Kenai Fjords
A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast: Historic Resource Study
NPS Logo

Chapter 3:

Russian Coal Mining on the Kenai Coast

In 1848, the Russians had established Coal Village near Port Graham to serve as the support and export center for coal exploitation along the northwest coast of the Kenai Peninsula. The settlement catered to the mining crews, providing housing and supplies. [103] Supplies arrived from San Francisco via Port Graham on the small ship Cyane, an American ship recently acquired by the Russians. By 1859 the operation expanded to include an entire community, by one account rivaling in size both Sitka and Kodiak. [104] Finnish mining engineer Enoch Hjalmar Furuhjelm, who managed Coal Village, openly praised the village as the "best and most practically planned" in Alaska. [105]

sketch of Coal Harbor
Coal Harbor, near Port Graham, 1786. By Joseph Woodcock, from Portlock voyage. Alaska Purchase Centennial Commission. Alaska State Library, photo PCA 20-101.

Enoch Furuhjelm, Johan H. Furuhjelm's younger brother and the future governor of Russian America between 1859 and 1863, arrived on the Kenai Peninsula in 1855 after purchasing mining equipment and supplies in California. Because the 1849 California gold rush had placed a premium on coal resources, the Russian government hoped to profit from coal exports to California and compete with coal shipped from England, Chile, and Australia. Despite these high expectations, Furuhjelm found himself strapped with both an inexperienced crew and the need to build a usable mine. Furuhjelm improved the mine, and a modest farming operation started up as a side venture. Typically the mining crew included thirty-eight regular workers and eight day laborers hired from the Native labor pool. The mine site included four levels of adits measuring over 1,600 feet in length.

Furuhjelm's first and only load of coal to California left the mine in 1856 after a desolate winter spent in dirt hovels which left most of his crew incapacitated with disease. The shipment delivered to the West Coast could not compete in price with even lesser grades of domestic and foreign coal. The cost of shipping priced Alaska coal out of the market. Also, as with many ventures taken on by the Russian government in Alaska, demand had peaked by the time they decided to enter the market. In the following account by a crew chief at the mine, it is obvious that a sense of hopelessness surrounded the short-lived operation.

In the year 1858 I was ordered to English Bay or Graham's Harbor, at the entrance of Cook's Inlet, having been attached to the so-called "Kenai Mining Expedition".... My duty was to superintend the Natives and Creoles employed in bring supplies and material to the spot where the coal veins were being developed. The supplies were forwarded chiefly from the Redoubt St. Nicholas [at Kenai] and carried on baidarkas. The work progressed very slowly as the men employed were for the most part entirely unacquainted with underground mining and from the very beginning I never had any confidence in the enterprise. I am sure that as early as 1859 Mr. Furnhelm told me confidentially that he had no faith in the coal mines.... [106]

Coal Village
Coal Village near Port Graham, c. 1860. Russian-Americdan Company report. Bancroft Library.

Furuhjelm left Alaska in 1862. By 1868 the mine was completely abandoned, as noted in an account by Captain J. W. White of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Wayanda:

Came to anchor off the coal mine (long since abandoned as such, now occupied by an American Fur Company) Captain White with several officers visited the post and examined the premises, found the store house and dwellings locked up, in charge of the Chief, Constantine Kal'iv. [107]

In 1880 William H. Dall toured the mine and offered a candid view of what the mine may have been like twenty years earlier.

In 1880 I visited the site of the workings and found the tunnel inaccessible from the water, which partially filled it and the caving in due to the rotting of the timbering. The works had evidently been of a primitive kind, as there were no permanent buildings and not even a pier for shipping the coal. Only a few pieces of worn-out, rusty machinery and the tunnel in the bluff at the top of the beach remained to show that any work had ever been attempted here. I have seen statements that an extensive stone pier and costly buildings had been erected here and large sums of money lost in the attempt to utilize the coal, but, apart from the intrinsic improbability of such foolish doings, no evidence of the truth of the statements was furnished by the locality itself at the time. [108]

Russian exploration and enterprise along the outer Kenai coast irrevocably changed Native settlement and brought few economic rewards to the Russian-American Company. The radical shifting of Native inhabitants led to the demise of smaller villages and encouraged regional consolidation. Most of the Russian endeavors along the coast, however, included and employed local populations. This action supported Russian enterprise and created an intricate historic context for the outer coast in the 1800s.

Illustration by Rockwell Kent from Wilderness, A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska, 1920. The Rockwell Kent Legacies.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002