Pathfinder Publications

Pathfinder Publications The ExploreNorth Blog Arctic & Northern Books Contact Us


Excerpt from "Fractured Veins & Broken Dreams" . . .


Chapter 3 - The First Windy Arm Mines

One of John Conrad's most distinctive management traits was that he never did anything half-way; whether that is seen as positive or negative in retrospect, Conrad made things happen, always hiring the top men in the field, and installing the most modern equipment that he could raise money for. On January 12th, with the thermometer sitting at eight degrees Fahrenheit (-13 Celsius), he headed for Windy Arm with a party of six men, with three dogs helping to carry their supplies. The party included two of the top quartz men in the territory, William "Bill" Clark, Captain Irving's partner in the Copper Belt properties, and George Erickson, foreman of the Copper King mine, which had shut down for the winter; Erickson picked four of his best men from the Copper King crew to accompany them. Conrad's enthusiasm and the whole party's mining expertise, however, was no match for a Yukon winter; six days later the group was back in Whitehorse, having been unable to get through "between four and five feet" of snow on the mountain to reach the claims.64

With the value of silver on the international market rising at an ever-increasing rate,65 development work on the Windy Arm claims started in March, 1905, as soon as the snow would allow. By late June, the Windy Arm stampede was on; there were 12 new claims staked in the district in June, 47 in July, and 57 in August.

Mining technology near the turn of the century was advancing rapidly, "at the leading edge of scientific development and industrial requirements." To put such leading-edge technology into practice, however, required an enormous outlay of capital, beyond the ability of most mines to finance. For smaller operations, hardrock mining was still back-breaking, dangerous work for the men underground, using techniques that had changed little since men first started following veins of gold and silver into the earth. Tunnels were kept as small as could reasonably be worked, ventilation was poor, and the only light at the work face was provided by a candle or two. The use of explosives was limited almost entirely to the first few feet of a new tunnel because of the problem of venting the dust and poisonous gases afterwards; all of the first tunnels in the Conrad mines would be driven by brute force, with hammers, chisels and prybars.

Despite the crude methods employed to drive the tunnels, work progressed rapidly; on June 26th, Gustave August Singer, who had been appointed by the investors as General Manager of Conrad Consolidated Mines, reported to a stockholders' meeting in Seattle that $12,000,000 worth of ore was already "in sight"66 on the Montana vein alone. In mid-June, crosscut tunnels were started on the Mountain Hero and Joe Petty claims in an attempt to increase that figure by intercepting the Montana vein to the north and south.

Conrad and Singer made a quick trip to Seattle in mid-July, and ordered an aerial tramway from Royal N. Riblet. This first tramway was to be installed as soon as possible to develop, and haul ore from, the Mountain Hero and Montana mines, and it was arranged for Riblet to visit Windy Arm to survey for at least one more tramway.

The first tramway, costing $80,000, was of bi-cable design, with the ore cars riding on a heavy stationary support cable while being pulled by a lighter "running" cable. It was to run 18,697 feet from a small bay on Windy Arm, just north of the mouth of Montana Creek, to the Mountain Hero claim, 3,464 feet above the level of the lower terminal. Crossing over two canyons, the tramway was designed with the longest span between towers in the world, 2,960 feet. Suspended from the cable were about 80 ore buckets, each carrying twelve cubic feet of ore; travelling at a little over five miles per hour, it took about fifty minutes for a bucket to travel from the mine to the discharge terminal at Windy Arm. There were also several lumber carriers, and several single-passenger chairs which were attached to the cable as needed, allowing men to reach the mine quickly, and in reasonable comfort physically. The first few trips over the canyons must have been somewhat disconcerting though, particularly as the men would usually just ride in an empty ore car.67 One of the factors that needed to be calculated into the design of the tramway was the fairly uncommon situation of using the tramway to transport some of the smaller construction materials up the mountain as well as ore down. As a result, the support cable for the ore cars travelling up the mountain were 1 1/8 inch in diameter instead of the standard æ inch.

By early August 1905, steamers were arriving at Skagway with cargo consigned to Conrad Consolidated Mines - groceries, lumber, ore cars, timbers, hand tools and all the other supplies and equipment required by the mines. On the Skagway dock, the material was transferred to rail cars for the 67 mile trip "over the hill" to Caribou Crossing.68 From there the Gleaner, which the British Yukon Navigation Company had purchased from Captain Irving in 1900, took the materials to one of two beaches along Windy Arm. Klondike veteran William H. "Billy" Weisdeppe was then responsible for getting supplies and equipment up the mountain from the lakeshore, using 45 mules and a dozen pack horses that had recently arrived by steamer.

The White Pass & Yukon completed a survey for a spur line to be built along Windy Arm from Caribou Crossing, but in August, White Pass president Samuel Graves made the surprising announcement that the eleven-mile line, which would require considerable rock work, would not be built until there was "sufficient business in sight to make a railroad to the mines profitable."69

In August, sixty men were working on three main groups of properties under the direction of Herman Wilbur Vance; on the adjoining Mountain Hero and Montana claims, forty men were working three eight-hour shifts, and sub-foreman George Erickson had another twenty working on the Venus and Uranus. Shafts and tunnels were being driven in at least a dozen places; the tunnel at the Montana had followed the vein down 240 feet, and ore graded at $2,000 to $3,000 per ton, mainly in silver, was being stoped and sorted for shipment. On August 9, Conrad announced that the Mountain Hero adit had struck the Montana vein, proving that there was ore grading at least $50 a ton all the way between the mines, and "making it certain that one of the world's greatest mines is about to be opened up."70 In addition to the men in the mines, about one hundred men were at work on pack trails, wagon roads, buildings, and other services.

On August 9th, 1905, the first materials for the Montana tramway arrived at Skagway on the steamer Al-Ki. A large crew of men loaded twenty-two rail cars with timbers for the towers, lumber for the terminals and several tons of iron and steel tramway parts; five days later, the parts had been landed on the beach at Windy Arm, and construction was started immediately. Twenty-five of Billy Weisdeppe's mules were diverted to the task of getting the materials up the mountain to a construction crew of fifty men brought in for the job by R. E. Lanyon of Nelson, British Columbia. Lanyon was well-known in the business, having already completed five tramways in British Columbia for the Riblets.

Driving tunnels at the Montana mine the hard way: a candle for light, and handtools and muscle to move tons of rock surrounding the silver ore.

Over the summer of 1905, John Conrad was constantly buying or optioning additional properties on both sides of Windy Arm. On August 21st, with his original option on Jack Pooley and Jack Stewart's claims expiring, he purchased all of the properties, as well as their eighty acres of prime land at Pooley Canyon.

Royal Newton Riblet was the youngest brother of Byron Riblet, one of the top tramway designers on the continent. Civil engineer Byron Riblet had built his first tramway at Sandon, British Columbia in 1897, and as a result of orders for other tramways in the area, he soon opened a factory in nearby Nelson.71 He hired both his brothers to work for the new company, with Walter as office manager and salesman, and Royal in the blacksmith shop. Although Royal had no formal training, he had developed a love for mechanics on the family farms in Iowa and South Dakota, and particularly in a bicycle shop he owned in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Royal showed a genius for translating his brother Byon's designs into steel and iron parts for the tramways, but he was always jealous of his brother, often taking credit for a great deal more of the design work than he actually did, and always allowing people to assume that he owned the company that bore his family's name. Riblet tramways sold well; unable to build a facility large enough to fabricate parts in sufficient quantity, Byron, in about 1903, sold all of his patents to the A. Leschen & Sons Wire Rope Company in St. Louis, Missouri. The money from that sale allowed them to expand their fabrication facilities at Nelson. From that time on, the Riblet brothers conducted the surveys, designed the specific tramway for each application, and fabricated the components, Leschen supplied the cable, and contract crews installed the systems.

In August, Francis W. "Frank" Farrington joined Conrad Consolidated as assayer; he came highly recommended by Gustave Singer, with whom he had spent several years working in Colorado. Although he had a good job in Colorado, for a young man to be in charge of an assay office that was responsible for testing the samples from so many developing mines was both a challenge, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Farrington was one of many men who were arriving from Colorado, which was in the throes of a virtual mining war which had erupted as a result of the attempt by the Western Federation of Miners to organize mine workers, starting in 1903; the mine owners in Colorado organized to stop the union's activities, and by 1905 kidnappings, murders and bombings were used by both sides, payoffs had reached all the way to the Governor's office, and martial law was instituted several times.72

The earliest known photograph of the Conrad mines, taken by Case & Draper of Juneau.
Although this postcard was titled with the name of the most famous mine, the Montana,
this is actually the Mountain Hero camp, in about June, 1905.

As part of the Yukon government's commitment to encouraging quartz mining, Whitehorse surveyor Henry Godkin "Harry" Dickson and his assistant John Sullivan were sent to Carcross on August 13 to start laying out a road to the lower terminal of Conrad's tramway. Five days later, a crew of twenty men started work on the eleven- mile road, with Sam McGee as foreman. The men were paid four dollars per day plus board, with five dollars per day and board for McGee. To carry the road across the Carcross narrows, a wagon bridge was built upstream from the railway bridge, under the direction of Robert Henry MacDonald, who had formerly operated the MacDonald Roadhouse on the Nordenskiold River.71 The bridge had a pair of hand-operated windlasses installed to enable the centre sections of the bridge to be drawn up to allow the larger boats and barges through. The Gleaner, with a beam of 24 feet 6 inches, could just squeeze through. Although the entire project had been budgeted at $5,000, with "no over-expenditures... allowed,"72 the final bill was $6,671.60.73

Working alongside the road crew was another crew working for the Dominion Telegraph System. After several weeks of negotiations, Conrad had agreed that if a telegraph line was run from Carcross to Conrad City, and an operator hired, his company would build an office and supply board for the operator at the company mess hall. On September 16, District Superintendent Harry Gilchen went to Conrad City to arrange for construction of the line. Jack Hope, who had been working as a telegraph operator since 1901, was placed in charge of the Conrad office, and a few days after his arrival, was also hired as the Conrad correspondent for The Daily Evening Star.

Despite the expectation throughout the Yukon that a reliable connection with the outside world was assured when the new telegraph line from Atlin to southern British Columbia was opened in 190174, it actually was not very reliable. The line to the south was dead a great deal of the time due to breaks in the line caused by icing, fallen trees, and a host of other problems, with the section between Atlin and Hazelton causing most of the trouble. The Yukon World was rather restrained in their criticism of the system, which it termed "as poor an excuse of an institution as can well be imagined."75 The Daily Evening Star, following yet another three-day loss of wire service, went much further and suggested "that the line be repaired in various and sundry places with shoe strings or corset laces and propped up in hundreds of places where it touches the ground with forks made from maccaroni sticks. Anything would help the present decomposed and putrid service."76

Windy Arm was truly becoming an opportunity for virtually anyone to strike it rich. James McQuarrie Murray had moved from New Westminster, British Columbia, to Whitehorse in 1901 with his wife and baby daughter, and went to work as a clerk at the Whitney & Pedlar store. He paid very close attention to the stories told by the prospectors who frequented the store to pick up supplies, and cautiously started searching for rocks that looked like those he heard described. Government assayer Robert Smart found himself answering more and more technical questions about rocks that Murray had found or seen. Ranging further and further afield, by 1905 the young man was spending his days off in the mountains around Carcross. In late July, on the opposite side of the mountain from all the claims previously staked, Murray staked the Caribou claim. Within two weeks John Conrad had optioned the property, which quickly became the key property in the Big Thing Group, consisting of fourteen claims. In late August, Toronto Centre Member of Parliament Edmund Bristol stopped for a look at Windy Arm on his way home from Dawson, where he was attempting to sort out some clients' legal tangles, as well as checking on mining investments of his own. Despite his claims to having initially been skeptical of Conrad's grandiose claims, within days Bristol had invested heavily in the Big Thing Group. Twenty-five men were immediately put to work, concentrating on the Caribou, where assays from the initial open cuts on the vein had run as high as 100 ounces of silver per ton.

Everything seemed to be working in Conrad's favour to get the mines producing quickly; even the weather was cooperating, with an extremely dry summer. Though the work at Windy Arm was facilitated by the lack of rain, placer miners throughout the territory had an extremely difficult year because of the shortage of water. Even that worked to Conrad's advantage, as some of the seasonal placer miners who were unable to operate came to Windy Arm looking for work.

Fractured Veins & Broken Dreams: Montana Mountain and the Windy Arm Stampede, by Murray Lundberg, Pathfinder Publications of Whitehorse, Yukon, 160 pages, paper.