Hills of Silver: The Yukon’s Mighty Keno Hill Mine
November 4, 2013
Review By Logan Hovis
Aaro Aho’s book serves several masters. First and foremost, it is the song of Keno Hill and those who prospected, worked, and lived the life of the rich silver-lead mines. Silver ore was first discovered in 1906, and high-grade production began shortly thereafter. The first mill was constructed in 1925. With the exception of a few years during the Second World War, mining continued on a succession of small, rich veins on Keno, Galena, and Sourdough hills until 1989. Small, rich veins scattered throughout the area meant there was a series of smaller mines – the Number Nine, the Elsa, the Ladue, and the Sadie, to name a few – working the area over time rather than one large mine operating for an extended period of time.
Like many remembrances of the north, Hills of Silver is populated with characters that at first glance are the core of the book. Told over tea or overproof rum, the stories ring true, as anyone who has spent time in remoter communities can attest. Human foibles and strengths take on a greater meaning when there are fewer people about to dilute the behaviour. The drunken undertaker, the Mountie who used his fists, and the taciturn mine manager who grubstaked so many prospectors to everyone’s benefit are almost stock characters in tales of the mining camps. Some of the stories – consider a man who sat beside the road repeatedly trying to commit suicide as others walked by – underscore the geographical and human isolation of the region. Nonetheless, these tales told time and time again give personal meaning and a human face to what might otherwise be a depressing procession of events in a long winter’s night.
Mining in the Yukon did not end with the gold rushes; industrial placer mining and the development of lode mines turned the short-lived, popular phenomenon of the turn of the last century into a sustained undertaking that continues to this day. Silver from Keno Hill was one story among many. Others of note include gold and silver at Carcross, copper outside Whitehorse, lead and zinc in the Anvil Range and at Faro, as well as the ongoing placer mining operations. It is worth noting that Dr. Aho played a singular role in the discovery and development of the Anvil Mine in the 1950s. The Keno Hill narrative provides a detailed, if idiosyncratic, look at the problems of finding and financing mines, making them work, and moving the ore to market. Steamboats on the Stewart River play as important a role as do prospectors searching for another vein. Road construction and the opening of a government liquor store play roles equal to external finance and the fluctuating price of silver in the development of the district.
While there is little direct discussion of the technology of mining, anyone paying attention to the narrative will discover an interesting case study in the persistence of rude prospecting and exploration techniques in the district. In much of the area, bedrock was hard to find and the frozen overburden was deep. Early in the century, the only way to discern the value of a claim was to examine the rock directly. In shallow ground, trenches sufficed. To test deeper ground, someone has to sink a shaft or drive a tunnel through the permafrost. Boilers, steam points, hand winches, and sore muscles were the order of the day. Fifty years later, while much of the mining world was relying on geochemistry, geophysics, and diamond dril ling to conduct mineral exploration, claimants around Keno Hill were still fashioning boilers from old fuel drums and sinking shafts by hand. Efforts to introduce more sophisticated methods into the area, even in the late 1950s, were haphazard and usually less than rewarding. It was not until the 1960s that drilling methods were devised to successfully and, just as important, cheaply probe the subsurface.
Taken as a whole, Hills of Silver serves its various masters well. The residents of Keno Hill can continue to share their stories with each other and with their visitors. While many of the characters can be found in any mining camp saga, they need to be encountered somewhere if one is to have a fuller understanding of the day-to-day life of what is all too often presented as a romance. Anyone digging deeper into the stories can find the common threads that bind one camp to another and that make them all part of the larger world. Technically, exploration in the area had to overcome special problems associated with the deep, frozen ground. Once mastered, the techniques persisted long after other methods became available. Hills of Silver can be an amusing and informative read. How that happens depends on what the reader brings to the book.