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Back In Time

Back In Time

An old pocket watch offers a glimpse of Yellowknife's early days
By Jessica Davey-Quantick
Dec 28
2018
From the December 2018 Issue

The glittering face caught scuba diver Claire Mennell’s eye as she floated in a pool beneath Tartan Rapids, up the Yellowknife River. She grabbed the object from the rocky bottom—and discovered a pocket watch with a rich history behind it.

This Westclox Pocket Ben, made in Canada between 1933 and 1942, likely belonged to a miner, reckons local historian Ryan Silke. Gold was big news in Yellowknife around that time. The first discovery by Johnny Baker in 1934 would precipitate a rush and hundreds of claims were soon staked near Yellowknife Bay.

“There was no whistle underground or communal clock for letting people know what time it was. Pocket watches were in vogue back then,” says Silke. “Of course, one can only speculate about how this watch got to the bottom of the river.”

The current where the watch was found probably hasn’t ever been strong enough to carry it too far, so it was likely dropped right where it was discovered. Mennell and fellow diver Jeremy MacDonald came across masses of rusty railroad tracks in the same spot. These turned out to be the remnants of a rail portage built in 1952 that included a winch engine to pull heavier boats up the hill. Volunteers laid the rails to give fishing enthusiasts easier access to Prosperous Lake. The watch could have slipped from a miner’s pocket as he helped move a boat. Or it may have fallen out if the miner took an accidental dip.

Alas, Mennell didn’t find sunken treasure. This particular brand was sometimes known as a ‘dollar watch.’ “No different than a watch people would buy today at Walmart really,” says Silke, who has found similar watches around Yellowknife.

But its discovery opened a treasure trove of memories of the city’s early days after a photo of the Pocket Ben was posted online. “All of a sudden you realize that there’s kind of a life behind this watch,” says Mennell.

David Radcliffe’s father had a similar watch when he worked at Giant mine between 1956 to 1959. “They didn’t like you wearing a wristwatch because it was too dangerous, it could get hooked on stuff,” he says.

Despite being dollar watches, they were special to the people who owned them. “In 1956, you couldn’t just walk into a store and buy a watch in Yellowknife,” says Radcliffe. When his father first came North for work, he lived in a tent. “I remember as a boy going to the Giant rec hall, the mess, lining up because anybody from town could go and eat there. It was the first place I ever had milk—real milk.”

The serial number on the back of Mennell’s find is long gone, but you can probably rule out Radcliffe’s father as the watch’s careless owner.

“I know he had one,” says Radcliffe. “And he certainly cherished it.”