Part I of The Lure of Gold in Alberta’s History can be read here.
The Last Great Gold Rush
In 1896, gold production in Edmonton reached $55,000,[i] with local banks purchasing gold dust off miners at $15 an ounce.[ii] No small amount for a town of roughly 1200 people. However, this amount was nothing compared to the following year when parties of gold seekers, upon news of rich gold strikes in the Yukon, began outfitting themselves in Edmonton on their way to the Klondike. By the summer of 1898, the stampede was over with local merchants having taken in $500,000.[iii]
When parties slowly began arriving in Edmonton by train in the summer of 1897, the business community quickly seized upon the opportunity and began actively advertising Edmonton as the, ‘All Canadian Route to the Klondike’, ‘The Back Door to the Yukon’, and ‘The Poor Man’s Route to the Yukon.’[iv] By Christmas, there were people from Chicago, eastern Canada, the Atlantic seaboard, Europe, and Australia camped in small groups all over town. Historian J.G. MacGregor wrote that by mid-winter 1898, “…the town was knee deep in Klondikers.”[v]
On a map, distances could be deceiving, and many lacked the experience required for such a rigorous journey. One man writing to the editor of the Edmonton Bulletin inquired as to the feasibility of travelling to the Yukon by bicycle,[vi] and two Parisians who set off from Athabasca Landing admitted to having originally entertained the idea of travelling to the Klondike by balloon.[vii] The distances alone were daunting but the real challenge was carrying with them two years of supplies. This amounted to 2500 lbs of food and gear for each individual, and, depending on the route and the season, they required horses, dog teams, sleds, sleighs, and boats.
The two most established routes to the Klondike were by sea -through the Aleutian Island chain, Bering Sea, then up the Yukon River by steamboat. Or the most common – by way of Seattle or Vancouver, up the Inside Passage to Alaska, and over the mountains into the Yukon (Chilkoot Pass). Heading north from Edmonton, were two additional routes that Klondikers could choose from. The first was an overland network of obscure trails that led first to Lesser Slave Lake, continued west into the Peace Country, then headed north into the Yukon across the headwaters of the Liard River – a distance of roughly 2400 km. The other route, although greater in distance, followed long established waterways of the fur trade. From Edmonton, a wagon road led north to Athabasca Landing, then down the Athabasca River and onward to Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River. Klondikers then had to decide which tributary of the Mackenzie to follow west over the continental divide and down into the Yukon – a distance of over 4000 km.
It has been estimated that 100,000 people from around the world set out for the gold fields of the Klondike. Of the roughly 1500 gold seekers who started from Edmonton – about half made it, the other half turned back, and 70 died en route, largely due to scurvy. [viii] For those that did make it to the Klondike, they were to find, like the Overlanders of 1862 who passed through Fort Edmonton on their way to the Cariboo, that almost all of the gold-bearing ground had been staked long before their arrival. The Edmonton Bulletin had done much in its editorials and reports on Saskatchewan river gold to create interest out east and as far away as New Zealand. The true aim was to attract settlement and promote investment in the young community whose growth had stagnated through the depression years of the 1890’s.[ix] By mid – 1897, the focus had switched to the promotion of Edmonton as a staging point for the Klondike Stampede. These efforts were largely successful. With the conclusion of the gold rush to the Yukon, Edmonton had put itself on the map.
The Klondike rush through Edmonton was an economic boon to the small town. Many characters filled the town with excitement and influenced its early development. For example, of all those who started from Edmonton for the Klondike, 20 were women.[x] Arriving by rail in the summer of 1897 was Nellie Garner of Fresno, California, with her husband and a party of 18 others. By September of the following year, the majority of the Fresno party were back in Edmonton. The fallen timber, muskeg, and the lack of good pasture along the way were especially hard on the horses and this forced their retreat. Upon her return to Edmonton, Garner related to the Edmonton Bulletin some of her adventures including wintering in a cabin along the Smoky River, a novel experience to someone who had never before seen snow.[x]
Gold Dredges on the North Saskatchewan
“Day and night there is borne up from the river bed here, the whirring, wheezing, grinding of the big gold dredges of the Saskatchewan River Gold & Platinum Proprietary at their work of scooping up, with their big automatic buckets, the gold bearing gravel from river bottom, bench, and bar.”
– The Edmonton Bulletin, August 19, 1901[xi]
After the 1890’s and the fever of the Klondike Gold Rush, interest in gold began to wane in Alberta. Settlement and farming were on the rise and the young cities of Edmonton and Calgary were booming with many economic opportunities available. Still, handfuls of men continued to work the gravel bars of the North Saskatchewan by hand, while moneyed investors continued developing mechanical means of separating the river’s gold from the gravels.
Dredging was first attempted on the river in 1881.[xii] These early ‘dipper’ dredges were often simply barges mounted with a hand operated backhoe that would then dump the river gravels into an onboard sluice box. Much larger machines followed that employed steam power, multiple engines, and a chain ladder system of buckets that could excavate 18 feet down into the riverbed.[xiii] Suction dredges were also attempted, however none proved successful as the river gravels inevitably cut through the pipes, and boulders interfered with their use.[xiv]
The 30’ Easton Dredge working at Miner’s Flats (Laurier Park) in the summer of 1895 returned $9/day for a crew of three, while nearby two men mining by hand were earning $1.25/day.[xv] One of the more successful ‘dipper’ dredges was owned by the Star Mining Company, a group of Strathcona business men. Their dredge averaged $50/day.[xvi]
The Otter, constructed in 1898, was 86’ x 26’ wide. A 150 horse power steam boiler fired six engines, and an endless ladder chain of 32 steel buckets, each weighing 365 lbs. The dredge had a capacity to move 2,500 cubic yards of gravel/day.[xvii] By 1901, the Minto and the Alberta were also at work on the river, both having capacities of 3000 cubic yards/day, and each built at a cost of $40,000.[xviii] These large machines however, were often prone to mechanical failure and breakdowns. The 1901 season saw The Otter only average 10 yards/hour and the Minto only moved 2000 yards all season.[xix] Still, by late August the Otter managed to take out 200 ounces of gold valued at $3,200. In 1899 there were nine companies with at least 15 different dredges mining gold on the river.[xx] By 1907 there was only one.[xxi]
The Great Depression and Modern Mining
“The novice would be lucky indeed if he averaged 50¢ a day. This return is small but is usually enough to buy food and a little clothing; this, with the healthy nature of the work is some compensation.”
– Province of Alberta Department of Lands and Mines, 1938[xxiii]
The 1930’s saw another resurgence in mining during the Depression years. The Government of Alberta, in 1933, commissioned a ‘Relief Placer Mining Camp’ for single, unemployed men. Fifty men were selected and, over the month of June, were provided with the material and instruction for mining gold on the North Saskatchewan River. Hampered by high water however the project was considered a failure financially and the camp was closed.[xxiv]
After the Depression, interest in gold mining waned again, until 1980 when the price of gold hit an all time high of $850 US/ounce, and gold production in Alberta peaked at 133 kg.[xxvi] This was largely due to gravel pit operations in and around the city of Edmonton. Placer gold recovery as a by-product of gravel production continues today, and the recreational prospectors continue to try their luck in Alberta’s rivers.
Where is the motherlode?
“The largest, if not the only, piece of coarse gold ever found on the Saskatchewan was brought into town the other day, having been found by Dan Graham while drift- mining* on “Rusty Bar”, about eight miles below town. The gold is similar to that found in the Klondike and is not unlike a rolled oat in size and shape.”
– The Edmonton Bulletin, May 26, 1898.[xxvii]
*drift-mining involves tunneling into the river bank
During the 1860’s and 70’s many miners prospected headwaters of the North Saskatchewan and its tributaries, hoping to find the source of the river’s gold, although none were successful. Other rivers were prospected; the Mcleod, Pembina, Athabasca, but the returns never matched the North Saskatchewan from 60 miles above Edmonton to 80 miles below.[xxviii]
In 1873, A.R.C. Selwyn, Director of the Geological Survey of Canada, suggested that the source of the gold was glacial deposits, carried across the plains from the northeast.[xxix] In 1887, Joseph Tyrrell published a report stating that his assays of the underlying Cretaceous sandstones of the river valley showed fine gold. With the erosion of this formation by the river, gold particles were concentrated on the gravel bars.[xxx]
Research in 1990 on gold bearing quartz veins along Alberta’s continental divide showed that vein systems within Cambrian quartzites are the probable source of Saskatchewan River gold.[xxxi] These quartz veins were formed when stresses and high temperatures associated with mountain building during the Late Jurassic (150 million years ago) caused the rocks to fault and fracture; they were then washed with silica rich, hydrothermal fluids containing gold. Major erosion occurring during the advance and subsequent de-glaciation of the last ice age (20,000 -10,000 years ago), later concentrated these gold particles in the gravel bars of the modern day North Saskatchewan River.
Alberta never realized the great mineral wealth of California, British Columbia, or the Yukon; in 1896, Alberta produced 2,662 ounces of gold[xxxii] whereas in 1900, at the height of gold production in the Klondike, over 1,000,000 ounces came out of the Yukon.[xxxiii] Nevertheless, the gold industry occupies an important place in Alberta’s economic history. Aside from ascribing their names on Alberta maps and filling early annals with their adventures, prospectors and pioneers from across North America were attracted to economic opportunities in the province and their worldly experience helped form the early framework of Alberta.
Heritage Art Series
Like modern times, booms in Alberta’s various industries have attracted people from across the globe. Economic progress was carried on the backs of many of these immigrants who helped shaped the province. ‘Gold Rush’ above by Brandi Hofer reminds us that a history now commonly told through black and white text and photographs, was colourful and emotional. The figure is a young ‘Forty-Niner’ from California, many of whom later came north to Canada chasing promises of prosperity in a challenging time.
The Heritage Art Series is a shared project of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta, and the Royal Alberta Museum: each artwork tells an important story about the people of our province. We hope it fosters a greater awareness of our past and instils a deeper respect for it.
Visit Part I of the Lure of Gold in Alberta’s History to learn about an early gold rush in the province and some of the first mining methods.
Written By: Michael Donnelly, freelance historian.
[i] The Edmonton Bulletin, May 4, 1899.
[ii] The Edmonton Bulletin, May 11, 1897.
[iii] J.G. MacGregor, 1963. Edmonton Trader – The Story of John A. McDougall , Toronto: Mclelland & Stewart Ltd, p. 230.
[iv]J.G. MacGregor, 1970. The Klondike Rush Through Edmonton, Toronto: Mclelland & Stewart Ltd, p. 28.
[v] J.G. MacGregor, 1970. The Klondike Rush Through Edmonton, Toronto: Mclelland & Stewart Ltd, p. 73.
[vi] J.G. MacGregor, 1970. The Klondike Rush Through Edmonton, Toronto: Mclelland & Stewart Ltd, p. 38.
[vii] J.G. MacGregor, 1970. The Klondike Rush Through Edmonton, Toronto: Mclelland & Stewart Ltd, p. 81.
[viii] J.G. MacGregor, 1970. The Klondike Rush Through Edmonton, Toronto: Mclelland & Stewart Ltd, p. 235.
[ix] J.R. Schrumm, 1974. Valley of Gold. Alberta Historical Review 22:14-25.
[x] J.G. MacGregor, 1963. Edmonton Trader – The Story of John A. McDougall , Toronto: Mclelland & Stewart Ltd, p. 218.
[xi] The Edmonton Bulletin. August 19,1901.
[xii] The Edmonton Bulletin. May 20, 1882.
[xiii] James Blower, 1971. Gold Rush, Toronto: Ryerson Press, p. 134.
[xiv] The Edmonton Bulletin. May, 10, 1901. p. 6.
[xv] The Edmonton Bulletin. August 5, 1895.
[xvi] The Edmonton Bulletin. May 10, 1901.
[xvii] The Edmonton Bulletin. September 29, 1898.
[xviii] The Edmonton Bulletin. May 10, 1901.
[xix] The Edmonton Bulletin. October 28, 1901.
[xx] The Edmonton Bulletin. March 27, 1899.
[xxi] Clarke Dredging Co. (The Edmonton Bulletin. April 20, 1907)
[xxii] The Edmonton Bulletin. April 23, 1907.
[xxiii] D.B. Rees, 1938. Notes on Placer Mining in Alberta, Edmonton: Province of Alberta Dept. of Lands and Mines, p. 1.
[xxiv] D.B. Rees, 1938. Notes on Placer Mining in Alberta, Edmonton: Province of Alberta Dept. of Lands and Mines, p. 32.
[xxv] D.B. Rees, 1938. Notes on Placer Mining in Alberta, Edmonton: Province of Alberta Dept. of Lands and Mines, p. 32.
[xxvi] John D. Godfrey, 1985. Gold, Alberta Geological Survey: Alberta Research Council, p. 4.
[xxvii] The Edmonton Bulletin. May 26, 1898.
[xxviii] The Edmonton Bulletin. February 8, 1881.
[xxix] Tyrrell, J.B. 1915. Gold on the North Saskatchewan River. Canadian Mining Institute, Toronto. p. 170.
[xxx] Tyrrell, J.B. 1915. Gold on the North Saskatchewan River. Canadian Mining Institute, Toronto. p. 172.
[xxxi] Donnelly, Michael. Gold Mining at Edmonton. Alberta History. Spring 2017, Vol. 65 No. 2.
[xxxii] John D. Godfrey, 1985. Gold. Alberta Geological Survey: Alberta Research Council, P. 4.
[xxxiii] J.R. Lotz, 1966. The Dawson Area – a Regional Monograph, Ottawa: Dept. of Northern Affairs and National Resources, P. 14.