EPISODE 249 YUKON DIARY LIVINGSTON WERNECKE ON KENO HILL 1921 TO 1935
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO BE IN WERNECKE CAMP, KENO HILL 1925
Mining is dangerous. So it is not first in line up of desirable careers. Test yourself.
Would you take a job cutting out slabs of rock with explosives five to 1,000
feet beneath the ground where the darkness is absolute and arsenic is just
one of the nasty minerals you will be handling while the air you breathe
is often filled with tiny dust particles that are sharp enough to grind your
lungs to a cancerous pulp.
Arsenic and lead pouring out of mine site…not the Wernecke mine site but the problem was present in the Yukon and remains a problem
Not so nice. Probably worse than I have noted. Many miners, even as late
as the 1920’s could not stand erect in the stopes. And the water they drank
had contaminants no one had identified…arsenic for sure.
Livingston Wernecke was well aware of the dangers miners faced. He tried
to make the conditions in Keno Hill as pleasant as possible. His mine was
not filled with dust. His drills were water infused to reduce the chances of
silicosis of the lung; It was safer to work in a Wernecke mine than the
Guggenheim mine at the top of Keno Hill. Not perfectly safe. Mining
can be dangerous but Wernecke made sure his miners knew the dangers
and took precautions.
YES, he seems to have been erasable at times. Miners that displeased
him were told to ‘get your time owed and get out’. When buying claims from
stakers he gave fair prices as high as $100,000 if the site was tops. But
he only made one offer. Take it or leave it. He did not talk much…lacked
the social graces.
He did not like prostitution or hard liquor. Attempts to control both of these
vices failed it seems but were minimized.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO BE A MINER ON KENO HILL BETWEEN 1925 AND 1935.
Dr. Aaro Aho in his book, ‘Hills of Silver’ shows the good side of Livingston Wernecke.
He referred to his miners as his ‘boys’. Livingston may not have spent a lot of time
sharing stories with them over a hot drink but he made the conditions of their
lives as good as possible.
Wernecke Camp Mine was not the wreck that we saw in 1962. In 1927 “there were two bunkhouses,
a cookery, two shafts and head frames, a machine shop, a framing shed, mill buildings, Wernecke’s
and Hargreaves’ (mine manager) houses, three other residences, several outlying log cabins
and shacks, a recreation hall with a poolroom, bowling alley, library and radio, an outdoor skating
and curling rink, a warehouse,an office, a mess hall for 200 people, laundry, the mill,
power house, and assay office.” (P. 123, Hills of Silver)
Because of his stomach troubles, Livingston kept a cow for fresh milk. Often the cow
did not give all the milk expected because some teamsters would milk her at night.
She eventually died… lead contamination from eating ore sacks.
Wernicke’s house was attractive since he expected his wife Mabel and their
two children to live on the mine site. Livingston liked to sit on his porch and watch moose
wading in the lakes far down in the McQuesten Valley. Married miners with children were welcomed
as employees . Mabel and Maud (Hargreaves wife) often had games of bridge with other wives.
The poolroom, barbershop and store were operated like any such businesses in towns like
Dawson City, Whitehorse or even Keno City.
“In the recreation hall Emil Forrest showed silent movies on a small canvas screen for 75 cents
admission and the show was always crowded to see Rudolph Valentino in the Sheik, Douglas
Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers, Gloria Swanson, Tulula Bankhead, Pavlova, Tom Mix, Charlie
Chaplin and other great entertainers of the golden flapper era.”
Dances were held with music provided by the miners own “Jackhammer” band …a sax, 3 violins, a drum,
piano, and two banjos. One prospector and miner even gave dancing lessons. When a dance
was planned Wernecke sent invitations and provided transportation from Keno City or even
as far away as Mayo Landing.
At Christmas time Wernecke threw a big party for all.
Drunkenness was unacceptable to Wernecke and one story is told that he threatened to fire any
Irishman who got drunk on St. Patrick’s day. None got drunk. But his Swedish employees] did
get drunk so he fired them all. This sounds a little far fetched but the story does underline the
stiff moral code by which Werncke lived. And his determination to make sure others shared
his principles whether they liked it or not.
The brothel down in Keno City bothered Wernecke as mentioned earlier. He visited the place
intending to have a talk with the Madam…perhaps named Vimy Ridge. Before the discussion
got underway one of his miners noted Livingston and said, “Hello, Mr. Wernecke, I see
you use this place too.” Seems Livingston said nothing but may have stared at the miner in disgust.
Another tale that may or may not be true but underlines his determination
to protect the health of his boys. He paid a doctor to ensure the girls were in good health and not
likely to infect his boys. Infections would reduce production at the mine.
A complicated man. He looked after his boys well. Grant that. But he would fire them on the
spot for minor transgressions. He gave terse orders which were sometimes misunderstood
which kept his miners on pins and needles.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE HORSES?
When Bill Dunn and I visited the ruins of the Wernecke Camp Mine we found a horse stable with
two horse collars. I made a big mistake when I assumed the Mine was shipping ore concentrates
by horse and sleigh or wagon to Mayo Landing where sternwheelers would load the sacks and
beat their way to Whitehorse. Livingston Wernecke got rid of his horses in 1923…the same year
that Benjamin Holt invented and marketed the Holt bulldozer…then called the ‘caterpillar’.
At least two of these powerful machines were shipped to Skagway and on up the White Pass
railway to Whitehorse then driven at crawl speed all the way to Keno Hill. Wernecke was criticized
for this leap of technology. “We do not even know how to get the machines off the boat in Skagway let
alone onto a White Pass railway flatcar.” But it was done. The Holt machines hauled multiple
sieighs of ore all hitched to the Holt caterpillars with a caboose as living space for the drivers
when at rest.
What happened to the horses? The good horses were sold. “The others were shot.” A few were
kept to haul ore from the mine to the ‘Holt train’ and others hauled waste rock to be dumped over
the cliff into the MvQuesten Valley.
Werencke always tried to make his mine as efficient as possible for Treadwell Yukon directors
Wernecke was quick to see that these huge Holt Caterpillars could haul many many
sleigh loads of silver ore from Keno Hill to Mayo Landing cheaper than the teams of horses
HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF THE WERNECKE MOUNTAIN RANGE?
Livingstone Wernecke was a shy man really. Efficient, frugal, irascible, generous, …a man who loved the wild places as much as he loved
developing mining ventures. Prospectors were often provided with food, gear and even airborne transportation to the unknown
part of the Yukon in hopes they would make discoveries. If a prospector found and staked promising mining sites Wernecke was
quite willing, as mentioned earlier, to pay as high as $100,000. He encouraged discoveries by these free ranging unprofessionals. He admired their
tenacity..their risk taking…their independent spirit.
One of the rewards, after his death, was the naming of a largely unexplored Yukon mountain range after him. The Werneke Range.
So much more could be said about Livingston Wernecke. Too little time to do it.