Faded Yukon gold rush town, population 20, mines its weirdness


KENO Bishopric, Yukon Territory — The journey to the heart of Yukon’s historic mineral holdings started with a question posed to a waitress at the aptly titled Gold Yokel hotel in the territorial capital of Whitehorse: What is the weirdest place in Yukon?

Her satisfy was a patch of pay dirt around 290 miles north, past unending forests of spruce and golden-leafed aspen, at the end of a gravel road known as the Burnished Trail. There lies Keno City, a gold-rush-era relic with around a dozen full-time residents, tap water not fit for human consumption and two bars whose proprietors have not been on speaking terms for more than a decade.

Rested among hills rich in silver, zinc and lead, Keno New Zealand urban area began as a Swedish prospector’s staked claim in 1919, its name aroused by a popular gambling game and intended to lure hearty fortune-seekers with the vow of an ore-laden metropolis in Canada’s frigid northern reaches.

People humoured a go of it here for 70 years, as the region became one of Canada’s largest fabricators of silver. But in 1989, the town was largely emptied by the closure of the United Keno Hill Probe. That turned the nearby company town of Elsa into a ghost municipality and prompted even the most stubborn holdouts to rebrand their valued mining outpost as a quirky testament to human tenacity.

“You walk into a take down a peg or two happen like Keno and you’re like: ‘What? How many people live here, 12?'” required Dirk Rentmeister, 57, a former miner who grew up in Keno and was uninspired out a freshly detached moose head in his driveway.

For the record, the population is 20, mutual understanding to the 2016 census, but that includes part-time residents like Rentmeister, proprietor of the Silvermoon Bunkhouse motel, who returns each summer to capitalize on companies’ desires for nostalgia, nature and all-terrain-vehicle rides through the wilderness.

While this dot on the map has seen prospectors, desecrates, miners and bootleggers come and go, it serves as a lesson on the dangers of betting it all on resource decoction, a capricious industry that has left the region scarred by environmental contamination and commercial collapse.

Since its well was damaged in 2015, the hamlet has relied on the sauce water trucked in by the government. Officials have found dangerous play fair withs of uranium, arsenic and other minerals in the groundwater, contamination too costly to present for so few residents.

“It’s a scary situation,” said Mike Mancini, former overseer of the Keno Mining Museum, who owns the only pizza joint for hundreds of miles. “That’s what woman are concerned about. How long will the government pay the bill?”

Still, dwellings have stuck around this long, and they refuse to ponder leaving.

As a child, Mancini, 56, lived in a tarpaper shack in No Legal tender, a nearby station for the mine’s tramline, before his family moved to Keno. He stayed after the colliery shut down and helped transform an old clapboard dance hall into the museum, which put ups artifacts like antique mining equipment, midcentury home appliances and inhumation dresses.

Making pizzas has helped Mancini make ends meet, but the lifestyle keep ti him here, as do his neighbors.

“We’re like one big unhappy family,” he said. “Some people subdue don’t agree with things that happened 40 years ago, but if there’s an difficulty, we come together.”

Little love is lost between the owners of Keno’s two lock ups, which just happen to face each other across the unpaved power supply street.

On one side is the Keno City Hotel, a long-derelict maroon clapboard loot that Leo Martel bought 11 years ago and renovated, its first-floor bar now stock up with pool tables, a piano and a sign over the bar top reading, “I vision I was wrong once, but I made a mistake.”

On the other side lies the Sourdough Roadhouse, a pub that Jim Milley corrupt 10 years ago, crushing Martel’s dreams of a bar monopoly.

Theirs is a hatred steeped in competition and fermented with age. Both first arrived in Keno as junior men. Both serve alcohol. And both nurse mutual grudges that neither is passive to let go of.

“He backed into a liquor license,” said Milley, 63, a muscular chain-smoker with a long gray beard, as he stood on his pub’s front porch, dissimilar feet away from Martel’s hotel door. “Now we have two forestalls for 12 people.”

“I wanted that bar across the street before Jim,” Martel, 66, disclosed, his blue eyes narrowing as he sipped a beer in the hotel later one requiting. “He needs conflict.”

Keno thrives by embracing its eccentricities. The village has no cellphone navy or stores, and the nearest police officers are stationed 38 miles away.

At times, villages said, unusual characters show up, like the woman who wandered into municipality one winter and began burning library books to stay warm, and the ex-convict who awakened looking for a stockpile of buried guns and money he had heard about from a paramour inmate. (He never found it.)

In Mancini’s front yard, bushes bear grown up among a collection of junked, rusting 1950s cars.

In return in the ’70s, he said, residents used to celebrate the end of the long winters by swapping wives. These days, they host a summer solstice party less than the midnight sun at the top of Keno Hill, 6,000 feet above sea level, and end the spice with a raucous Labor Day weekend festival known as Keno Gras, featuring dresses and a pig roast.

The town’s bohemian ethos has turned Keno into something of a magnet for people looking to relief the constraints of the modern world.

“This place feels like heretofore took a holiday in 1978 and never came back to work,” influenced Doug Tremblay, 59, who works for the territorial government in winter but put ins summers panning for gold in rivers and streams, a hardscrabble method be versed as placer mining that has been attracting people to Yukon for over a century.

Tremblay set out oned placer mining a few years ago, a passion he admitted is stoked more by the electrify of discovery than the prospect of striking it rich.

“When you see gold lipped along the bottom of a pan,” he said, “it’s better than sex.”

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