A History of the Chisana Mining District, Alaska, 1890-1990
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Chapter One

Prior to the arrival of white invaders, indigenous peoples held virtually all of Alaska. The greater Chisana region, for example, was shared by three Athabascan groups. [1] The Ahtna ranged east from the community of Batzulnetas, often reaching the Nabesna River; the Southern Tutchone held the lower and middle reaches of the White River, occasionally ascending Beaver Creek; and the Upper Tanana controlled the territory surrounding the Chisana River. The Tanana people also established the first village in the vicinity. Situated on Cross Creek, just opposite the mouth of Notch Creek, it was only about six miles northwest of the future site of Chisana City. [2]

Americans first penetrated the region in 1891, when a three-man exploring party, consisting of Frederick Schwatka, Charles W. Hayes, and Mark Russell, traversed from the White to the Nizina River through Skolai Pass. While not discovering any gold, Hayes reported finding copper nuggets on Kletsan Creek, located near the head of the White River. [3]

Seven years passed before prospectors regularly entered the area. One of the first was Henry Bratnober, who examined part of the White River country in 1898. [4] Jack Dalton arrived about the same time, building a cabin on upper Kletsan Creek. Although Dalton, like Hayes, found a considerable quantity of copper, the district's remoteness discouraged any thorough investigation. [5]

United States Geological Survey (USGS) parties also began scrutinizing the area in 1898. William J. Peters and Alfred H. Brooks, for example, inspected Beaver, Snag, and Mirror Creeks, passing about forty miles north of the Chisana district. [6] The two returned to the region the following year, tracing the northern edge of the Wrangell Mountains between the White and Nabesna Rivers. [7] Oscar Rohn also visited in 1899, crossing the mountains via the Nizina and Chisana Glaciers. [8]

Two other USGS geologists made a more significant contribution. Frank C. Schrader and David C. Witherspoon purchased several locally obtained copper nuggets from the Upper Tanana residents of Cross Creek Village. Later, they also detected gold traces in a quartz sample collected a few miles farther east. Reports about their finds circulated, significantly promoting local exploration. [9]

The area's first meaningful mineral discovery occurred in 1902 when prospector Jack Horsfeld found gold on Beaver Creek, just west of the Canadian border. Yukon miners stampeded to the area, but most failed to locate workable ground and soon returned to Dawson City. [10]

Fig. 2. The Chisana region. (click on image for a PDF version)

Bratnober and Dalton explored the upper Tanana River region in 1903, using a pack train to search for copper prospects. At the conclusion of their journey, however, Bratnober downplayed the district's mineral potential. His pessimistic forecast infuriated supporters of Valdez, which heavily depended on the mining trade. "This pot-bellied old reprobate," declared the Valdez News, "has some object in spreading these slanderous reports aside from the mere pleasure that some people take in lying." [11]

Fig. 3. Prospectors camping along an unidentified Chisana trail, c. 1913. Stanley-Mason Collection, courtesy Tacoma Public Library.

The newspaper was apparently correct, as two years later Bratnober resumed his examination of the region. Building a 120-foot, gas-powered sternwheeler, which he christened Ella in honor of his wife, he journeyed up the Nabesna River and established winter quarters for a small group of affiliated prospectors, including George C. Wilson, James L. Galen, Draper C. "Bud" Sargent, and Carl F. Whitham. Although they located numerous copper prospects, Bratnober's crew discovered little gold. They did, however, find traces along Trail, Cooper, and Chavolda Creeks, all in or near the Chisana district. [12]

Exploration of the area continued, with several men examining lower Chathenda Creek the following year. Its prospects so impressed Aaron Johnson and his partners that they whipsawed lumber, built sluiceboxes, and shoveled-in for a week. Their results, however, were disappointing. Only netting about $7.50 per day, the group soon abandoned its efforts. [13]

The USGS returned in 1908, when Fred H. Moffit, Adolf Knopf, and Stephen R. Capps surveyed the region. While failing to discover any important mineral deposits, the trio located several small quartz veins and expressed confidence that placer gold would eventually be found. [14]

Although credit for that discovery must be divided among at least half a dozen individuals, three were especially important. In 1912 William E. "Billy" James, Nels P. Nelson, and Fred W. Best began a detailed examination of the upper White River basin. Hardly "cheechakos," each had originally come north before the turn of the century and had spent more than a decade fruitlessly exploring the Alaska-Yukon backcountry. [15]

Few details were ever recorded about Nelson's background. It is believed, however, that he had served in the military before coming to Alaska in the 1890s. Although he was prospecting in the Fortymile country when Carmack made his Klondike discovery in 1896, Nelson failed to join the initial wave of stampeders up the Yukon River and therefore missed his first and greatest opportunity to strike it rich. [16]

Best's history is better known. Born in the small industrial town of Stoneham, Massachusetts, in 1866, he was working as a mate on a cargo ship when his older brother convinced him to quit the sea and join the Klondike rush. Travelling to Forty Mile, a Canadian community located near Dawson City, Best tried prospecting, but generally supported himself by working for wages. Although he purchased the Cassiar Roadhouse in 1903, he soon gave up that business and spent the remainder of the decade hauling freight in the upper Yukon Basin. [17]

James, like Nelson, possessed extensive prospecting experience. A hard-rock miner in California before joining the Klondike stampede, he had subsequently worked in both the Fortymile and Fairbanks districts. He was also extremely familiar with the White River country, having visited it regularly since about 1908. [18] As Best reported to his parents:

Billy has been in there before and has some good prospects and picked Nels and me to go back with him. . . . We have a fine outfit and a good boat and hope to have a successful trip. . . . There is no regular mail up there so you must not be worried if you do not hear from me very often, for I shall be in good company and now know how to survive in any kind of country. [19]

Late that summer the trio established a base camp near the mouth of Beaver Creek and began investigating the adjoining region. Although their primary route ascended that drainage only as far as Flat Creek, they established hunting and trapping trails in all directions. One, for example, reached Chathenda Creek, about ten miles farther west. [20]

While there, an Upper Tanana acquaintance, then known to the prospectors only as "Indian Joe," showed James a quartz prospect situated on the Chathenda's middle reaches. The lode intrigued the miner, but he was much more interested in the area's placer potential. Recognizing that it was too late in the season for any detailed examination, James conducted some preliminary panning and vowed to return to the area the following year. [21]

Fig. 4. Billy James and Matilda Wales at their camp near the mouth of Little Eldorado Creek, 1913. Best Collection, courtesy Alaska State Library and Archives.

James and Nelson came back in the spring of 1913, accompanied this time by James's long-time companion, Matilda Wales. [22] Reaching Chathenda Creek on May 3, James concentrated on the lode. Nelson, however, decided to try his luck on a nearby tributary. Walking about a hundred yards upstream, he reached a low bench where he proceeded to remove some of the overburden and to test the underlying gravel. To his surprise, his first pan yielded a dollar's worth of gold. Staking a discovery claim, Nelson, in the tradition of placer miners everywhere, christened the stream "Bonanza" Creek. [23]

Shortly after making his strike, Nelson and Andrew M. "Andy" Taylor, a long time acquaintance who was also prospecting in the area, started for Dawson City to obtain additional materials and supplies. After they left, James and Wales traced the gold-bearing gravels farther up Bonanza. [24] Sampling a western branch, the pair made an even bigger discovery. Wales later recounted her version of the find:

When we got to a strange creek running into Bonanza, we followed it up and looked for the rim. At one place Billy spoke to me, saying, 'Let me have the pan; here's a little bedrock cropping out.' He took the pan, and to our surprise got five to ten dollars in bright gold. . . . We then prospected a little further up, and found gold and staked a discovery. The claims where we got the rich pans we staked as No. 1 and named the creek Little Eldorado. [25]

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Last Updated: 21-Mar-2008