August 2012

William Ogilvie

Surveyor of the Klondike Gold Rush

By Correy Baldwin

When the Klondike Gold Rush broke out in 1896, prospectors descended on the Bonanza and Eldorado creeks in a chaotic scramble for gold. They measured out and marked their own claims through the thick bush – an inevitably hasty and haphazard process – and soon the boundaries of the Klondike claims were a complete mess.

It was up to William Ogilvie, a Dominion land surveyor already stationed in the Yukon, to literally set things straight. When Ogilvie surveyed the claims, he found an overwhelming number – roughly three quarters – inaccurately marked.

The stakes – and the tensions – were high: with such rich deposits below, fortunes were to be gained and lost as Ogilvie went about straightening the boundaries of the claims.

Ogilvie first came to the Yukon in 1887, leading a small team to survey Canada’s border with Alaska. At the Chilkoot Pass, he met the trio of men who were destined to stake the first claims of the Klondike rush: George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie. Carmack and Jim worked as packers on the pass and were part of the 120-strong packing team Ogilvie hired to carry over six tonnes of supplies and equipment.

An increase in mining activity in the remote district had caught the Canadian government’s attention, and Ogilvie was to report back on the Yukon’s mineral potential. So he spent the winter at Forty Mile, near the Alaska border, surveying and speaking to local prospectors.

Ogilvie understood the importance of setting up a stable administration, but he also listened to prospectors’ concerns and recommended Ottawa take a hands-off approach for the time being (including not collecting royalties), so as not to stifle prospecting. He also took prospectors’ advice and enlarged placer claims from 30.5 metres of frontage to 152.5 metres to compensate for the difficulties of working with permafrost. Ogilvie predicted that significant deposits would soon be discovered in the Yukon.

Buzz about the Yukon continued to build, and eventually Ogilvie recommended Ottawa step up its presence. In 1895, 20 policemen were stationed at Forty Mile, and Ogilvie returned to the Yukon to continue surveying the Alaska border. He was still there when Geoge Carmack wandered into Forty Mile on September 24, 1896, to register his Bonanza Creek claim.

Ogilvie set out for the Klondike and found plenty to keep him busy, checking the accuracy of claims and correcting those that were off. Pros­pectors and miners trust­ed Ogilvie, a res­pect­ed official known for his fastidious work, as well as his honesty and impartiality, which al­lowed a surprising level of calm and order to reign over the gold fields of the Klondike.

As a civil servant, Ogilvie was not able to take part in the riches of the gold rush. However, at least one member of his team did.

When miners had staked more ground than they were entitled to, Ogilvie’s corrections created leftover-fractions, undersized, pie-shaped pieces of ground open to be claimed. One of these fractions – a piece just 26 metres wide at the base – was claimed by Dick Lowe, a chainman on Ogilvie’s surveying crew.

The fraction did not look promising and he tried to sell it, but there were no takers; it was too small to bother with. He tried to lease it and again nobody expressed interest. Finally, he decided to just mine it himself.

Lowe sunk a shaft but found nothing. So he tried again, and this time he hit gold, bringing out 3,000 ounces valued at $46,000 in his first eight hours. His fraction would bring in more than half a million dollars, the richest claim per square foot in the Yukon.

Ogilvie may not have made a mint, but he played a vital role in the Klondike, before, during and after the gold rush. He installed law and order in the gold fields, surveyed the jumbled townsite of Dawson City and, from 1898 to 1901, was commissioner of Yukon.

Post a comment


PDF Version