It's one of the oldest areas of human settlement in the Yukon. At the beautiful place at the narrows between Lake Bennett and Tagish, where large herds of caribou crossed on their annual migration, stone tools perhaps five thousand years old have been found.
Historic Caribou Crossing, or Carcross as we know it today, has a colourful past. In 1901, after the gold rush, Anglican Bishop William Bompas moved his headquarters here from Forty Mile and established a school.
Two years later he asked the Canadian government to change the name from Caribou Crossing to Carcross because of the frequent mixups in mail delivery with communities elsewhere. It seems that Caribou Crossing was a popular name of those times. The change became official in 1904.
During the early days of the gold rush, the region became a popular stopping off place for stampeders. It once had the largest sawmill in the territory and by May 1898, thousands of boats were being built for the rugged ride to the gold fields.
Several large hotels were built including The Caribou in 1898 which holds the distinction of being the oldest operating hotel in the Yukon.
The last spike in the White Pass Railway was driven in a ceremony on July 29, 1900, linking Skagway with Whitehorse. Co-gold-discoverer Skookum Jim may have concluded the Yukon's first land claim settlement in a deal with the railway. Jim, it is said, gave permission for the railway to build across his land in exchange for jobs.
Meanwhile, in July 1899, silver and gold deposits were discovered in the nearby Windy Arm region triggering a mining boom in this part of the Yukon.
By 1905, an American mining promoter, Colonel Conrad, gained control of the gold-silver-lead deposits. The following year, the town of Conrad employed more than two hundred miners and featured stores, churches, hotels, a post office, and a mining recorder's office. There was even a telephone line linking Conrad and Carcross.
Conrad went from boom to bust in 1914 when the world silver price plunged. The mine closed and the town was abandoned.
In the 1930s, in the southern lakes district, guide Johnny Johns made a name for himself as the "best big game outfitter in the world". His clients included some of the wealthiest people in the world.
World War II and construction of highways in the north resulted in another boom with an access road from the newly built Alaska Highway.
Construction of a road link between Skagway and Whitehorse began in the late Fifties, but took more than twenty years to complete. It was worth the wait.
Yukon pioneers whose final resting place is Carcross include Bishop Bompas, Skookum Jim Mason, Kate Carmack, Tagish Charlie, Johnny Johns and Polly the Parrot.
For more than 50 years Polly lived at the Caribou Hotel, where he gained international fame for shocking unsuspecting hotel guests with off-colour language. The bird swore at me a couple of times. But all in good fun, I am sure.
Polly died in 1972 at the age of 126, a legend in the land of many legends.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
God bless the cakes and bless the jam
Bless the cheese and cold boiled ham
Bless the scones Aunt Jenny makes
And save us all from belly aches. Ahmen.
You'd hardly think that bit of doggerel would come from one of the world's greatest poets. But then, at five years of age, the youngster had no idea that poetry would earn him fame and fortune.
Robert Service was living with his maiden aunts in Glasgow when he wrote those lines. The five year old, who was born in Preston, England on January 16th, 1874, had been sent to Glasgow by his parents who were having trouble enough raising eight other kids.
As he grew up, Service wanted to be a bank clerk because, as he later said...the banks have lots of money. Service liked money but never had much, at least not until he arrived in the Yukon.
Young Robert Service emigrated to Canada in 1894, worked odd jobs throughout the Canadian and American west, and eventually ended up a hob...riding the rails. He didn't like this. Down and out in Victoria, he met an old friend who encouraged him to apply for a job in the Bank of Commerce. He got it.
This set the stage for his transfer to Whitehorse in 1904. Here his talents, as a spinner of tall tales and yarns, began to bloom. He was a loner, but he'd often seek out oldtimers to hear their tales of the far north.
On a cold winter evening in Whitehorse, though he wasn't a drinker, Service visited a local saloon. There he heard someone tell a tall tale with what he called a strange twist. He raced home and wrote through the night. By morning's light, the job was done. The legendary Sam McGee, his cremation on the marge of Lake Laberge, and his return to the land of the living inside the boiler of the steamer Alice May, set Robert Service on the road to riches.
Service went on to write his most important poems during that long cold winter in Whitehorse. Then in 1907, he was transferred by the Bank to Dawson City. There he sent his typed manuscripts to a publisher in New York. To his amazement, the publisher sent him a contract and his first royalty cheque.
As the cheques kept coming, he discovered he was making more money from his poetry that the bank was paying him. He quit and took up writing full time. In 1911, Robert Service left the Yukon, never to return, but he left behind a legacy of Yukon poetic drama, which to this day defines those rollicking days of the great Klondike gold rush.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
A Yukon video by Les McLaughlin
Ain’t just the gold that I’m wanting, so much as just finding the gold. What a great line about gold mining especially when it comes not from a miner, but a poet. So then imagine finding not just the gold, but the largest nugget in Klondike history.
In 1964, miner Joe Yanisiw saw a photo of a huge chunk of Klondike gold that had been found on Dominion Creek in 1904. Being the curious sort, Joe began a search to find out what claim the gold came from and who found it.
It took 40 years. Joe said that through his many years as a prospector and miner, he was surprised that he was not able to locate even a mention of this large nugget anywhere in Klondike Gold Rush historical records. Then on a trip to Fairbanks in 2004, he had some time on his hands and went to the Rasmussen library at the University and there it was...information and a photo of the largest Yukon Nugget .
Fred Mattheisen, of Seattle Washington and his partner F.F. Coffin found it on their claim number 9 above discovery on Dominion Creek in 1904. The monster weighed in at 126 ounces.
Still curious, Joe Yanisiw wondered why information about the nugget was so hard to find. Finally he decided it was likely because, at the turn of the century, a Yukon miner who found less than five hundred dollars worth of gold a year, was only required to pay the government a 10% royalty. If they mined more than five hundred dollars, the royalty rose to 15%.
Americans in the Klondike didn’t like the rule. Many refused to pay and instead smuggled their gold out of the territory. The Mounties searched departing Klondike miners on the trains to Skagway and confiscated their gold if the royalty had not been paid on it. Joe is sure that if the royalty had been paid on this 126-ounce nugget, it would have been mentioned in Yukon or Klondike history records. So this one must have escaped.
There was no mention of this nugget in government records, until it was melted down in Seattle in 1910 after Mattheisen and his family left the Klondike. The nugget produced fifty ounces of pure gold worth fifty thousand dollars today.
Strangely Joe has owned claim Number 9 on Dominion Creek since 1990 and thinks that he may have located the site of the cabin where a photo of the huge nugget was taken. Nothing remains today except some old stove parts and the ditch which Mattheisen and Coffin may have dug and used to flume water to their workings.
Who knows. Maybe there’s another monster nugget lurking in the ground that produced the Yukon’s largest chunk of gold.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin