Hougen Group

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Two miners and their dog standing in front of a homemade gold rocker with a sluice in the background. Possibly French Hill in the background. Date: 1898. Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4832.

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Close up view of one miner shoveling and another using a rocker on Staley's claim on French Hill. Date: 1898. Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4843.

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French Hill in 1898. Yukon Archives. H.C. Barley fonds, #4844.

Bench Claims

In the pell-mell rush to stake and claim any creek bed in the valley's below the rolling hills of the Klondike, few realized that most of the wealth lay not in the slabs of gold, like cheese in a sandwich according to George Carmack, but in the hills above.

By the fall of 1897, lucky owners of rich claims on Bonanza and Eldorado chuckled at the site of a few hapless men digging holes in the ground above them. From their creek claims and from the saloons in the new town of Grand Forks, rich miners could watch hapless prospectors sinking shafts into the permafrost of the high hills overlooking the Bonanza Creek valley.

Californian Albert Lancaster was the first because he noticed a trail of white gravel left in the furrows where miners had dragged trees down from the side hills to build cabins. That white gravel was a key indicator that gold was in "them thar hills" because an ancient river had delivered all the Klondike gold known now at the White Channel.

On the other side of the hill, above Big Skookum gulch, Nathan Kesge and his partner Nils Peterson noticed the same thing and were sinking a shaft into the side of the hill. Suddenly in the fall of 1897, from a hole 18 inches round, they lifted a pail of dirt and pulled out a ten-dollar nugget.

Down the hill they raced to borrow a rocker to separate the course gravel from the sand. Everyone who watched them lug the huge contraption up the hill laughed.

Not for long. In the next ten days they washed six thousand dollars of gold from a piece of ground the size of a cabin floor. On Gold Hill, Lancaster worked the winter on his 100-foot bench claim thawing the ground and digging out the dirt, leaving it in piles until the spring when water would run and the clean-up could begin.

In plain view of men on the creeks, bench miners worked their way along the side hills until they reached French Hill above Tom Lippy's number sixteen on Eldorado.

Oliver Millet worked his way along what would be known as Cheechako Hill. By the spring when the bench miners washed their dirt piles, all were rich beyond anyone's wildest dreams. The rush to stake the benches overlooking Grand Forks was on.

There was suddenly so much action on the bench claims that Reverend Pringle of the newly built Presbyterian Church in Grand Forks said that the only benches not staked around Grand Forks was the benches in his church.

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin

Editors note: These terrace gravels are the remnants of river-bottom gravels, deposited when larger rivers and streams flowed through these valleys. When the region uplifted following the melting of the great continental icecaps just to the east, the land rose, causing the rivers and streams to cut deeper in there channels. Most of the gravel was re-worked into the lower valleys, but much was left high on the valley walls as terraces or benches.