Gold rush in the Yukon

I wrote earlier that I was disappointed by the gold rush heritage that meets (or rather does not meet) the visitor in Skagway, Alaska. I was very impressed, on the other hand, by what I saw in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. Here is the site of Canyon City.

Historic View Canyon City Canyon City is a small and so far fairly undeveloped heritage site. A hundred years ago, this is where the rapids of the Yukon river made tens of thousands of stampeders stop on their way to the Klondike. All of them had to transport their goods over land to Whitehorse while licensed pilots steered their boats through the rapids.

During the gold rush at the turn of the 20th century, Canyon City flourished for a couple of years. Thereafter it soon became abandoned and forgotten. Today there is a trail to the site and some information is provided on information boards. Surprisingly much is preserved, surprisingly close to the surface – and occasionally right on it.

Although the rapids have since then been ‘domesticated’ through a dam a little further down the river, the unspoiled river valley invites visitors even today to feel a bit like the stampeders themselves. The hundreds of empty tin cans on the surface (‘can middens’ on the map below) are material evidence for the hungry masses that came through here in a few busy years.

Plan Canyon City

During the 1990s, Canyon City was investigated by an archaeological project:

“archaeologists began deciphering the mingled histories of Canyon City buried in the shallow soils of the site. Hundreds of square metres of the townsite were excavated, thousands of artifacts were uncovered and little known aspects of Yukon history were brought to light. First Nation elders were interviewed, archives were searched for historical data and underwater divers explored the submerged features at the townsite. All of these sources were called upon to write of the story of Canyon City.

Excavations at Canyon City

The Canyon City Archaeology Project was a joint initiative of the Yukon Heritage Branch and Kwanlin Dün First Nation, in partnership with the Yukon Conservation Society and MacBride Museum. Research of the site was begun as part of a commemorative project celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Klondike Gold Rush. Over five seasons, students from local First Nations, high schools and colleges were employed at the site excavating and interpreting this chapter of Yukon history, and many thousands of local residents and tourists hiked to the site to share in the sense of discovery.” (Quote from here)

I understand that the Heritage Resources Unit of the Government of Yukon plans to develop the site as a heritage attraction in the future. The research they have already conducted looks impressive already now (see here). (Research results by the same unit concerning other historic sites in the Yukon is available online here.)

The Yukon may be a long way from Europe (9 hours by plane from Frankfurt!), and its history – though not its past – may be shorter than what we are used to over here. But the Klondike gold rush provides an exceptionally strong historical story. It is a story about human dreams and achievements in a – then much more so than today – remote and harsh environment. At the same time, it also a story about the transience of those dreams and achievements.

Sites like Canyon City enable visitors to listen to that story under circumstances that create a very memorable experience. This is something I for one have been taking with me to Europe.

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One Response to Gold rush in the Yukon

  1. Dick McKenna says:

    Very much enjoyed your thing on Canyon City. I was born and raised in Whitehorse over 40 years ago and have been an avid history buff ever since. Presently I write articles for northern publications such as the yukoner magazine and the Colourfull five percent. One often overlooked chapter in Yukon’s history is the saga of Herschel Island. I have a long piece in the Yukoner Mag that brings it to light. The mag is avaliable at the Whitehorse Public Library through the inter-library loan. Anyway thanks for your interest in our history. – Dick