Kenai Fjords
A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast: Historic Resource Study
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Chapter 7:
THE LURE OF GOLD (continued)

Nuka Bay Gold Mining: A Chronology

Government geologist U. S. Grant noted, after traveling through the area in 1909, that the outer coast was "entirely uninhabited." Prospectors, however, had previously visited the area. As noted in Chapter 5, George Stinson may have been one of the present-day park's first prospectors, in 1896. A group of miners were heading up the coast to the Hope-Sunrise diggings that year when a storm forced them to retreat to Nuka Bay. Stinson was intrigued by "rich-looking float" he found on the beach. The find, however, did not deter him from continuing on to Turnagain Arm, and the incident was soon forgotten. [9] Several years later, other prospectors (as noted above) located claims at Windy Bay and Port Dick and doubtless searched in many other locations.

Grant's report noted that prospecting parties had made gold claims in two general areas within the present park. One area was Two Arm Bay. It stated that on the mountain at the head of Taroka Arm, John Kusturin and Gus Johansen had staked nine claims on three quartz veins. [10] Development work had been limited to "some small stripping" of the veins. Grant also wrote that the east side of nearby Paguna Arm had "a few small quartz veins," an assay from which showed no gold. Near the head of Paguna Arm were seen "a few granite dikes." An assay from that deposit showed $1.80 per ton in gold, an amount that was insufficient to justify development work. This activity appears to have taken place between 1907 and 1909. The claims soon lapsed, and the area has remained idle ever since. [11]

The other area that had incited the interest of early prospectors was Nuka Bay. During the first decade of the twentieth century, the bay's East Arm (McCarty Fjord) was relatively short–McCarty Glacier extended some fifteen miles farther south than it does today–and the glacier's face reached from the southern end of James Lagoon to the mouth of McCarty Lagoon. A four-man prospecting party–Daniel Morris, James Sheridan, George W. Kuppler, and John H. Lee–located three deposits in 1909, two on East Arm and a third on North Arm. [12] One of the East Arm deposits was on the flat at the west side of the McCarty Glacier face; a "number of pieces" of float quartz were found, but no vein was located. The party also found a broken quartz vein "near the south point of the first ridge" west of McCarty Glacier. The vein, which was approximately 300 yards from the ice in July 1909, was opened for only two or three feet. On Nuka Bay's North Arm, they discovered a third deposit, located near the center of the arm's west side. The party did not engage in development work. Since that time, the East Arm sites have probably lain fallow, but the North Arm deposit was later relocated and became part of the Rosness and Larson prospect. [13]

U. S. Grant, the geologist who visited the area in 1909, took samples of several of the area's quartz-arsenopyrite veins. He later assayed the samples but found that "the results of these assays ... is not encouraging." His report, which was published in preliminary form in 1910 and in final form in 1915, may have put a damper on area prospecting, inasmuch as no known deposits were discovered along the park's coastline between 1909 and 1917. [14]

When gold was next discovered in the area is open to some dispute. A government report written in 1918 noted that "a quartz lode carrying free gold discovered on Nuka Bay in 1917 has attracted some attention, and it is reported that this lode was being developed in 1918." But another such report, written years later, said that Nuka Bay gold had been discovered in 1918 by Frank Case and Otis Harrington. The gold discovery, regardless of when it happened, took place at the Alaska Hills deposit, two miles up the Nuka River from Beauty Bay. [15]

Additional claim filing apparently followed these early discoveries, and by the spring of 1920, a bullish article in The Pathfinder stated that

Nuku Bay [sic], about eighty miles distant from Seward, is a quartz mining district. Although only discovered a few years ago, three large plants are operating continuously, and the average values are very high. This district is attracting considerable attention. [16]

The Alaska Hills deposit was probably one of the three "plants" in operation that spring. The identity of the remaining mines, however, is unknown, and it is doubtful if more than rudimentary excavations took place at those sites during this period.

Area mineral activity began to revive in 1922 when Charles Emsweiler, a Seward-based game guide and policeman, located a vein of free milling gold at the head of Beauty Bay. Emsweiler, working alone, mined one thousand pounds of ore from the outcrop of his find and packed it on his back to tide water. He took it to Seward and then transshipped it to the smelter at Tacoma. The shipment netted $80. The ore doubtless increased interest among some area miners, but the area received little additional publicity. [17]

Frank P. Skeen, who had been prospecting in the area for more than 15 years, [18] then relocated the veins–350 feet southeast of the Emsweiler deposit–that Case and Harrington had discovered five years earlier. Skeen's "discovery," which took place in late June 1923, made front-page headlines in the July 2 issue of the Seward Gateway:


Vein Two and a Half Feet in Width
and Fairly Plastered with Gold

Frank Skeen returned from Nuka Bay last evening with two hundred pounds of the richest gold-bearing quartz ever shown in this vicinity. So rich is the rock in gold that it fairly glitters with the precious mineral, and old timers who have seen the samples state they are better than have been shown in Alaska for many a day.

The vein, which is two and a half feet wide at the surface, was found by Mr. Skeen while burning off the grass around a property held by him at Nuka Bay. A piece about as large as one's fist was discovered sticking out of the ground, and upon examination the larger vein was found. Mr. Skeen stripped the vein for fifty feet and it showed the same high values at all points with no diminution in width. The vein is in block slate formation similar to the deep mines of California, and has every sign of permanency.

The new strike is about a mile and a half from salt water, on the Nuka River, and at about 500 feet in elevation. A wagon could be driven from the saltchuck to the mine. [19]

newspaper clippings
Frank Skeen's June 1923 gold discovery led to the Alaska Hills Mine, which was the first commercially productive mine in the Nuka Bay district. The mill, shown in the photograph, was completed in November 1924; it operated until 1928. Seward Gateway, December 5, 1925, 9.

Skeen soon returned to Nuka Bay to develop his property, and before long he brought back to Seward further proof of the claim's wealth. In late August, he exhibited a half ounce of gold that had been washed out from ten ounces of rock, and he also announced, based on recent assay results, that he had specimens showing values of more than $3000 per ton. These yields, according to newspaper reports, "caused considerable excitement among the old timers of this vicinity, and a number of prospectors and their outfits have taken gas boats for the scene of the strike." [20] A minor rush ensued, with Anchorage as well as Seward residents taking part; by early September, there were "some 65 miners and prospectors at the scene of the strike." One visitor to the claim announced that the strike "was all that it was reported to be, and more. Mr. Skeen has a wonderfully rich property there." [21]

The Pathfinder of Alaska gave an enthusiastic, detailed account of Skeen's discovery:

A sensationally rich gold quartz strike has been made in the Nuka Bay section, a short distance from Anchorage. Samples taken from the lead, which is exposed on the surface for a hundred or more feet, are said to go into the hundreds and even thousands of dollars. The silver content goes about $50 per ton, according to the assays.

The find was first made in June by Frank P. Skeen, an experienced hard-rock man of 25 years' residence in the north. The discovery was made as a result of finding a piece of quartz that was literally alive with gold, according to Skeen. Using his prospector's pick he began to dig around in the grass covered ground near the spot where the float was found and luckily encountered the vein. Skeen uncovered it for about 20 feet, enough to show that he had found a wonderful prospect. The vein at this point was about 20 inches in width and is what is termed a true fissure vein, crosscutting the formation. There is a sort of gouge in both walls, Skeen says, from which he picked out pieces that appeared to be plated with gold. Gold, he says, can be seen in much of the quartz, although there is a heavier concentration along the walls.

Subsequent development has revealed an ore body estimated to contain approximately $200,000 in what can be seen of it. The formation of the district is a black slate, occurring in blocks, and acidic and porphry [porphyry] dikes running through the country which are said to give encouraging prospects. [22]

The prospectors who invaded the area on the heels of Skeen's strike doubtless investigated the area surrounding his claims. Finding little, they fanned out across Nuka Bay and beyond, and scores registered claims. (Most claims were located near either the North Arm or West Arm of Nuka Bay, but some were made as far south as Tonsina Bay or as far north as Aialik Bay.) [23] By the summer of 1924, development work had taken place on at least six prospects, and work began on perhaps a dozen others as the decade wore on. [24]

Prospecting continued in the Nuka Bay area throughout the 1920s, but well before the end of the decade it became increasingly obvious that paying properties would be few and far between. As government geologist J. G. Shepard noted in a 1925 report, "it is not likely that the District will ever be an important producer, although small tonnages of commercial ore will probably be worked from time to time." [25] Factors such as remoteness, poor transportation, snowslides, and late-spring snow accumulations doubtlessly retarded progress. Another retarding factor, common to small-scale operations, was poor management. As geologist Robert Heath noted in 1932 after a visit to the area,

The greatest obstacle seems to be lack of men who understand the business and technique of mining. There have been many expensive mistakes made in the past by the pioneer operators that could be avoided by a new company just entering the field.... Practically all of the attempts at mining have been promoted and conducted by men who were trained in other kinds of work.

Primarily, however, the area's lack of development was due to a lack of economically extractable gold. [26]

During the 1920s, relatively few properties had sufficient ore to justify production. Two mines produced gold: the first, beginning in 1924, was the Alaska Hills Mine, which had been "rediscovered" by Frank Skeen just the year before. Four years later, the Sonny Fox Mine, at the head of Surprise Bay, was the second Nuka Bay mine to commence production. That so few properties were able to operate during the 1920s was, in large part, due to conditions that prevailed throughout the Territory; gold production in general, and lode gold production in particular, dipped to its lowest level in more than a decade. [27]

The Great Depression years of the 1930s were poor for the nation's business, but judging by production figures, they were relatively favorable for the Alaska gold mining industry. Gold production rose gradually during the early 1930s. Then, in January 1934, gold mining received a further boost when the U.S. government (which was the only legal gold buyer) raised the price of gold from $20.67 to $35 per troy ounce. In the Nuka Bay area, production rose and new properties began milling gold. The Rosness and Larson mine, on the west side of North Arm, began operating in 1931; the Goyne Prospect, on Surprise Bay, sent out its first ore the same year; and in 1934, the year gold prices rose, the Nukalaska Mine commenced production. [28]

A government report published in 1931 was bullish about the district. It noted that the Sonny Fox mine, in operation since 1926, was the area's top producer. In addition,

there are more than a dozen other properties in the district on which development work was in progress, and of these at least three shipped some ore or concentrates to smelters in the States for treatment. The properties at which work was in progress are widely distributed through the district, indicating that the mineralization is not localized at a few points. The success that already attended the operations of the Sonny Fox mine and the samples that have been assayed from many of the other properties give assurance that the mineralization in many places has produced ores that, if skillfully mined and milled, are of commercial grade. [29]

By 1933, however, optimism about the district had begun to dim. A U.S. Geological Survey report noted that "on the whole, small-scale prospecting does not appear to have been so active during 1933 as in the preceding year," and prospecting continued to decrease in 1934. Even the local chamber of commerce, which had been publicizing its potential just two years earlier, chose not to recommend the area as a potential mining area in a December 1934 letter. [30]

During the late 1930s, interest in the Nuka Bay mines continued to subside. The Geological Survey's 1937 report on Alaska mining noted that "mining was carried on at a somewhat slower rate than formerly." There were three producing properties–Nukalaska, Sonny Fox, and Alaska Hills–but "at none of the other mines were any notable new developments in progress, and no new prospecting enterprises are reported to have been started during the year." The following year's report stated that

perhaps half a dozen properties on which some work was done during the year, but the wave of interest that brought this camp to notice a few years ago seems to have subsided, so that many of the early comers have drifted away and mining has dropped to a low stage.

The 1939 report noted that work continued on six properties, "but at only three of them [the same three noted above] was the work much more than casual prospecting." [31] By the end of 1941, production had ceased throughout the district; the area remained idle until after World War II.

Between 1924 and 1941, a total of five mines produced and shipped gold ore. Two of the five (the Sonny Fox Mining Company and the Alaska Hills Mine) operated for ten or more years; one mine (the Nukalaska Mine) operated for five to nine years, and the final two (the Rosness and Larson Mine and the Goyne Prospect) produced gold for fewer than five years. Most of the mines were small in scale, with a crew numbering six or fewer, and in almost all cases the operations were seasonal, usually lasting from late April or early May until September or October. [32]

Little if any gold production data was ever published from these mines. [33] In the 1960s, however, geologist Donald Richter estimated production quantities based on mill capacities, gold values, yields per ton and scattered unofficial reports. On that basis, he estimated that the district produced perhaps $166,000 in gold between 1924 and 1940. The largest producer, the Sonny Fox Mine, yielded some $70,000 in gold. Production from the Alaska Hills Mine was $45,000; from the Nukalaska Mine, $35,000; and from the Rosness and Larson Mine, $15,000. (All figures are approximate.) The Goyne Prospect yielded an insignificant amount of gold–less than $1,000, according to Richter's estimate. [34]

By any measure, the yields from the Nuka Bay district were minor. The district yielded an average annual total of $10,000 in gold during the 1924-1940 period. [35] During those 17 years, however, the annual total of lode gold production in Alaska ranged from $2.7 million to $8.3 million, and the annual total of Alaska gold production (from both lode and placer mines) ranged from $5.9 million to $26.2 million. Using the most conservative measurement, therefore, the Nuka Bay mines do not appear to have ever contributed more than one percent of Alaska's lode production, and they consistently produced less than 0.3% of Alaska's total gold production. [36] Based on those yields, it is not surprising that the Nuka Bay mines (and other Kenai Peninsula gold mines) were consistently described in the "other districts" section of the U.S. Geological Survey's annual reports.

Mining on the Kenai Peninsula, as elsewhere in Alaska, revived slowly during the postwar years. Economic prosperity brought more jobs and rising wages, luring miners to the cities. The prices of mining equipment, moreover, increased along with other products. The price of gold, however, held steady at $35 per ounce. [37]

Because of those obstacles, and because the most promising veins had already been tapped, the level of Nuka Bay mining activity was far less than it had been before World War II. Sometime during the postwar period, the Golden Horn group unsuccessfully attempted to reopen the Goyne prospect on Surprise Bay. In July 1951, Wyman Anderson and B. C. Rick expressed an interest in the old Sonny Fox mine; they transferred the property to the Alaska Exploration and Development Corporation, which held the property for the next several years. Sometime in the 1950s a group from Hawaii, locally known as the Honolulu Group, unsuccessfully attempted to reopen the Nukalaska Mine but the venture was apparently short-lived. In 1959 and 1960, several Seward residents conducted development work at the Little Creek (Glass and Heifner) prospect, near the head of Beauty Bay. None of these attempts resulted in commercial production, however, and after a 1967 visit, geologist Donald Richter noted "today the area has been virtually forgotten." [38]

old mining equipment
Remains of tunnels, mining equipment, camp buildings and roads are scattered throughout the West Arm and North Arm of Nuka Bay. This 1970s-era photo may have been taken at the Goyne/Golden Horn prospect. Don Follows photo, NPS/Alaska Area Office print file, NARA Anchorage.

The dramatic rise in the price of gold, beginning in 1968, favorably affected gold mining operations throughout the United States. Perhaps as a result, at least one recently active Nuka Bay mine has produced commercial quantities of gold, and small-scale activity has taken place elsewhere. In 1965, a group from Jamestown, Ohio, acquired the former Little Creek prospect; soon afterward, they constructed a small mill and mined "a limited amount" of ore. The pair operated on an intermittent, small-scale basis until the early 1980s; since then, others have extracted ore from time to time. At the Sonny Fox mine site, the ground was re-staked in 1968 and it remained an active claim site for more than twenty years thereafter. Other active development work in recent years has taken place at the old Goyne-Golden Horn prospect. During the early 1970s, there was also a purported barium deposit on the east side of Harris Bay. The four claims that encompassed that deposit, however, lapsed before the end of the decade. [39]

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002