This article was originally published in the 2008 AME Winter Magazine
The early prospectors in the Atlin gold-fields were opportunists who took the easy way to their dreams of fortune. The year was 1898. The Klondike gold rush was in full swing, with tens of thousands of gold-seekers flooding into the Chilkoot Pass from the Alaska Panhandle town of Skagway. Those who survived the treacherous trek over the snow-capped Coast Mountains then faced an 800-kilometre voyage down the often-perilous Yukon River to the new gold town of Dawson City. When it was learned that there was a strike at Atlin in B.C., barely 100 km to the east, thousands opted for the shorter journey. They were joined by men who had been working on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway between Skagway and Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. It is estimated that as many as one-half of the workforce of 4,000 men deserted their jobs and threw down – or absconded with – their shovels and picks and headed for the new bonanza.
The discovery of gold in February 1898 by Fritz Miller and Kenneth Miller on Pine Creek, one of the streams that flow into Atlin Lake, started the rush. Word spread rapidly and within weeks the town of Discovery, about 10 km east of the lake, sprung up. Soon the main street was lined with supply stores, saw-mills, tent hotels and gambling saloons. The settlement thrived and the tents were replaced with more permanent wooden structures. When the good claims on Pine Creek were depleted, prospectors spread out to nearby streams and staked additional placer claims.
The town of Atlin on Atlin Lake became the transit centre for the prospectors on their way to the goldfields. It grew quickly into a prosperous town, with several hotels, three banks, a hospital, two churches and numerous business establishments, including a brewery. It is estimated that during the early years, between 5,000 to 10,000 people lived in the town and surrounding camps.
The mines thrived. In 1899, the mining commissioner reported that 40,000 ounces of gold had been mined, including some large nuggets up to 50 ounces.
It was commonly believed, however, that much of the gold – perhaps twice as much – was not reported, especially the nuggets that could fetch a good price from jewellers. Although some big operators developed mines, especially when hydraulic mining commenced on some of the creeks, most did not last very long. Over the years, most of the gold was produced by small groups of miners shovelling stream gravel into sluice boxes. Even after mining was mechanized, with bulldozers and front-end loaders doing the grunt work, the operations remained modest, often run by individuals and families who came to Atlin during the summer. Unlike many other gold boomtowns, Atlin did not become a ghost town after the big rush. One reason was that it became a destination for tourists, who came to view the snow-capped mountains, boat on the frigid waters of Atlin Lake and hike Llewellyn Glacier at the north end of the lake (the first source of the mighty Yukon River). Some sought a break from their urban lives, perhaps believing that by experiencing a natural wilderness their spirits might be revived.
In the 1920s, the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway and steamship company offered excursions from Vancouver and Seattle that included a ride across the lake on the steamship Tarahne. The company built a three-storey hotel to house its guests in relative luxury and offered motor tours of the mining camps and other area attractions. Atlin became known as a vacation destination that could be reached in relative comfort; an oasis of civilization in a vast wilderness, 100 km from the nearest town, where wild animals could be seen – and hunted – in their natural habitat. Atlin truly is in a world of its own, located in the far northwest corner of B.C. barely 50 km below the Yukon.
For the first half-century of its existence, the only way in or out was by boat, and in winter by dogsled over the frozen lakes. In fact, some of the most harrowing stories were told by mail carriers when the winter mails were delivered by dogsled. The off-quoted paean to postal workers that “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” will deter them from delivering the mail should be rewritten for the north to include “nor icy lake with overflow.” It was not until after the Alaska Highway was opened that a road was built in 1949 to provide an all-season connection to the outside world. Over the years the amount of mining fluctuated, varying with the price of gold and world markets, but there was always some outfit working the streams or old slag piles.
The population also went up and down. Today about one-half of the population of 400 are members of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation. The composition of the non-native residents, however, has changed. Although there remain some second- and third-generation mining families, the area has attracted a large number of visual artists and has become home to a scattering of Europeans, many from Germany, Austria and Scandinavia. Perhaps they relate to the mountainous landscape (Atlin has been called “The Switzerland of the North”) free from the clutter and crowds of their homelands. And every winter, skiers, mostly from Europe, pay $5,000 for a week to heliski in the pristine snows of the surrounding mountains. For anyone who wants to get away from the rat race and the hassle of competition and commuting, Atlin is an attractive alternative. Here, people live and dress modestly. Although some recent homes are built in the West Coast modern style, most locals live in log homes, some quite ancient. The emphasis is on co-operation rather than competition.
Volunteers keep the place running, and hardly a weekend goes by with-out a bake sale, fun run or flea market to raise funds for one or another good cause. And the seniors are not forgotten. The Atlin Sustainable Living Society keeps an eye out for their welfare with services such as a foot clinic and a meals-on-wheels program. For the historical-minded, much of old Atlin remains. Among the numerous buildings that line the downtown streets is Atlin’s first schoolhouse (1902), which now serves as the Historical Society’s museum and information centre. A few kilometres out of town, a few decaying cabins mark the location of Discovery; up on Spruce Creek are buildings of the Noland Mine, which at one time employed 50 men. The original shaft building and cable shed remain, as do the pump house and waterwheel that provided electricity and refrigeration to the camp.
The most poignant connection to the past can be found in the pioneer cemetery just opposite the airfield. Many of the wooden grave markers describe how the person died, often as a result of a mining accident. Other tragic ends are also revealed: “John McIntyre – Aged 27 Years, Mail Carrier – Was Drowned in Taku Arm, Nov. 20, 1902;” “Charley William Rudolf, Died May 21, 1940, Age 16 Years. Died from gunshot wound. Was mistaken for a bear.” Despite the changes that have taken place in Atlin and the infusion of artists and foreigners, the town remains true to its heritage. Atlin’s main business is still mining. Every second vehicle is a muddy pick-up truck, as often as not with a welding rig or heavy equipment grease box in its truck bed, some even with a husky or malamute on guard. As soon as the streams begin to flow in spring until they freeze up in October, the “men (and women) who moil for gold” are working their claims. At the airport, planes are taking off to deliver people and supplies to the inaccessible camps in the bush. And when the lake is ice-free, usually by June, floatplanes can be seen coming and going to the camps.
The planes are also available to fly tourists over Llewellyn Glacier and the mountains, and to transport big game outfitters to their camps. Charter boats on the lake carry anglers out to hook one of the trophy-sized lake trout. But an unprecedented change is in the wind. The town is undergoing a second mining rush, but this time the quarry is not gold but molybdenum. The price of the metal, valued for its property of withstanding extreme temperatures and as an alloy in making steel, has grown exponentially during the last decade. Deposits of the mineral have been known for years, but until now it has not been economically viable to mine. The Adanac Molyb-denum Corporation is now developing a project at Ruby Creek, 20 km northeast of Atlin. The open-pit operation will include a processing plant that will move 20,000 tonnes of ore a day. The company estimates that the $600-million project will provide employment for 600 workers during the construction phase and 300 once the mine is in operation. The effect of the new mine on the Atlin community will no doubt bring changes. Already there are new faces around town and the B&Bs are all booked up. The economic prosperity the new mine promises will invigorate the place to a degree not seen since the original gold strike in 1898, and, like the stampeders of that era, there will be those who come to make their fortunes. But despite these economic changes, at its core Atlin will remain the same, an oasis in the wilderness that will continue to attract tourists and those who seek a different way to live.