Black Mike Winage, the Most Determined Prospector in the Klondike

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron / Chloe Effron

When Michael Winage arrived in northwestern Canada at the turn of the 19th century, he was known at first as "Big Mike" thanks to his impressive size. But he managed to accumulate a few more nicknames before his extraordinary, 107-year life was over.

Born in 1870, Winage immigrated to Canada from Serbia as a child in 1882 with his family. Not much is known about his youth or his family’s background except that he made his way to Dawson City, once the epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush, when he was 30 years old.

The Klondike Gold Rush began outside of Dawson City in 1896, but by the time Winage got to town in 1900, as a constable on a mission to transport dogs and sleds for the Mounties, the horde of prospective prospectors had mostly moved on to try their luck elsewhere. Winage had spent several months traveling north from Winnipeg, so he set up camp in Dawson City and started prospecting anyhow, beginning in Dominion Creek, about 55 miles outside of the city. He was apparently pretty successful; he never disclosed how much gold he found but later boasted about going to town one night in 1911 and spending $87,000. When he was his 90s, he claimed to have once been worth $400,000 CAD.

Despite finding fortune in the hills, Winage was eventually compelled to find a job and got himself a gig as a woodcutter, which is how he earned his next nickname: Sawdust Mike. (Although he also once said that it was actually a result of his hobby of sweeping the floors of bars, hunting for gold dust.) Some say he then became Black Mike—the moniker that stuck around for the rest of his life—after he helped some folks unload 400 tons of coal in 1918, coating himself in coal dust in the process. Others, though, said it was due to his personal hygiene: As Canadian writer David Thompson put it, “His bed had a pillow with a black indentation where his head lay.” (Perhaps one of these stories was the catalyst for the other.)

For the rest of his life, Winage remained in Dawson City, where he made a name for himself in the town as a real character, easily spotted by the ace of hearts sometimes tucked into his hat and his bent wrist—a souvenir he earned after fracturing his arm and setting the break himself. He was probably most infamous, though, for a stunt he pulled in 1961, when he was in his early 90s.

The jewel of the city was the Palace Grand Theater, built in 1899 and casually known around town as “the Auditorium.” It was slated to be restored in ’61, having been recently purchased by the federal government. What happened instead was that it was torn to the ground and eventually replaced from scratch, to the great dismay of the Dawsonites. While the building stood stripped to its bones, with only a few fittings and walls left to be dismantled, Winage was sometimes spotted skulking around the construction site. Having resided in Dawson for six decades at that point, he likely remembered that this building was already there when he showed up—which means it had been there during the Klondike Gold Rush too.

One summer evening, when the floorboards had been pulled up and only a few walls remained, Winage chatted with a few of the workers at the site. He asked them how much gold they thought might be lurking in the dirt that had been sitting below the theater for 62 years, having fallen between the boards from spectators’ pockets. He bet there’d be two bars’ worth, and when the men said they thought there’d be only one, Winage told them there was a way to find out.

Armed with a washtub, a pan, a rocker, a water hose, and some shovels, Black Mike and the workers showed up after quitting time one night and started panning the exposed dirt behind the shelter of the remaining two walls of the old theater. Mike’s hunch turned out to be correct. As the bootleg gold-mining enterprise began, the men watched as gold dust as well as nuggets appeared in the pan.

It’s not entirely clear how much they walked away with, but these guys certainly weren’t the only people who had this idea. Not long after this illicit operation on government-owned land went down, once the building was completely demolished, the soil underneath it was removed and washed by a local mine, whereupon a bunch more gold was found. Black Mike had struck at just the right time.

Winage maintained his audacious reputation well into old age, with reports of him digging cars out of the snow at age 92 without even getting winded and leading civic parades through Dawson when he was 103. In an article on the Canadian North in a 1968 issue of National Geographic, it was said that he continued to prospect for gold in the hills at 98. After a few years spent in a nursing home, he died on March 15, 1977—the day after celebrating his 107th birthday. He said he’d outlived three wives and all of his friends.