The wondrous things I see on my journey continually amaze me. The natural world is full of beautiful mountains, deserts, lakes, seas and animals that are different and seem to get more and more amazing. It is not just those natural wonders that make the journey so interesting, the great creations made by humans tell marvelous stories.
The first time I saw a Gold Dredge it reminded me of a book I used to read Matt when he was little – “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel”. The dredges hulking silhouette brings back memories of this story of a friendly steam shovel moving earth in giant mouthfuls.
“Mike Mulligan had a steam shovel, a beautiful red steam shovel. Her name was Mary Anne. Mike Mulligan was very proud of Mary Anne. He always said that she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week, but he had never been quite sure that this was true.” – Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton
For a half a century, the gold dredges dominated the mining in the goldfields of the Yukon and Alaska. The earliest mining was done by hand on individual claims, much more of the history we Californian’s are used to hearing. Despite the high cost of labor, this worked because the deposits were so rich, but as the rich ground was mined, the miners had to find more streamlined methods of recovery.
The dredges could efficiently process large volumes of gravel, and extract enough gold from the low value ground to make it pay. It forced investors to purchase large blocks of adjoining claims or obtained concessions to large tracts of land so that they could import dredges and use them on these vast tracts of land.
The mining dredges were land-locked floating excavators, digging the ponds that allowed them to float—and thus move—across the area to be mined. The floating dredge most commonly operated in the North was the California-type, also known as bucket-line dredge.
They certainly must have sounded like the screaming of lost souls across the land. In California history it was said that you could navigate by the sound of the stamp mills and I am sure the same could be said for these mammoth machines that operated 24 hours a day. They moved with glacial slowness, chewing up the valley bottoms digging gravel on an industrial scale and washed out the gold.
The excavating is done by a continuous chain of steel buckets that dig deep into the ground, wrenching the gravel from the substrate, and raising up to a hopper inside the superstructure of the dredge. From the hopper, the gravel is moved into a massive rotating drum (the screen) that has huge quantities of water pumped into it to wash the gravel clean. All of the small particles are flushed through thousands of holes in the rotating screen and into several rows of sluices with riffles and matting below it which are designed to capture the dense gold and allow the lighter sand and other material to wash out the back of the dredge and into the pond.
The larger pebbles and rocks, now scoured clean, drop out of the back of the rotating screen and up a conveyor belt (stacker) that carries the material away from the stern and dumps it back into the pond behind the dredge. Thus the dredge eats its way forward, processing massive volumes of gravel, taking out the small particles of gold, while depositing the barren rock behind it in telltale mounds known as dredge tailings which can still be seen in many areas.
Permafrost was a real problem for these gold seekers. Before the dredge could excavate the gold bearing rock the ground above it had to be thawed. Large crews of men stripped the trees and the overburden from the ground that was to be mined, followed by crews that installed an intricate system of pipes to supply water to a network of steel tubes that were driven into the ground. The water pumped into the ground through these points thawed the permafrost to make excavation of gravel possible for the dredges.
After learning this interesting history I was drawn to seeking out these relics of the gold mining days. So far I have found dredges owned and being restored by Parks Canada, privately owned dredges by folks that want to be a part of preserving history and abandoned and decaying hulks simply being lost to the environment.
Located outside Dawson City, Dredge No 4 owned by Parks Canada was a giant gold digging machine. Imagine this vessel, inching forward, year after year, forever altering the landscape. Dredge No. 4 is the largest wooden-hulled bucket dredge remaining in the world two thirds the size of a football field in length and eight stories high. It was designed by the Marion Steam Shovel Company, and built for the Canadian Klondike Mining Company in 1912.
The dredge moved along in a pond of its own making, digging gold bearing gravel at a rate of 22 buckets per minute. It would operate for 24 hours a day for a season of approx. 200 days, April – November, depending on the weather. Though only moving forward a half mile per season, it unearthed nine tons of gold, grossing 8.6 million dollars over 46 years. On its best day, it unearthed over 800 ounces. As well as gold, the dredge recovered everything in its path, including some old cured hams thrown down a shaft in days gone by, prehistoric mammoth ivory, and a set of false teeth.
Dredge No 4 ceased operations in Nov 1959, after sinking where she sits today. In 1991-92, Parks Canada began extensive restoration on the Dredge, freeing her from 18 feet of ice, silt, and mud. She was excavated, refloated, and relocated to her current setting, where the restoration work continues.
“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Listed as a National Historic Site in 2006 the Pedro Dredge has found a home at the Chicken Gold Camp in the community of Chicken Alaska (more about there in the next post!). Manufactured by Yuba Manufacturing Co. in California and shipped in pieces to Pedro Creek 15 miles north of Fairbanks in 1938 to start digging. It was disassembled in 1958 and trucked to Chicken Creek where it worked from 1959 to 1967. Smaller than Dredge No 4 with separate pontoons to keep it afloat even in the event of a hull breach is was a more revolutionary design. The Pedro dredge produced around 58,000 ounces of gold during is working time on Chicken Creek (roughly 50 million dollars today).
Touring the Pedro Dredge with the owner of the Chicken Gold Camp who has been a miner in the area for many years was a great experience. The dredge was like a ghost ship, simply abandoned in place leaving everything behind to show just how life was like during the gold dredging era.
“It is important for all of us to appreciate where we come from and how that history has really shaped us in ways that we might not understand.” – Sonia Sotomayor
History is alive in many of these places and it is a great pleasure to be able to visit and learn from dedicated folks that lived and worked in these times.