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Faded Yukon Gold Rush Town, Population 20, Mines Its Weirdness

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

Her answer was a patch of pay dirt around 290 miles 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 hearty 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, the town was largely emptied by the closure of the United Keno Hill Mine. That turned the nearby company town 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, but that includes part-time residents like Mr. Rentmeister, the owner of the Silvermoon Bunkhouse motel, who returns each summer to capitalize on visitors’ desires for nostalgia, nature and all-terrain-vehicle rides through the wilderness.

While this dot on the map has seen prospectors, prostitutes, miners and bootleggers come and go, it serves as a lesson on the dangers of betting it all on resource extraction, a 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 have 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 owns the only pizza joint for hundreds of miles. “That’s what people are concerned about. How long will the government pay the bill?”

Still, residents have stuck around this long, and they refuse to consider leaving.

As a child, Mr. Mancini, 56, lived in a tarpaper shack in No Cash, a nearby station for the mine’s tramline, before his family moved to Keno. 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.

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

“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, 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 Mr. Martel’s dreams of a bar monopoly.

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

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

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

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

At times, locals said, unusual characters show up, like the woman who wandered into town one winter and began burning library books to stay warm, and the 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 Mr. 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, 6,000 feet above sea level, and end the season with a raucous Labor Day weekend festival known as Keno Gras, featuring costumes and a pig roast.

The town’s bohemian ethos has turned Keno 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 Yukon for over a century.

Mr. 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.”

Prospectors, prostitutes and bootleggers have come and gone. There’s no cellphone service and no police. But there are two bars, whose owners haven’t been on speaking terms for over a decade.

‘Devastating’ overnight fire destroys iconic hotel in Keno City, Yukon

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‘A loss that’s going to be felt for many years and by many people,’ says friend of hotel’s owner

The Keno City Hotel, an iconic local landmark and gathering place in the small community of Keno City, Yukon, was destroyed overnight in a fire, local sources confirm.

Mike Mancini, the owner of the Keno City Snack Bar and a friend of Leo Martel, the hotel’s owner, said he first noticed the fire around 8:30 p.m. Friday, while eating dinner with Martel at his restaurant.

“I saw an orange glow above the roofline of the Keno City Hotel,” he said. “We ran out and realized that the hotel had caught fire.”

“The fire was full-on already by the time we got there.”

Keno City, a former mining boomtown about 335 kilometres north of Whitehorse, has just a few dozen residents and no fire department of its own, and no pumped water source.

Mancini notified the volunteer fire department in Mayo, Yukon, an hour’s drive away, which prepared a truck and hit the road north within 15 minutes, according to Trevor Ellis, the fire chief.

Alexco Resource Corp., which owns and operates mines in the nearby Keno Hill Silver District, provided water trucks so firefighters could work to prevent the fire’s spread into the early hours of Saturday morning.

No injuries were reported and the hotel was unoccupied at the time. The cause is still unknown, but when reached by CBC Saturday morning, Martel said he suspected the fire was deliberate.

“We went in the back and there was fresh tracks going into the hotel and the fire had started upstairs,” he said. “Pretty hard to find somebody that could have done something like that.”

RCMP and the fire marshal are currently investigating, Martel said.

“It’s devastating for the entire area,” said Ellis, the fire chief. “It’s really, really sad.”

‘Heart of the town’

The loss of the hotel is a major blow to the tiny hamlet and to the region, Mancini said.

“I’m basically in shock,” said Mancini. “It’s basically taking the heart of the town.”

“I’ve been here since the ’60s, and it was the place to go for a drink and dancing. It was a great place.”

Martel described it as “a place to have fun” where travellers and locals made good memories together.

“In the years that I was open, I think there was maybe four fights, and one of the guys started three of them,” he said. “We all had fun in there.”

Even Yukon MP Larry Bagnell said he had “fond memories” of the establishment.

“The hotel was an irreplaceable and iconic piece of Keno area history,” Bagnell said in a statement sent Saturday. “This is a truly sad day for the Yukon.”

According to its website, the hotel was built in the early 1920s as accommodation for prospectors and miners exploring deposits in the Keno Hill district. Abandoned by 2006, Martel and his brother purchased the hotel and restored it through “thousands of hours of labour,” Bagnell wrote.

“It was his life,” said Mancini.

“I worked extremely hard to renovate that hotel. I did that to leave a legacy — I loved this place,” Martel said. “I wanted to leave it for somebody to enjoy.”

“I would say it was in the grave and I pulled it out of the grave,” he said. “Now it’s permanently in the grave.”

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The hotel contained a pool hall, bar and 10 rooms. It’s been closed since Dec. 3, when Martel posted to the website saying it would close for the winter season.

“It is hard to say what the 2021 season will bring,” the post reads.

Martel said with the end of the Keno City Hotel, only two hotels of that age are left in Yukon — the ’98 Hotel in Whitehorse and Dawson City’s Westminster Hotel, known as the Pit.

“The loss of the Keno City Hotel is a loss for the community and the whole of the Yukon,” said Mancini. “It’s going to be felt for many years and by many people.”

The Keno City Hotel in Keno City, Yukon, an important local landmark, was destroyed in a fire Friday night.