Yellowknife’s First… Prospector

Aurous gold mine on Wilson Island, 1922. | Photo: N-1979-073: 0696

The prospector was a new breed of wilderness adventurer in the 19th century and before them sat a treasure house of minerals across the continent. No metal had more lure than gold. With a feverish, insatiable desire to possess it, these opportunists gambled everything for the chance to strike it big. Gold camps sprung into existence and died just as quickly, as the prospector continued his nomadic search. And so, mile by mile, claim by claim, their lust was carried northward, deeper into the Canadian wilderness.

Geological Surveys

In 1870, Rupert’s Land and the North West Territory were transferred by the British to the new Canadian government and with gusto, emerging politicians instructed the country’s scientific elite to find out what natural resources might be found in its inherited lands.

Rising to the call were members of the Geological Survey of Canada, a fraternity of geologists and geographers keen to explore the blank areas of the maps. Their task was to fill in the empty spaces with explicit detail and add more knowledge on the origins and nature of the landscape.

The first geological surveys in the Northwest Territories were by Robert G. McConnell in 1887-88 and the famous Tyrell brothers in 1893. These were cursory examinations along major water routes through the Mackenzie River basin and neither party visited the north shore of Great Slave Lake where Yellowknife was later built. But the Geological Survey of Canada charts, though incomplete, were the only ones available to prospectors heading north.

The Klondikers Arrive

A flash in the pan on Bonanza Creek on the Yukon River was the spark that set off the Klondike gold rush in 1896, bringing the first prospectors into Great Slave Lake. There were many routes to follow to get to the Yukon, none of which were without peril. In Edmonton, Alta. – a trading post hailing itself as ‘Gateway of the North’– businessmen looking to reap a share of gold rush rewards promoted the “All Canadian Route.” They did a convincing job of it, with its newspaper publishing a series of very detailed almanacs for traveling to the Yukon via Edmonton. First, was the Overland Route, a very difficult trek across northern Alberta and British Columbia through uncharted country. Second, was the Mackenzie Route, that allowed a downstream passage via the Athabasca, Slave, and Mackenzie Rivers by boat, followed by several options for travelling over the mountainous divide.

The Mackenzie Route was in fact a well-established transportation corridor thanks to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s successful fur trade and the steam boats they operated between posts. In July 1898, the North West Mounted Police reported that anywhere from 900 to 1,000 persons had passed through Fort Smith on the Slave River towards Great Slave Lake since the spring breakup. How many of these parties successfully made it over from the Mackenzie River is anyone’s guess, nor do we know how many died trying. It was a dangerous trek, and on the Liard River in the winter of 1898-99, the police reported 20 deaths caused from accidents, drowning, scurvy, and illness.

Gold at Yellowknife Bay

With the feverish urge to reach their destination, many of the gold-seekers probably paid little attention to the landscape they passed on Great Slave Lake. For others, cursory panning of river sands or examining rock exposures along the way could not be helped. Still, the great lake was an unpredictable inland ocean. Few prospectors dared to deviate into its northern reaches. One group that did was the Yukon Valley Prospecting and Mining Company out of Chicago. Nine men prospected the lake using the steamer Lillian B as a base of operations, staking in 16 locations in 1898.

Another fellow was E.A. Blakeney. We know very little about him and it has been assumed he was another Klondiker. Our only record is that he staked up to 12 gold claims within a 15 km radius of the mouth of the Yellowknife River. Blakeney must have believed his claims had importance, because when he got to the nearest post office he mailed samples to Ottawa for metallurgical testing. The results were published the following year by the Geological Survey of Canada. A five-ounce sample was extracted from a pit 14 feet in depth, assaying a very rich 2.158 ounces per ton of gold.

News of mineral activity motivated the Geological Survey of Canada to dispatch Dr. Robert Bell to investigate. He spent the summer of 1899 mapping the lake and examining gold claims. Yet most samples presented were said to be worthless. Bell was a buzz-kill, and hordes of disheartened miners abandoned the search.

Mystery man Blakeney holds credit as the first to report gold here, but then vanishes from history – perhaps he made it over to the Klondike, or died trying. Alas, he probably never lived to see the day when Yellowknife poured the first gold bar 30 years later. (The author has a personal interest in who Blakeney was, as it’s possible he is a distant relative.)

Wilson’s Gold Island

Robert H. Wilson didn’t believe that gold on Great Slave Lake was a fallacy. In 1916, the Klondike veteran journeyed north from Tacoma, Wash., where he lived. Instead of heading straight across the open waters of the great lake, travellers in their small and frail crafts piloted towards the harbouring of islands that introduced the lake’s East Arm. On now-named Wilson Island, he staked the ‘Big Moose’ and ‘Big Bear’ claims and registered that he had found gold, silver, and lead. When Wilson returned to America, his friends started up Aurous Gold Mining Company, returning north in 1918-1919 with a crew to begin major development.

Government files report that a log camp was built and shafts blasted, while blueprints for a stamp mill were prepared and machinery ordered. By all accounts, everything was going extremely well – then, disaster. Robert Wilson drowned on the Athabasca River just north of Fort McMurray in July 1920 while trying to push a barge off a sand bar. If that wasn’t bad enough, the entire barge convoy became stranded in the disarray that followed the death of their leader, delaying the arrival of machinery and supplies at Great Slave Lake for a full season.

By the time the company could regroup, the miners of Wilson Island had lost track of the gold vein. No amount of poise and promise by the Aurous company on the value of their claims could save face, and they went bankrupt having produced no gold. Some would later ponder whether the whole thing was a scam and if there was really any gold on Wilson Island.

It was tough work opening up a gold mine. The North was just too isolated, too far removed from the rest of the world for a barge or canoe-laden prospector to profitably work a mineral claim. But a new invention was about to revolutionize the business of prospecting.

To be continued…

Ryan Silke is a Yellowknife historian. You can read more of his Yellowknife’s Firsts columns at edgenorth.ca.

(Eds. Note: The headline of Ryan Silke’s Yellowknife’s First… story in the Aug./Sept. issue should have been Yellowknife’s First Traders, not Explorers. We apologize for any confusion.)

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