Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The New York Times/Redux Pictures
A ghost town… with holdouts
My journey to the heart of the Yukon’s historic mineral wealth started with a question posed to a waitress at the Gold Rush hotel in Whitehorse: What’s the weirdest place in the Yukon?
Her answer was a patch of pay dirt around 470 kilometres north, past endless forests of spruce and golden-leafed aspen, at the end of a gravel road known as the Silver Trail. There lies Keno City, a gold rush–era relic with about a dozen full-time residents, tap water not fit for human consumption and two bars whose owners haven’t been on speaking terms for more than a decade.
Perched among hills rich in silver, zinc and lead, Keno City began as a Swedish prospector’s staked claim in 1919, its name inspired by a popular gambling game and intended to lure fortune-seekers with the promise of an ore-laden metropolis in Canada’s frigid northern reaches.
People made a go of it here for 70 years, as the region became one of Canada’s largest producers of silver. But in 1989, Keno was largely emptied by the closure of the United Keno Hill Mine. That turned the nearby community of Elsa into a ghost town and prompted even the most stubborn holdouts to rebrand their beloved mining outpost as a quirky testament to human tenacity.
“You walk into a place like Keno and you’re like: ‘What? How many people live here, 12?’” said Dirk Rentmeister, 57, a former miner who grew up in Keno and was drying out a freshly detached moose head in his driveway.
For the record, the population is 20, according to the 2016 census for the Keno Hill area, but that includes part-time residents like Rentmeister, who now owns the Silvermoon Bunkhouse motel, and returns each summer to capitalize on visitors’ desires for nostalgia, nature and all-terrain vehicle rides through the wilderness.
“We’re like one big unhappy family.”
While this dot on the map has seen prospectors, prostitutes, miners and bootleggers come and go, Keno serves as a lesson on the dangers of betting it all on resource extraction, the capricious industry that has left the region scarred by environmental contamination and economic collapse.
Since its well was damaged in 2015, the hamlet has relied on drinking water trucked in by the government. Officials found dangerous levels of uranium, arsenic and other minerals in the groundwater, contamination too costly to treat for so few residents.
“It’s a scary situation,” said Mike Mancini, the former director of the Keno Mining Museum, who now owns the only pizza joint for hundreds of kilometres. “How long will the government pay the bill?”
Still, residents have stuck around, and they refuse to consider leaving.
As a child, Mancini, 56, lived in a tarpaper shack in No Cash, a nearby station for the mine’s tramline, before his family moved to Keno City. He stayed after the mine shut down and helped transform an old clapboard dance hall into the museum, which houses artifacts like antique mining equipment, midcentury home appliances and funeral dresses.
Serving pizzas has helped Mancini make ends meet, but the lifestyle keeps him here, as do his neighbours.
“We’re like one big unhappy family,” he said. “Some people still don’t agree with things that happened 40 years ago, but if there’s an emergency, we come together.” Little love is lost between the owners of Keno’s two bars, however, which just happen to face each other across the unpaved main street.
On one side is the Keno City Hotel, a long-derelict maroon clapboard pile that Leo Martel bought 11 years ago and renovated, its first-floor bar now furnished with pool tables, a piano and a sign over the bar top reading, “I thought I was wrong once, but I made a mistake.”
On the other side lies the Sourdough Roadhouse, a pub that Jim Milley bought 10 years ago, crushing Martel’s dreams of a bar monopoly.
Theirs is a feud steeped in competition and fermented with age. Both first arrived in Keno City as young men. Both serve alcohol. And both nurse grudges that neither is willing to let go of.
“He backed into a liquor license,” said Milley, 63, a wiry chain-smoker with a long grey beard, as he stood on his pub’s front porch, several feet away from Martel’s hotel door. “Now we have two bars for 12 people.”
“I wanted that bar across the street before Jim,” the 66-year-old Martel said, his blue eyes narrowing as he sipped a beer in the hotel one evening. “He needs conflict.”
“Like time took a holiday in 1978 and never came back.”
Keno thrives by embracing its eccentricities. The village has no cellular service or stores, and the nearest police officers are stationed 60 kilometres away.
At times, according to locals, unusual characters show up, like the woman who wandered into town one winter and began burning library books to stay warm, and an ex-convict who came looking for a stockpile of buried guns and money he had heard about from a fellow inmate. (He never found it.)
In Mancini’s front yard, bushes have grown up among a collection of junked, rusting 1950s cars.
Back in the ’70s, he said, residents used to celebrate the end of the long winters by swapping partners. These days, they host a summer solstice party under the midnight sun at the top of Keno Hill, 1,825 metres above sea level, and end the season with a raucous Labour Day weekend festival known as Keno Gras, featuring costumes and a pig roast.
The town’s bohemian ethos has turned Keno City into something of a magnet for people looking to escape the constraints of the modern world.
“This place feels like time took a holiday in 1978 and never came back to work,” said Doug Tremblay, 59, who works for the territorial government in winter but spends summers panning for gold in rivers and streams, a hardscrabble method known as placer mining that has been attracting people to the Yukon for over a century.
Tremblay began placer mining a few years ago, a passion he admitted is stoked more by the thrill of discovery than the prospect of striking it rich.
“When you see gold rimmed along the bottom of a pan,” he said, “it’s better than sex.”
Explore more of Canada’s north thanks to this great Canadian bucket list.
© 2017 by New York Times Syndicate