A Tale of the Klondike Tailings

Despite the romantic image of the grizzled miner panning by the creek side in search of gold, that phase of the Klondike’s mineral saga was relatively short.

Entrepreneurial minds knew of more efficient and less-labour intensive ways of getting gold from the ground, and it wasn’t long before the arrival of the dredges in the valley.

Dredges replicate the work of individuals on a gargantuan scale. The largest of these, Dredge No. 4, currently sits on display on Bonanza Creek, close to where it finished its working life, which began in 1913 and ended in 1959.

The bucket at the front of the beast scooped up as much as 14,000 square metres of earth and rock per day, ran it through the interior sluice works of the 18-metre high hull to capture the gold, and spat out the leavings from the stacker at the rear end, reshaping the landscape into a maze of twisting worm trails.

Pierre Berton, who worked around the dredges for three summers while he was putting himself through college, hated the noise of the machines and wrote quite negatively about the tailings piles and ponds in his 1972 memoir, Drifting Home.

His mother, Laura Berton, recalled being able to hear the metallic screaming of the dredges (there were two dozen at one time) all the way back to Dawson during their early May to late November operating season in her book I Married the Klondike.

Some of the tailings near Dawson have been flattened out and turned into residential lots, such as the Tr’ondëk Subdivision near the Ogilvie Bridge that spans the Klondike River.

A bit further on, other tailings have been left in their more naturally unnatural condition, and were developed as country residential lots by the Yukon government. This area is called the Dredge Pond Subdivision.

When it was learned, a few months ago, that part of Tr’ondëk-Klondike World Heritage Nomination included a request to preserve some of the tailings within the town boundaries so that they aren’t all tidied up, there were mixed reactions to the request, which has since been agreed to by YTG, acting jointly with the City of Dawson

Letters pages in the territorial newspapers were full of comments, pro and con.

Though it wasn’t much of an issue in the local newspaper, Facebook lit up with a series of positive and negative exchanges that ran to 22 pages when I copied them to a file in early March of this year.

Long term residents, especially those who had grown up here, were particularly in favour of the plan, which involves a relatively small, protected area near the southern municipal boundary.

Visitors to the region seem to have one of two reactions to the tailings piles, which look like a series of low, mounded hills when viewed from the Klondike Highway.

Some are appalled by the way humans and their machines have reshaped the natural landscape. Others are impressed by the size of the undertaking and find the sight kind of inspiring.

From the point of view of developing a cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site that celebrates both mining and the traditional cultures in the area, leaving some evidence of the older mining styles intact seems to make sense.

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