After the Gold Rush
In the summer of 1899 the Klondike rush ended when a discovery of gold was made on the beaches of Nome, Alaska. Because very few of the people who had come to the Yukon after 1897 had found enough gold to make their trip worthwhile, there was a large floating population in Dawson and elsewhere in the Territory anxious to participate in another rush. When the strike at Nome was announced, many of these people left for Alaska. Others left for the south. But this did not mean that Dawson turned into a ghost town, simply that there was no gold for newcomers. Those who had good properties continued to work them. The year of greatest gold production in the Yukon, in fact, was 1900, when over $22 million worth was taken out of the creeks (in 1897 the figure was $2.5 million; in 1898 $10 million). After 1900, production began to decrease, but very slowly, so that up to the end of 1911 $140 million in gold had been taken out of the ground. The population of the Yukon declined from about thirty thousand at the height of the rush in late 1898 to just over four thousand in 1921, of whom nearly half were First Nations. Gold was still being taken out of the creeks more than sixty years after the rush, and with the sharp increase in world gold prices in the 1970s, there was another flurry of activity.
The most dramatic change in gold mining at the end of the rush was not the loss of population but the change in mining methods. There was an almost incredible concentration of gold on some of the claims, where, it was said, hundreds of dollars worth — literally, two pounds of gold or more — could be taken from the ground in one shovelful. This could not last. Soon the concentration of gold in the ground began to decline, so that it became uneconomical to work the claims in the old, wasteful, labour-intensive way. For a time, more efficient methods helped to reduce the cost of labour. Thawing frozen ground by means of fires was supplanted by steam-points, which were driven into the permafrost. Then hydraulic mining was introduced; water was pumped under high pressure through hoses which were directed at the banks and hillsides, washing away large amounts of dirt and gravel in a short time.
The final phase of the transformation of mining was the introduction of the dredges. These giant machines were so efficient that they could make a profit processing as little as a few cents worth of gold in a cubic metre. They were enormous floating machines; launched on the creeks, which were dammed up to float them, they chewed their way up the creeks, reworking the claims (which had wasted a considerable proportion of their gold in the comparatively inefficient sluicing process), leaving the serpentine trails of tailings — like the castings of some monster worm — that are a striking feature of the landscape in the vicinity of Dawson City.
In order to make the dredging process feasible, the original claims had to be consolidated. Shortly after the gold rush, large mining corporations became interested in acquiring gold properties. Clifford Sifton was originally opposed to the idea of consolidation, writing that there was "no possibility of any mining companies getting a group of claims. A policy of that kind would simply blanket the whole country and stop development." As early as January 1898, however, he changed his mind and presented new regulations that permitted corporate control of large stretches of gold-bearing ground. Twenty-year dredging leases extending up to five miles each along the creeks were now authorized. Some claims were bought from their owners, who were no longer making a profit, or wished to sell out, and many were acquired from the territorial government after having been abandoned. Large corporations, or "concessions" as they were called — the Treadgold, the Guggenheim — came to dominate the economy of the Yukon, and day labour began to replace grubstaking on the creeks. Of course, prospecting continued, as it does to this day, in hundreds of creeks all over the Territory, but near Dawson, where most of the gold was located, corporate capitalism had replaced the individualism of the mining frontier. It was when this happened that the rush could truly be said to be over.
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The Klondike gold rush was too rich, too frantic, to last long; there was not enough gold in the world, let alone in the Yukon, to satisfy the hunger for wealth of the tens of thousands who had rushed north to find it. At first there had been gold to spare and even to waste. Ripped out of the earth, washed by crude and inefficient methods, gold worth untold thousands of dollars was lost to the Yukon's streams and rivers. The gold never ran out completely, of course, and it was mined with reasonable profits for the next six decades — it is still mined when the world price goes high enough to justify the expense — but within a year or two the rich diggings were played out. There was still work in and near Dawson, but the era when a couple of men with picks and shovels could make a fortune was over, and the age of the machines had begun.
The Yukon did not die after the rush, but as early as the end of 1898 its population began to shrink, as men began to look elsewhere for the big strike. In that year the discovery of gold at Atlin, B.C., just across the border from the southern Yukon, drew some miners away. . . . But Atlin was a side-show; the first great blow to the Klondike came from Alaska, where in the winter of 1898 gold was discovered in paying quantities on the beaches of Nome. In Dawson, a city overflowing with unemployed stampeders, many of whom had come far to discover little, the news rekindled an old excitement. Although the police warned the miners about the dangers of winter travel, hundreds set off down the frozen Yukon River, hoping to beat other prospectors to the new find and to avoid coming in second once more. When the ice broke in the spring, the human trickle out of Dawson turned into a flood. The first steamers to leave town were jammed with prospectors; the river was once more filled with makeshift rafts, although this time they were leaving Dawson, not arriving. Thousands had abandoned Dawson; the gold rush, which had never stayed in one place for long, had moved on once more. . . .
By the summer of 1904, the writing was on the wall for Dawson. It was no longer the brightest hope for the northwest, and many original Dawsonites had left for the new field. Experienced miners in the Klondike fields could see that the high-grade deposits had already been worked over, and that new mining techniques were required to sustain gold production. Faced with the harsh realities and the high costs of modernization, many simply sold out to the companies consolidating claims in the Klondike, and headed for Fairbanks, where the story was that individual prospectors still had a chance. There were social as well as economic changes in Dawson. The rowdy, boisterous community of the first years of the gold rush was becoming "civilized." Dawson was beginning to look respectable, as the reform efforts of the middle-class residents, particularly the Women's Vigilance Committee, challenged the gambling halls, brothels, and dance halls that had once made the city seem so sinful. The new morality in Dawson, however, owed as much to depopulation as to moral crusades, for by 1901, Dawson's population had fallen to half of the gold rush peak. There was less sin partly because there were far fewer sinners. . . .
The numbers told a sad tale. No census had been taken of the Yukon at its height in 1898, since the next regular census was not due until 1901; the best estimate of the Territory's maximum population was forty thousand. It fell to slightly over twenty-seven thousand in 1901, of whom over nine thousand lived in Dawson City, with most of the rest on the Klondike creeks. Ten years later, the Yukon had only eighty-five hundred people, more than a third of whom lived in Dawson. The city's collapse continued, and in 1921 it could claim fewer than a thousand residents. Dawson City would never regain the energy and excitement of the gold rush days, nor would it again enjoy the status and authority of the first years of the twentieth century.