Considered one of the most important gold mining centers in Canadian history, gold had actually been discovered in the Atlin region as early as 1857. Yet, due to inaccessibility and limited technology, there was no gold rush to the region at that time. The remote location and difficult terrain made many sections of British Columbia rather hostile towards the mining of gold.
Atlin gets its name from Áa Tlein, the Tlingit word for “big body of water”. At 305 square miles, Lake Atlin is the largest natural lake in B.C. and the surrounding area is home to the Taku River Tlingit First Nation.
Prior to 1898, nearly nothing was known of Atlin beyond its being a country of lakes and mountains. Yet in the spring of that same year two prospectors – Fritz Miller, a German, and Kenneth MacLaren, a Canadian – left the Klondike trail at Bennett and crossing the ice of Taku Arm and Lake Atlin found themselves on Pine Creek.
To secure supplies for an extended stay at their gold discovery, the two prospectors made their way to Juneau, Alaska. On their return they were followed, and by mid-August news of the gold strike reached the government at Victoria.
Nearly 3,000 people had rushed to the camp and all available ground was staked. Only four hundred people wintered in Atlin, but in the following spring there were thousands of new arrivals. Early on, most of the shallow, easy to find gold deposits were thoroughly cleaned out which left the rest of the gold to be discovered in the deep ground. The combination of the difficult terrain and harsh conditions forced many miners to quit while others joined together in their efforts to mine the gold.
Practically all the placer gold of Atlin was derived from the Pine Creek valley, which is a wide valley extending some twenty-five miles eastward of Atlin Lake. The valley is drained by Surprise Lake and Pine Creek with their tributaries – Ruby, Boulder and Birch on the north; Wright, Otter, Gold Run, and Spruce on the south.
Pine Creek, which flows from Lake Surprise for 12 miles before draining into Lake Atlin, was perhaps the richest gold producing creek in Atlin during the initial gold rush. One nugget pulled from Pine Creek weighed 48 ounces.
Spruce Creek, located at the southern end of an ancient gold-rich channel, feeds into Pine Creek and likely contributed to the gold found there. The gold discovered at Spruce in 1898 yielded about 300,000 ounces of gold, worth a whopping US$540 million at today’s prices.
Boulder Creek, yet another rich gold creek in the region that drains into Lake Surprise, was the third largest producer of placer gold among all creeks in Atlin. Today, parts of Boulder Creek are open for public prospecting with many visitors recording gold nuggets and flakes discovered.
There would probably have been no gold rushes at all even, had the advent of the telegraph, mass circulation newspapers and steamboats not been invented. Yet the innovations of man prevailed, and the history and charm of pioneering continues in Atlin today.