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The Tantalus Butte Coal Mine

Carmacks, Yukon

by Murray Lundberg

Yukon Coal Resources

Click on each photo to greatly enlarge it

This ad appeared in the Dawson Daily News in 1912.     Tantalus Butte was named in 1883 by Lt. Frederick Schwatka, who was frustrated by the many bends in the Yukon River in what is now the Carmacks area. He kept expecting to reach the hill, then the river would take him away from it again. In A Summer in Alaska (1893), he says:

In the region about the mouth of the Nordenskiöld River a conspicuous bald butte could be seen directly in front of our raft no less than seven times, on as many different stretches of the river. I called it Tantalus Butte, and was glad enough to see it disappear from sight.
Tantalus Butte and the Yukon River.     Tantalus was the son of Zeus, and was punished by being forced to stand in water that moved away when the tried to drink it, and under fruit trees whose branches he couldn't reach. The photo to the left shows the river in May 2003, with Tantalus Butte to the north in the background. In the enlarged photo you can see the North Klondike Highway just to the left of the hill.

    To the Northern Tutchone people who have lived near the hill for thousands of years, it was known as Gun Tthi, which means worm hill. They believed that a giant worm with eyes like the sun lived in the hill, and if they made too much noise while passing by on the river, the worm would cause a big wind that would upset their boat.

    It is often reported that coal was discovered in the area by George Carmack in 1893. However, George Dawson had reported in 1887 that coal outcrops in the area provided a source of fuel for prospectors and trappers. In the spring of 1898, W. T. Edmonds organized the first Five Finger Coal Company and slowly began development work. Between 1900 and about 1908, commercial mining took place sporadically on a pair of small seams on the southeast bank of the Yukon River 6 miles upsteam from Five Finger Rapids (136° 20' W., 62° 12' N.). The Yukon Sun of May 22, 1900 reported on the discovery and development:

    Captain Miller, who commanded the steamer Reindeer, is a lucky man. He discovered a coal mine two miles south of Reindeer station or six miles from the Five Finger rapids. It is a blanket vein, three foot seam, and he has already 8 tons out.
    The mine is located right beside the river and Captain Miller has already built a wharf 115 feet long, ice proof. The quality of the coal is very good, being between an anthracite and a bituminous, more like the Cumberland blacksmith coal and fit for general use. He will soon be able to get out about 20 tons a day as soon as he can get a second chamber opened for working. He certainly has a bonanza as coal in that section of the Yukon will be a godsend to steamers and railroads.

    The coal from Five Fingers was intended primarily to fuel river steamers, but contrary to the report above, the quality of the coal was considered quite poor, with a high ash content. The White Pass & Yukon Route railway (WP&YR), which was expected to become a major user of this coal, brought theirs up from Vancouver Island by ship instead.

    In 1900 and the spring of 1901, there were scores of coal deposits reported in the Yukon, most of them quite close to Dawson City. Many were apparently questionable, because in late June 1901 the federal government stopped selling land with reported coal deposits. From that point on, only leases were available, and at $1 per year per acre, speculation was much more limited.

The Yukon's historic Tantalus Coal Mine, along the Yukon River at Carmacks.     In 1903, Captain Miller sold the mine to a group which organized as the Five Fingers Coal Company. He then opened (in his wife's name) the Hidden Treasure coal mine, located along the river just above Carmacks (136° 16' W., 62° 06' N.). The following year, 370 tons of coal was shipped. In 1906 the mine, now named the Tantalus Coal Mine, reported production of 5,173 tons of coal, and in 1907 almost 10,000 tons. Although the quality of the coal was better here than it was at Five Fingers, the few steamboats that had tried to use coal reverted back to wood fuel. The photo to the left shows the sternwheeler Casca delivering supplies to the mine in about 1910.

    Despite the quality issues, the rock formations in the Carmacks area were soon widely recognized to be an indicator that coal would be present, and "Tantalus conglomerates" show up in many coal-related geology reports, in British Columbia as well as the Yukon. In the current report The Geological Framework of the Yukon Territory, C. Hart reports that:

The Tantalus Formation occurs in small isolated exposures that range from south of Whitehorse to Carmacks and to just south of Dawson. These exposures are mainly of quartz-rich sandstone and conglomerate and host the Whitehorse, Division Mountain, Tantalus Butte and Haystack Mountain coal deposits. Tantalus Formation rocks range in age from 140 to 60 million years old and are deposited on Stikinia, Quesnellia and Yukon-Tanana Terrane.

On the 1908 map below, Tantalus conglomerates are indicated by light green.
Click on it to see all the coal mines discussed in this article.
Map of Carmacks area coal mines in 1908.

    After 1918, production at the Tantalus mine dropped to a few hundred tons per year, mostly used by homes and businesses in Dawson City. The Tantalus Mine was closed in 1922 when a fault was reached in the main tunnel, and the coal vein could not be relocated. Development work then shifted to the Tantalus Butte Mine on the opposite side of the Yukon River (136° 15' W., 62° 08' N.).

    A forest fire in the 1950s ignited a small coal seam at the old mine, and some locals report that smoke can occasionally still be seen coming out of cracks in the ground around the old workings. The remains of the old dock and a small coal seam can still (2003) be seen on the south side of the river about a hundred yards upriver from the highway bridge.

The Yukon River and Tantalus Butte from the downriver end of Carmacks.
    The Yukon River and Tantalus Butte from the downriver end of Carmacks.

The Yukon's historic Tantalus Butte Coal Mine, along the Yukon River at Carmacks.
    In 1894, George Carmack was tunnelling into the hill across from Carmacks for a supply of coal that he sold to prospectors for their blacksmithing chores. The Five Finger Mine, downriver near Five Finger Rapids, was developed during the Klondike Gold Rush, but attention turned again to the Tantalus Mine when Captain Charles E. Miller stated mining coal to power his small fleet of sternwheelers.
    In 1903, a Dawson City businessman, George De Lion, started mining the site and managed to ship 24 tons of coal to Dawson City where the Dawson Electric Light and Power company became a customer. The Yukon population was declining and there was so little freight by 1918 that the steamers were running without barges unless they were hauling coal, and the demand for coal in Dawson was weakening. The British Yukon Navigation Company sternwheelers started hauling coal to Whitehorse for company use but production dropped in 1918 below 1,000 tons and continued to fall until the mine closed in the 1920s.

The Yukon River and Tantalus Butte from the downriver end of Carmacks.
    The Tantalus Butte Mine was never able to develop a large market, and yearly production ranged from 300 to 600 tons until 1938 when the mine closed. In 1948 the Yukon Coal Company, owned by Cassiar Asbestos, reopened the mine with a federal loan of $300,000. Production increased to nearly 13,000 tons by 1954, but then declined to 8,806 tons by 1965 as demand by the United Keno Hill Mines decreased.

    This photo from September 2011 shows the mine access road from the North Klondike Highway, which starts off really good but deteriorates quite quickly.

The Yukon's historic Tantalus Coal Mine, along the Yukon River at Carmacks.
    The mine closed in 1967, but two years later, Anvil Mining Corporation reopened it, with the coal to be used at their Faro lead/zinc mine for concentrate drying and plant heating. In the mid-1970s, production peaked at about 18,000 tons per year, and most of what is visible at the mine site today is from that era.

    The road down from the mine on a rainy day in September 2001. It's passable by cars except in very wet weather, but not by larger vehicles due to overgrowth.

The Yukon's historic Tantalus Butte Coal Mine, along the Yukon River at Carmacks.
    Renamed Cyprus Anvil, the company calculated reserves of approximately 85,000 tons in 1976, but most of that was mined before operations were shut down for the final time in 1982 due to the closure of the Faro mine. The closure of that mine also spelled the end of freight service on the WP&YR, which had undergone a major upgrade to service to mine.

    A general view of the mine workings in September 2001.

    September 2011.

    September 2011.

    September 2011.

    September 2011.

The Yukon's historic Tantalus Butte Coal Mine, along the Yukon River at Carmacks.
    An underground fire had started in an abandoned section of the mine in 1978, and the unsuccessful efforts to extinguish it may have also been a consideration in the decision to not keep the mine open while new markets were sought.

    This photo shows the main adit and loading platform in September 2001.

The main adit and loading platform at the Yukon's historic Tantalus Butte Coal Mine
    The main adit and loading platform in September 2011.

The Yukon's historic Tantalus Butte Coal Mine, along the Yukon River at Carmacks.
    This photo shows the ore dump, with the Yukon River and the Campbell Highway (once the road to the Faro mine) in the background, in September 2001.

The Yukon's historic Tantalus Butte Coal Mine, along the Yukon River at Carmacks.

    Another view of the ore dump and the Yukon River.

The Yukon's historic Tantalus Coal Mine, along the Yukon River at Carmacks.

    In this photo from September 2001, the hillside above the main adit is slowly collapsing, and has been fenced off.

    The hillside above the main adit in September 2011.

The Yukon's historic Tantalus Butte Coal Mine, along the Yukon River at Carmacks.
    This photo hints at the conditions that faced the miners underground. Even in early September, the air coming out of this shaft is cold enough to form substantial quantities of ice on the timbers!

The Yukon's historic Tantalus Butte Coal Mine, along the Yukon River at Carmacks.
    A winze (an angled shaft), with the Yukon River below. The coal seams angled into the mountain at angles of from 16-50 degrees, so standard tunnels (horizontal) and shafts (vertical) couldn't follow them. This photo was shot in September 2011 - a 2001 photo from the opposite angle can be seen here.

Some track from the underground railway at the Yukon's historic Tantalus Butte Coal Mine
    Some track from the railway that brought the coal out from underground, in September 2001.

    An early ore cart, with the wheels removed, in September 2011.

    Above and north of the main mine area is this open cut. I don't yet know how or even if it relates to the coal mine. This photo was shot in September 2011.

    The road down from the open cut, in September 2011.