successful prospectors, George Dail, and his partner I.E. Fleming. In 1906 the properties, known as the Dail and Fleming Group, were bonded for a two-year period to the Anglo-American Consolidated Mining Company of Seattle; over the next two years they sunk a shaft and drove drifts on the Venus Extension, and did some open cuts on most of the properties in an unsuccessful search for a viable vein.

    Col. Conrad was apparently more of a promoter than a miner; unfortunately for him, in 1906 Mackenzie hired as capable a geologist as Canada had produced to that time to check out the Conrad properties. Joseph Burr Tyrrell had worked for the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) from 1881 until 1898, and had gained international acclaim for his explorations in the Barren Lands in 1893 and 1894. Having just completed seven years as an independent mining engineer in Dawson, Tyrrell was eminently qualified for both the physical and intellectual demands of his new position. He had dealt extensively with entrepreneurs such as A.N.C. Treadgold in Dawson, and was well aware that the world of mining was "a world of speculation and promotion". He advised his clients to recognize the difference between mining and gambling; mining properties should be evaluated strictly by weighing known ore reserves against market values. Tyrrell's final reports to Mackenzie in October of 1906 total over sixty pages; comparing them with those published by the Geological Survey, it is sometimes difficult to believe that the same property is being discussed. The GSC was under great pressure at this time to encourage mining, and negative reports seem to have been avoided as much as possible.

    Tyrrell's early reports to Mackenzie had been sent by telegraph, in code; one of his first messages upon arriving in Conrad, where he found operations "chaotic", was to tell Mackenzie to "wait". Suspecting that Tyrrell's work may not be in his best interests, Col. Conrad asked to borrow his code book, saying that he had misplaced his. When Tyrrell refused this request, Conrad became "very obstructive and ugly", and Tyrrell had to move into a hotel and rent a typewriter to complete his work.

    Tyrrell's final reports, dated October 5 and October 26, 1906, do not use either code or vague language. In his evaluation of the Pride of the Yukon claim, he states that "there are no values in sight and the property would seem to be worthless"; for each other claim, he uses a variation on that same theme. Tyrrell's frustration shows in one comment after another: regarding the newest tramway being built to the Vault at a cost of some $16,000, he states that "unless further development should by good fortune reveal some payable ore this tramway will stand, like the Mountain Hero tramway, a monument to foolish and incompetent management". William Mackenzie took Tyrrell's advice, and used one or more of the escape clauses included in his option to discontinue further investment, and to eventually seize all of Conrad's Yukon assets; the details of this renegotiation are one of the large blocks of information that are missing from the record locally.

    With the collapse of Conrad's financing, the extensive development work came to an abrupt halt. Most of the underground workings were allowed to glaciate while work concentrated on the Vault and Venus. By the fall of 1908, the Vault had been abandoned as well, confirming J.B. Tyrrell's prediction.

    Col. Conrad had apparently obtained new financial backing early in 1908, because the Venus was being extensively worked, and Conrad had even optioned the Dail and Fleming Group for three years. In 1908, 1,800 feet of drifting was done along the two main Veins on the Venus property, and 100 tons of ore had been shipped to the smelter at Tacoma, netting over $60 per ton.

    Transportation of ore from Windy Arm was difficult and expensive, even though the White Pass and Yukon gave a preferential rate of $5.50 per ton for sacked ore in 1916, in comparison with rates for other supplies which averaged about $50.00 per ton. Except in extremely rich pockets of the vein,the ore had to be hand-sorted into l00-pound sacks to assure the highest possible grade for shipping. The sacks then went on the Gleaner to Caribou Crossing, where they were transferred to the White Pass and Yukon railway, which took them to Skagway. They were then loaded onto a ship for the 1000 mile trip to the Tacoma smelter. In a bid to improve the quality of the ore shipped, the small concentrator which still sits on the shore of Windy Arm was built, apparently during the late summer of 1908. The tramway which had been built on the Venus property was relocated slightly to bring the ore from the lower Venus tunnel directly to the top of the concentrator. It had a capacity of about 100 tons per day, but because of the brittle, oxidized nature of the ore, the sorting was not effective, and losses were much too high; it was soon shut down.

    Transportation costs are often stated to have been a major factor in the demise of many Yukon mines. In the case of the Montana Mountain claims, the proximity to tidewater made that a much less serious problem than in any other part of the Territory, even though White Pass freight rates in 1910 averaged about five times those of the Canadian Pacific Railway. When you compare prices in Dawson with those in the Eatons catalogues, Tyrrell's sample prices more nearly resemble the Eatons prices: for example, flour in 1906 cost $9.30 per 100 pounds in Conrad, while in 1907 it was $15.00 in Dawson and $7.00 in the Eatons catalogue.

    In 1909, the Venus and adjoining claims were operating when visited by R.W. Brock, GSC, but the ore being stoped was of low value, about $10 in gold and $10 in silver per ton; this would have been well below the cost to extract it. Brock also reported that considerable work had been done on the Thistle and Aurora claims again.

    The town of Conrad was already in serious decline; when postmaster Frank McPhee died on June 28, 1909, he was not replaced for ten months, and by December 10, 1910, the post office was closed permanently. It was common for the trading companies serving the Yukon to open stores in boom towns as quickly as possible in order to cover losses in declining areas. Captain P. Martin's Arctic Trading Company of Whitehorse built a store in Conrad, but the town's boom was over so quickly that the store never opened, and sometime after 1909 the building was sold to Matthew Watson and towed across the lake ice to Carcross.

    Col. Conrad had set up a fair amount of equipment on the Dail and Fleming properties when he optioned them in 1908; very little work had ever been done, and in 1910 the option expired and all of the equipment was forfeited as a result.

    In 1912, Mackenzie and Mann forced Conrad's companies into bankruptcy, and took over all of their assets. With the bankruptcy of the main property-holder on Montana Mountain, the town of Conrad died almost as rapidly as it had developed. The "Whitehorse Star" of July 10, 1914 reported that:

...what was once the liveliest little town in the North, eight years ago, is now wholly deserted, except for one resident, an aged woman who lives there all alone. Three of the best hotel buildings in the Yukon, one of them all furnished even to the bar glasses and cash register, stand like silent sentinels, reminders of former prosperity and halcyon days. There are sufficient buildings in Conrad for a town of 500 population.

    The only work done on any of the properties from then until 1916 was the annual assessment work required by the government to keep the claims valid. In 1915, silver prices started to rise because of war-time shortages: silver was at 60 cents per ounce in 1905, 66 cents in 1906, bottomed at 51 cents in 1909, then rose rapidly from 1915 until peaking in 1919 at $1.11.

    In the spring of 1916, Mackenzie and Mann leased most of the Conrad properties to Lackinaw and Tagish Mines of Seattle, with J.L. Harper as general manager; the Big Thing property went to Col. W.L. Stevenson on behalf of the Alaska Corporation of Skagway. Both of these companies seem to have gotten involved in a project which they were not really sure how to proceed on, but Cairnes' GSC report for 1916 describes the new work as "hav[ing] done much to encourage the lode mining industry of southern Yukon". However, the work done was on a very small scale over the next few years, and although a small amount of ore was shipped from the Venus No. 2, no success was reported on any of the properties; by 1920, all of the properties had been abandoned.

    With the exception of extensive trenching done with bulldozers on the Big Thing (now known as the Arctic Caribou) property, and the two newer concentrators on the Klondike Highway near the Venus claims, Montana Mountain remains very much as it was left in 1920. Most of the tramway stands are still there, much of the equipment sits rusting where it was abandoned, and many of the shafts and tunnels are accessible as far as the ice will allow.

    This report has merely hit the high points of the information that is available on Montana Mountain's mines, particularly for the 1905-1906 period. However, it has also just scratched the surface of the research that needs to be done to tell the whole story of these pioneers of Yukon hardrock mining. Much of the information is in the National Archives (the Mackenzie and Mann files), some may be in Seattle (the files of the various Conrad companies), and a great deal may have been lost, or indeed may never have been recorded. We can only hope that the new-found interest in non-Klondike northern history will result in such research being undertaken.

More About Northern Mining