Luck in the Archives: How One File Shaped My Dissertation

Klondike Syphon of the Yukon Ditch, 1908. DCMA 1993.67.108

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On my final research trip to the Dawson City Museum Archives before I finished my dissertation, I found a file simply titled “Yukon Ditch” that I hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t catalogued in their collections and it had never been retrieved for a patron. But there it was, stuck between two other folders I had requested in a big box. It isn’t unusual for historians to view unrequested documents – archivists often bring the whole box when patrons request multiple folders from within a collection. In all of my research – both secondary and primary – I had never heard of this ditch. Out of curiosity, I took a look at the folder, and that one folder essentially shaped the fifth chapter of my dissertation. This chapter focused specifically on the shift from small-scale placer mining to large-scale dredging operations and examined the environmental impacts each mode of operation had on local ecosystems.

My dissertation more broadly was an environmental and Indigenous history of gold mining in the Klondike region of the Yukon from 1890 to 1940. I analyzed the peculiarities of colonialism in the Yukon, the physical changes mining left on the Klondike landscape, and how these changes, along with southern institutions and ideologies, resulted in a dramatic shift between the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and the local environment. Up to the point of my final research trip, I had been writing about the environmental effects of mining on one very specific landscape – Dawson City and the Klondike goldfields. My research showed very clearly that the environmental (as well as socioeconomic and cultural) effects of mining were monumental for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, but learning about the Yukon ditch allowed me to understand the wider impacts of industrial mining in the Klondike region.

Yukon Ditch System, 1909. DCMA 1993.67.1.85

The Yukon ditch was a 113 kilometer ditch the Yukon Gold Corporation constructed to supply water to the Klondike gold fields, particularly to their fleet of dredges, once mining companies exhausted local water supplies. It represented 20th century ideologies of colonial land use. In building the Yukon ditch to maximize mining potential, miners, businessmen, and government officials in Dawson – and beyond – celebrated what they perceived as a conquering of the natural world.[1]

Construction of the ditch began in 1906 and had immediate consequences for Yukon First Nations who lived along it’s path. The ditch stretched across the Blackstone Uplands, an important fishing, hunting, and trapping area for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in as well as the Tukudh Gwich’in and the Teetł’it Gwich’in. According to traditional knowledge, once construction of the ditch began – which included stripping forest growth and removing moss from the ground as well as new road construction – caribou began avoiding the area. Once the ditch was completed, it carried water from Twelve Mile River, over the Ogilvie Mountains, and into the Klondike Valley, further disrupting wildlife habitat along the way. By 1910, the Tukudh Gwich’in noted the lack of fish, and had abandoned their fish settlements in the Uplands completely by 1927.[2]

Construction of the Yukon Ditch, 1908. DCMA 1993.67.1.64

The ditch operated until 1933 when the Yukon Gold Corporation could no longer afford to run it. The infrastructure was essentially abandoned and sections of the rusty pipeline are visible on the landscape today near the Bear Creek compound, shown below.

Photo by author. June 2015.

This archival “discovery” doesn’t seem monumental, but at the time it was quite exciting for me. I was struggling with questions of how far the physical effects of mining stretched outside of the Dawson area, and I was feeling like my research was becoming too much of a micro-study to really grapple with my research questions. I was also struggling to find a way to really emphasize the drastic material impacts of industrial mining in the Klondike that I was stringing together from bits and pieces and hearing about from community members, and the Yukon ditch provided a solid example for me to make this case. Industrial mining technologies accelerated the range and scale of environmental change connected to placer mining, but it also initiated other forms of environmental transformation not present in placer mining – specifically the growth of infrastructure related to mining. Further, placer mining infringed upon Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in territory but was relatively contained to the goldfields and Dawson; with infrastructural growth in dredging the encroachment on Hwëch’in territory expanded beyond the goldfields into the Tombstone mountain range.

In short, a bit of luck in the archives helped me shape my examination of mining to better understand the ways in which the expansion of industrial mining technology and related infrastructure in the Yukon created greater long-term impacts on the local environment at a scale that stretched across, and beyond, the Klondike Valley, encapsulating Indigenous traditional territory outside of the goldfields.

[1] TA Rickard, “The Yukon Ditch,” in Mining and Scientific Press (San Francisco: January 16, 1909): 117.
[2] Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Traditional Knowledge Archive, Black City, 2-3.
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Heather Green is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Saint Mary's University. She is interested in the intersections of environmental and Indigenous histories, histories of Indigenous and Settler Relations, and mining history, particularly in the Canadian North. You can connect with her on twitter @heathergreen21.

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