’59 Trail, Part Seven


The ’59 Trail.
The ’59 Trail,
Unknown artist
Newspapers.com, reproduced with permission

Part 7 of my uncle, John Alldridge’s 1959 report from Canada’s Far North for the Birmingham Mail – Jerry F

Yellowknife, on the Great Slave Lake

I flew the 800 miles from Edmonton to Yellowknife in an elderly C.46 known affectionately as “The Milk Run.”

It wasn’t so much a flight as a slow bus ride home on market day.

We carried, among other things, a boxer dog, a dozen crates of day-old chicks and a new hat a farmer’s wife from Peace River had gone shopping for in Edmonton.

We were miners and oilmen and Salvation Army captains and housewives taking time off from the farm.

We were Mounted Policemen on escort duty, sweating in our formal scarlet, and mines inspectors on our way up to look at a new claim 300 miles out in the desolate Barren Lands.

We picked up and set down in fields where the grass is still yellow after the snow.

For 300 miles we followed the twists and bends of the winding Peace River, over good farmland where carrots a foot long are considered small. Land that one day soon will be the North’s market garden.

Then for a long hour out over the Great Slave Lake, that blinding expanse of ice.

The ice was cracking in long black fissures. And it looked peaceful enough. But there are days when the Great Slave is as wild as the Atlantic, and a 40ft. barge, caught between two rival waves, will snap like a matchstick.

I was making for Yellowknife. And Yellowknife, which takes its name from an Indian tribe who fashioned their knives out of copper, means gold. The streets may not actually be paved with it, but there is enough running miles deep under those streets to make Fort Knox look like a piggybank.

Jerry F, Going Postal
Yellowknife in the 1950s.
A view of Yellowknife, looking down into Old Town,
YK Times
Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

Yellowknife is really two towns. In 20 years it has known two booms — and there is a town to mark each.

On a rocky peninsula jutting out into the lake lies the old town; a picturesque muddle of crooked, sun-bleached cabins that looks like a “Western” film set deserted during the lunch-break.

This is the original Yellowknife, run up in a tearing hurry in the mid-thirties after a wildcat prospector called Tom Payne had picked up half-a-million dollars for four claims staked one wet midnight.

Tom Payne’s Strike is now part of the fantastic history of the Canadian North.

Tom struck it rich in May, 1936, on the shores of Yellowknife Bay.

But there was nothing he could do about it. The land had been staked a year before by a man from Toronto who had then abandoned it and gone home.

According to law, the claim to it couldn’t lapse until August.

So, for three long summer months, Tom sat it out: eaten alive by mosquitoes, on tenterhooks all the time, for the claim lay on a path used every day by employees of the Consolidated Mines and Smelting Company who were also after gold.

For Tom those must have been terrible months. He daren’t leave his claim. He lived on what he could fish from the lake. By the end of July he was skin-and-bone and suffering severely from scurvy and phlebitis.

The claim came open on a midnight in early August. Other prospectors by then had got wind of it. But Tom was ready. He had prepared his stakes in advance. As midnight struck, hardly able to stand, he rammed them in.

Then they rushed him off by air-ambulance to Edmonton. But it had been worth it. Those three months had made him a millionaire. Consolidated Mining and Smelting paid him half-a-million dollars for a 75 per cent interest.

That must have been the most profitable sit-down strike in history.

Tom is still very much alive. He flies up twice a year to look at the wealth he discovered in the wilderness.

There is a mine and milling plant on it now. They call it “The Con” for short. It is one of three which supports Yellowknife. And it is the same one which the Queen will visit next month.

She is likely to find it, as I did, an unromantic and rather frightening business.

You are lucky if you can get a quarter-of-an-ounce of pure gold out of a ton of rock. Crushing gold out of rock is like taking a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. At The Con they mine 500 tons a day and average half an ounce of gold for each ton.

In between, it is smashed and crushed and pulverised and sieved, then washed and re-washed and washed again through great vats of cyanide.

There is enough poison in those witches’ cauldrons to kill off all Manchester and Birmingham and Glasgow at one draught. I was glad to escape from that dank, dripping Dante’s Inferno into the cold, clean air.

In the old days the miner-prospector did all this for himself. He set off into the bush in his canoe and hacked and hammered and ground and pounded away all summer.

A few of them are left. Last autumn Tom Garski came into town with four beer bottles filled to the brim with gold. That long four months’ exile was worth 10,000 dollars.

But the breed is almost extinct. The prospector today is usually a university man working for one of the big companies.

He finds his gold by aerial survey and Geiger counter. For the real problem of gold mining in this vast, trackless country is not so much finding it but extracting it and getting it into the bank vaults.

Bridging the gap between the old and the new are young old-timers like Joe Herriman.

Joe has been prospecting for gold for 20 years. He used to go after it with canoe and dog team. Now he uses a small float-plane and can cover as much ground in a couple of hours as he once covered in a month of hard slogging.

Joe, a chunky, cultured, tough little man, has been luckier than most. He reckons that in 20 years he has made — and lost — 150,000 dollars out of gold. He has made rich strikes in nickel, copper, too, and in the rarest of them all just now — lithium. For out in this stony, lake-studded wilderness is the richest ore-bearing country in the world.

But he reckons that the gleam of gold in a vein of quartz is still the most exciting, pulse-quickening sight a man can see.

Yellowknife’s first boom ended in the early forties. The old town is half deserted.

But a mile uphill there is the new Yellowknife. No frontier, wildcat, boom town, this. It is solidly respectable. They play bridge instead of poker. And they even have a nine o’clock curfew to warn the youngsters off the streets.

This new Yellowknife has been built with the blessing of the government. It has a population of going on for 5,000, a fine new school, a hospital, two excellent hotels, and homes as comfortable and as pleasant as any I have seen in Canada.

And it has something more. It is young enough not to have lost its old frontier spirit.

To me the most remarkable thing about Yellowknife is that every stick and stone of it had to be brought 800 miles over one of the most difficult countries in the world.

The whole town literally floated down the Mackenzie River. For that reason Yellowknife is probably one of the most expensive towns in Canada to live in. And until an all-weather road can fight its way through, it will remain so.

Reproduced with permission
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Jerry F 2023