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Gold Dredges in the North

by Murray Lundberg

Arctic & Northern Mining

Historic photo of gold dredge operating at Fairbanks, Alaska - click to enlarge       Most people believe that gold mining in the Yukon and Alaska was primarily done with gold pans, or possibly sluice boxes. In fact, those methods were only used for testing streams, and in the early stages of mining in some areas such as the Klondike. Relatively little gold was recovered, and it wasn't until the arrival of huge dredges that gold production soared.

      With buckets that gouged out several cubic yards of gravel on each pass, enormous amounts of material could be processed by a dredge, so even fairly poor ground could be profitably mined.

      The bucket-line dredges that changed the character of gold mining in Alaska and the Yukon were invented in New Zealand. Many changes and additions were made to make them suitable for working frozen ground, but the technology changed little for the 80 years they were in use. Although they look complex, the basic concept is very simple - the buckets scoop up the gravel and dump it into sluice boxes inside the dredge, water is pumped in to separate the gold from the gravel, and the worthless gravel is then dumped out the back.

      Preserving machinery the size of a gold dredge can present enormous technical problems. In 1996, Dredge No. 4, which is owned by Parks Canada, was found to have structural damage which required extensive emergency repairs to save the gantry structure. There is a comprehensive paper on-line describing the process (see the Links page).

      Several private attempts are being made in Alaska to develop tourist-based operations with a gold dredge as the centrepiece. One such dredge, the Sixtymile Dredge, was moved in September 1999 from the Sixtymile gold district near Dawson to Skagway. Dredge #8 is also open for tours in Fairbanks, and the Pedro Dredge in Chicken is being readied for access.

      The use of huge dredges such as the ones in the Klondike and at Nome is limited to Siberia now. In North America, it may well be impossible today to get an environmental clearance to conduct such large-scale stripping of valleys. The Walter Johnson Dredge, which operated on Clear Creek in the central Yukon in 1981, did some reclamation of the tailings area. Visitors, however, often make negative comments about the huge barren tailings piles along the Klondike Highway south of Dawson City.

      Most modern dredges are much smaller, and use suction to bring up the gold-bearing gravel from river bottoms. Many are used by "recreational" miners due to their relatively low cost and ease of use.

      The largest and most famous of the dredges were manufactured by Yuba or Marion, but many other companies built dredges of various sizes.

Gold Dredges in the North

Alaska Mines Corporation
The company ran 2 dredges near Nome from 1908-1916. This photo is of their power plant.

Cowden ("Lost Chicken") Dredge
An illustrated feature showing it as it looked in 1999.

Cowden and Pedro Dredges
A photojournal from a trip to Chicken has commentary about, and many photos of, both dredges.

Dredge No. 4
Now stabilized at its last working location in the Klondike gold fields near Dawson City.

Dredge No. 8
Now a tourist attraction north of Fairbanks.

Dredge No. 11
The story of its destruction, from the Klondike Sun, followed by a short history.

The Jack Wade Dredge Several photos of the dredge as it was in 1999 and 2000, and some of its parts at an interpretive site in Chicken.

Pedro Gold Dredge
Originally operated by the Fairbanks Exploration Company, this Yuba dredge now rests at an RV park at Chicken, Alaska.

Sievertsen-Johnson Mining and Dredging Company
The company worked a Risdon Iron Works dredge on the Solomon River, near Nome, in 1911.

Sixtymile Dredge
An illustrated feature showing it being moved from Big Gold Creek, Yukon to Skagway, Alaska in 1999.

Swanberg's Dredge
This rig worked just a mile east of Nome in the 1940s. The photo is by Tom Busch.

Three Friends Mining Company
Installed in 1905, the company's dredge No.1 was the first truly successful gold dredge on Alaska's Seward Peninsula.

Walter Johnson Dredge
A newspaper article from 1981 - "Clear Creek: Canada's only working dredge."

Wills' Cigarette Card - 'Dredging for Gold'
An historic trading card showing a California-style bucket-line dredge at work.

Gold Dredges in Other Regions

The Advance Gold Dredging Company
A 1900 stock certificate for this company, which was apparently operating a steam-powered dredge in California.

Dredging the Sacramento River
This postacrd shows a simple flume dredge working near Marysville, California in about 1908.

Gold Dredge in California
A postcard of a gold dredging operation in California in about 1909.

Further Reading

When the monster machines ruled the creeks
An article by Michael Gates from his "History Hunter" series in the Yukon News.

Yuba Dredges
A brief presentaion by the Oakland Museum of California.

Gold Panning
The simple start to testing possible gold-bearing ground.

The Klondike Gold Rush
A major resource for study of the Gold Rush.