Rebuilt at a cost of $1.5 million, the Walter Johnson Dredge, which resumed operations on Clear Creek June 27, is both a dream come
true and a first for Canada. The dredge's owners, Queenstake Resources, a Vancouver-based mining company, began the major renovation project on the 1930s dredge last
year and had it back in operation on a trial run Sept. 5.
Project manager Jeff Lerner indicated there was much advance planning to rehabilitate the dredge, with its 3½-cubic-foot buckets: 150 tons of
steel were purchased to make the parts no longer obtainable, and the entire dredge was stripped down and each part measured for repair and replacement. The dredge was
in poor condition when purchased. It was sitting high and dry, but vandals had left garbage all over the place and broken its windows. It was brought north in the
mid-1930s from California and worked by Clear Creek Placers until 1955. Queenstake bought it in 1979.
Former dredge employees of the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation were contacted to assist in the remodelling and actual work of the dredge. George
Ball, a consultant who specialized in repair and reworking of dredges, and Greg Hoggan, former superintendent of Pato Consolidated (a large dredging company in Columbia)
were hired, and the work in rounding up the parts, measuring, etc., began. Drawings for some sections were located in San Francisco. The repair work was completed by the
end of August 1980, and because the dredge was sitting high and dry, they had to build a dike behind the dredge to refloat it and test its pontoons. It was floated
upstream 90 degrees, and the bucket line put on.
The old Vivian 600-rpm diesel generator, weighing 12 tons, was replaced by a new three-ton, 1,800-rpm, 320 h.p. Cummins (same as a Kenworth truck). Last
fall, Queenstake ran the dredge on one four-hour and two 10-hour shifts of three men each: winchman, sterndecker (who watches the trommel and the stacker to make sure
nothing goes wrong) and an oiler (who makes two trips per shift oiling the many parts. Its 72 buckets send an eery sound across the valley when they are in motion digging
into the gravel.
For Lerner, it was a dream come true. He said very few people would ever have the opportunity to assist in getting a Yukon gold dredge working again.
Dredging stopped in the Yukon in 1966, making this one the only one operating in Canada at present.
Queenstake Resources, owned 28 percent by Canada Tungsten, plan on doing land reclamation at their Clear Creek site. They propose to contour or flatten
the tailings piles, mixing back the finer materials so that vegetation begins immediately. The resulting ground will remain thawed, and it is hoped that deciduous trees
will grow back in. With 1981 being their first full season of operation, Queenstake look forward to 10 years of potental gold dredging operations at this central Yukon
gold production area.
Gold-mining methods in Canada's Klondike have come a long way since the days of the bearded prospector, crouching beside a stream and patiently swilling water around in a shallow pan. Most gold operations now use bulldozers and sophisticated sluice boxes.
But Jeff Lerner, a miner, and his brother Wayne, a master mechanic, have teamed up with Queenstake Resources Ltd., a Canadian mining concern, to bring back a little of the past, rebuilding and operating a dredge that was left to rust more than 25 years ago.
Their initiative has run into technical and legal difficulties. The technical problems came first.
The 350-ton steel machine was built in 1938 and operated on Wildcat Creek in Northern California for two years before being shipped to the Klondike, in pieces, in 1941. The dredge was reassembled in the summer of 1942, and began operation that August on Clear Creek, near the headwaters of the Klondike, 60 miles east of here.
The dredge worked the rich creek gravel until rising costs overtook the price of gold. By 1966, all the dredges in the district were shut down.
Spiraling gold prices in 1979 spawned the second Gold Rush, making dredge mining look profitable again. So the Lerner brothers bought the abandoned dredge in Clear Creek, although it had been thoroughly vandalized, for $35,000 in Canadian funds. "We bought it purely for the purpose of speculation," Jeff Lerner says.
But the dredge was sitting on property held by Queenstake and seemed suitable for the operations planned by the Vancouver, B.C., mining company. So Queenstake bought the dredge from the Lerners, who now work for Queenstake. The Wreck
"The dredge was right there, sitting on the property," explains John Lusney, a mining consultant with Queenstake. "The nature of the gold deposit, being under water, would have made a buldozer operation very, very difficult, and very expensive. It's a big property and we thought there was potential for developing it with a dredge. Bringing in a dredge from elsewhere or building a new one would have cost a tremendous amount."
When Queenstake bought the dredge, most of the original brass fittings had disappeared, windows were broken and machinery wrecked. Several of the 19 pontoons on which the dredge floated had filled with silt. Many of the 72 buckets with which the machine scoops up pay dirt had been removed, no mean accomplishment, since each weighs 700 pounds. "We found buckets all over the place," Jeff Lerner recalls, "some in the bush with trees growing in them. I walked around Dawson and bought buckets from people who had them in their garden, filled with flowers." The Lerners estimate rebuilding cost more than $1 million, but say that building a new dredge, presuming you could, would cost over $4 million.
The refurbished dredge now floats in its own pond, the clanking of its bucket line echoing across the valley. At full power, the line pulls up 33 buckets a minute from 16 feet underwater.
The skill in operating the dredge, says one winchman, is to be able to follow the contours of the stream bed. Because the gold is concentrated in the gravel immediately above bedrock, the first foot of bedrock is scooped up along with the gravel. "If you dig too deep, you're wasting your time, and if you don't dig deep enough, you miss the gold," he says. Two television monitors in the wheel house allow the operator to see what is happening elsewhere on the dredge.
The dredge mines the material and in one continuous process sorts the gravel, recovers the gold, tin and tungsten and spews out the waste, or tailings, in neat piles behind the boat.
Now that the dredge is back in operation, the legal problems have been surfaced. It takes 5,000 gallons of water a minute to wash the gold-bearing gravel, and Queenstake has run in into difficulties with the federal Water Board. To satisfy the board, the company built three 150-foot-long settling ponds, strung out behind the dredge, to allow silt to settle out of the used water before it is returned to the creek. Coming from the dredge, the water is thick with silt washed from the gravel, but by the time it seeps out of the third settling pond, it is relatively clear.
Concern for fish in the creek caused problems with the Fisheries Department. The dredge, floating in its own pond, completely blocks the creek; a ditch to bypass the mining operation has been dug, but the dredge still covers 30 percent of the area.
Guidelines for gold mining are 40 years old, and some miners feel they are caught between government departments in conflict with each other. Queenstake's operation was delayed for more than month this year by wrangles with officials of several government agencies. These differences have been more or less settled. "At least we haven't had anybody up here for a few weeks now," Mr. Lerner comments.
Queenstake owns 7 miles of Clear Creek and has an option on 3 miles further upstream, with reserves of three million cubic yards of gravel expected to yield $8 to $10 Canadian a yard. The dredge will move about one mile a season, processing 350,000 cubic yards of gravel, and Mr. Lerner estimates a break-even point of $3 a yard. Bulldozer placer operations estimate they need $5 a yard to break even.
Gordon Gutrath, president of Queenstake, which is 45 percent owned by the Canada Tungsten Mining Corporation, estimates it will take two years of operation, recovering $1.5 million in gold each season, to recoup the cost of putting the dredge back into production. The company expects to work the area for 10 years.
Working 24 hours a day with three shifts of four men each, the machine uses only 8-10 gallons of diesel an hour, three times the fuel consumed by the average car. Jeff Lerner extols the virtues of his brain child. "We feel the dredge, in the right place, is superior to a bulldozer operation."
His faith apparently has been rewarded. The first recovery of gold netted 240 ounces, worth $100,000 in Canadian currency, and subsequent weeks have yielded similar amounts.
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