Among the many things worth seeing at the Dawson City Museum this summer are 16 photographs that tell the story of Dredge No 1, which was the victim of an explosion on February 22, 1913. It had been operating on Bonanza Creek since 1906, and would continue to operate there until 1919. It was shut down that year and later dismantled and moved to Quartz Creek where it operated from 1935 to 1950.
The photo display tells the story of the explosion and the criminal investigation that resulted, as well as showing the operation of the dredge over time.
Despite iconic images of a solitary miner with a pan or a group of men drifting into a hillside, the dredges of the corporate-mining-era are the main reason that Dawson outlasted the usual boom-and-bust cycle common to gold rush towns.
Dawson’s rush was the culmination of the 19th century gold crusades, and the technology used here was international.
Bucket line dredges, of which there were eventually over a dozen, were invented in New Zealand and had to be adapted for use in the North, but they successfully allowed the Yukon Consolidated Gold Company to work over the previously mined creeks and continue to make a profit until 1966.
The largest of these was Dredge No. 4, which still sits near its final working place on Bonanza Creek and was, until last summer when federal budget cuts forced Parks Canada to stop offering tours, the centrepiece of its corporate-mining-era showcase.
There are dredge tours again this summer, but they are being offered by three private companies, two in Dawson (Goldbottom Mine Tours and Husky Bus) and one out of Whitehorse (Nature Tours of Yukon Inc).
Sadly, federal government inaction meant that these tours were not part of anyone’s general advertising for this tourist season. The private tours were announced on April 9, months after advertising for 2013 had been prepared. Many tourists were not aware that they could still tour the dredge.
Dredge No. 4 was built in 1912 and had a season of about 200 days, moving forward in its self-generated pond about half a mile per season. Two-thirds the length of a football field and eight stories high, it is a fascinating structure to visit.
When it sank in its own pond during a spring flood in 1959, it was left to settle until 1991-92, when Parks Canada, with the help of the Canadian military, liberated it from 18 feet of muck and ice, re-floated it, and moved it a few hundred metres to its present site.
Until this summer, Klondike National Historic Sites paid for repairs, and the repair work itself has been nearly as interesting as the story of its original use.
If the private tours were successful enough this year perhaps the federal government will think twice about restoring funding to the site for needed work.