Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Alaska RV Tour - Visit to the No. 4 Dredge: Dawson City

While Consuelo decided to stay in the Trek with the dogs and “clean house,” I thought I’d go ahead and join Spike’s scheduled tour of No. 4 Dredge – I’m so glad I did! I learned about a fascinating piece of history I didn’t even know existed.

Our tour was conducted by the same Parks Canada guide who gave us our historic downtown tour; and she did a fantastic job making what could have been a very dry and technical subject interesting to all of us – even the kids were entertained, and they probably learned something, too!

Our guide began the tour by showing us a diagram of a dredge and explaining its basic operation—a dredge is a huge floating shoveling device that digs out the ground in front of it, sifts and sorts the sand and gravel to sluice out the gold as the material travels through the dredge on big conveyer belts. The left-over material was dumped out the back end and left strewn in huge snake-like wavy piles of rubble, called “tailings.”

As we walked onboard, the guide explained the dredge was built on site in 1912; first they dug a big pond in Bonanza creek because they had to build her right on the water, she was a floating dredge and once built would scoop out the ground in front of her, enlarging the pond, so she could float forward and continue working. The massive beams and lumber for her construction were transported up from British Columbia and Vancouver Island – trees just didn’t grow big enough in the Yukon to provide the necessary materials.

As we entered her lower deck we were all impressed with the massive machinery hidden inside the dredge. Giant flywheels, gears, conveyors and the huge metal tub that agitated the gravel and stone to sift out the gold – Spike had told us earlier that if any oils or lubricants made their way into the water, the gold flakes wouldn’t float out during the sluicing process – so none of these huge moving metal parts were ever oiled. We imagined how noisy it must have been inside the dredge when it was operational.

Our guide told us it had cost just over a million dollars to build this dredge and as we thought about the value of a dollar in 1912, we realized Dredge No. 4 was quite an investment. The guide went on to tell us that the dredge paid for herself in only one year, so it seems the investors behind the gold mining operations had made a good decision.

Dredge No. 4 ran continuously (every day, 24 hours a day with three 8-hour 3-man shifts) from 1912 until she ceased operation in 1959. Why did they shut her down, had they stopped finding gold? We asked. The guide told us the mining company had already surveyed up the valley and determined they could continue to run Dredge No 4 profitably until 1968—and that is actually what they were planning on doing—but in the winter of 1959-1960, they had an extraordinarily cold winter and Dredge No. 4 froze so hard into the ground they couldn’t budge her in the Spring, so they decided to shut her down early. They disconnected her bucket line and laid it down on the ground beside her and abandoned her right there at her last operational site. I had a couple more questions for our guide.

I had been looking in the below decks area for a furnace and steam engine to drive the equipment and gears in this massive mining equipment. The guide told me no, it was all run on electricity; that they actually ran power lines from Dawson City over the hill and down to the creek and when the dredge was working hard, the city would often experience brown-outs as the dredge put a drain on the city’s power.

My next question had to do with the vegetation that grew in the path of the dredge and the guide confirmed that in the year or two before the dredge went through an area, they would send in crews to clear-cut and strip the land around the creek bed. So all the vegetation we saw growing here was only what had grown and filled back in since 1959.

After the tour, we had the opportunity to view a short video about gold mining in the Yukon during the early 20th century. The video contained some fascinating black and white footage of a dredge in operation.

Of final interest to me was the fact that Parks Canada had finally gotten permission from the old mining company in the early 1990s to obtain and maintain Dredge No. 4 as a point of national culture and history. As an important piece of Yukon history, Parks Canada is not doing anything to “beautify” or correct the destruction the dredge left in her wake – they’re not replanting vegetation, filling in ponds and they’re even leaving her bucket chain laying on the ground, right where it was left.

Click here to see photos of our trip to Dawson City, including the No. 4 Dredge.

No comments:

Post a Comment