British Columbia

Hoping for more gold, 120 years after the Atlin gold rush began

As a gold rush town, Atlin, B.C., survived longer than most due to its tourism potential and natural beauty. But the lure of gold is drawing people to the far northwest corner of B.C. again, as an exploration company searches for a bigger prize.

'There's gold in these veins,' says CEO of exploration company looking for the source of Atlin's gold

The quiet and charming streets of Atlin overlook Atlin Lake and nearby Teresa Island. (Matthew McFarlane/CBC)

Some cities are born and die as gold rush towns.

Barkerville, Skagway, Dawson City all saw their fates ride on gold and now have become museums of sorts — a tribute to their former glory.

But one far flung B.C. community still has the lure of gold in its eye, long after it saw its gold rush come and go.  

Atlin lies in the the very northwest corner of B.C. The only way in and out is through Yukon Territory. The community hugs the shores of its namesake, the massive glacier-fed Atlin Lake. It has a rustic ghost-town-like feel. Ramshackle buildings, quiet streets, abandoned mining equipment — it's a peaceful and tranquil spot, a far cry from the place it was over 100 years ago.

History of Atlin

Back in 1898, Atlin was born when some people travelling through discovered gold shards in a stream. The Atlin gold rush coincided with the Klondike rush.

Prospectors heading up from the Alaska port town of Skagway enroute to Dawson City were able to shorten their trip, and head to the Atlin area with the hope of striking it big. 

For 20 years or so, the region boomed. Atlin became the centre of the mining activity: hotels, a courthouse, stores, restaurants and schools all were quickly built.

With about 10,000 people calling the region home, Atlin was its beating heart.  

The Tarahne once carried tourists across Atlin Lake. It's now lovingly preserved by the Atlin Historical Society (Matthew McFarlane/CBC)

Once the gold rush was done, Atlin had another trick up its sleeve. The region also happened to be extraordinarily beautiful, and because of the gold rush, accessible. The White Pass company had ships, going up and down the Yukon and B.C. lakes, bringing tourists up by rail from the coast to the lakes in the summer. They marketed the area as "the Switzerland of the North." And with nearby glaciers, clean fresh air and mountains to scale, it's easy to see why that slogan still sticks.  

But by the Second World War, the community was facing a bleak future. The White Pass company pulled out, and while there was still gold, it wasn't worth mining. From a population in the thousands, the town dwindled to about 100. The Taku River Tlingit First Nation always called the area home, but outside of the area, Atlin was being forgotten.

Reviving a forgotten gold rush town

Atlin was too beautiful and alluring a place to be overshadowed for long and a revival of the community began in the 1960s that continues to this day.

Besides, there's still gold to be found.

Much of the mining in the community these days is small-scale placer mining. That's the old-fashioned mining of streams and riverbeds. But one company is eyeing a much bigger prize. Brixton Metals thinks there's got to be a source of all that gold. That it must be washing down from somewhere else.

You don't have to look very far to find abandoned mining equipment in the community. (Matthew McFarlane/CBC)

Gary Thompson is the CEO and he says, the end goal is to find the source.

"There's gold in these veins and people are starting to find these veins of high-grade gold," he said.

Brixton is spending time and money testing the area, and seeing if they can't find the source of all this gold. And Thompson says if their theory pans out, it will be good news for Atlin's residents.

"We're working with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation. They're looking for economic benefits and opportunities, too," he said. "You know, I think what this could provide is long-term stable jobs for people that don't currently have that many mining opportunities."

There are 100-year-old buildings, built at the height of gold rush wealth, still sitting alive and well around Atlin, B.C. (Matthew McFarlane/CBC)

For the First Nation, the opportunity is one they welcome, as long as the mining is done sustainably and doesn't impact their traditional land and lake based industries.

Louise Gordon is the development officer, and former spokesperson. She said the Taku River government has developed a mining policy that guides them in their decisions and so any development is done with the utmost of caution. 

Gordon has lived in the community all her life, and her relationship to the mining community goes back to when she was a child. She laughs as she recounts how easy gold was to come by. 

"The young people used to have really strong artistic skills and we used to make jewelry out of a lot of moose horns," she said. "And back then gold was very abundant and the miner, they gave us gold. We used to put glue on it and put it on our jewelry and sell it. We were young entrepreneurs."

About the Author

Matthew McFarlane produces CBC Vancouver News' flagship supper hour program at 6 p.m. He also contributes to CBC Radio and cbc.ca/bc.

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