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

The First World War curtailed mining throughout Alaska, and the Chisana was no exception. Its output plummeted in 1918, with prospectors recovering only 726 ounces, or $15,000 worth of gold. [1]

A war-related boom swept the United States, attracting a considerable number of Alaska residents. The territory's population, in fact, declined by nearly 15 percent between 1910 and 1920. Moreover, an accompanying increase in the cost of labor, mining machinery, and supplies made working low grade placer deposits far less profitable. [2]

Several long-term residents left the district. Fred Best, for example, joined the navy, while Percy Thornton, Harry Boyden, and Carl Whitham all entered the army. [3]

Others remained. Writing to Best early that summer, Linnie Nelson mentioned seeing many prominent members of the Chisana community, including Andy Taylor, Jim Murie, Don Greene, Fred Nelson, Jack Carroll, Dud McKinney, Al Wright, and Charles Simons. [4]

As in previous years, most mining occurred on Bonanza Creek. James and Nelson, for example, divided their joint holdings, with the latter acquiring Bonanza No. 4. Although seemingly happy with the deal, it meant added work for Nelson, who was forced to build a new camp on the claim. [5]

Ketching and Carden also worked Bonanza Creek. Their operation, however, generated some genuine excitement. One day while they were laboring below their dam, its gate failed, causing a flood which caught the pair completely by surprise. Ketching quickly struggled out of the torrent, but Carden was swept far downstream and nearly drowned. [6]

While still low, production nearly doubled in 1919. Local miners increased their recovery to 1,306 ounces or about $27,000. [7] The district, however, soon resumed its long-term cycle of decline. In 1920 the Chisana's eight mines together employed only eighteen men. While failing to find any new deposits, these operators recovered an average of $2.08 for each cubic yard of gravel worked. Nevertheless, their total output fell to 968 ounces, or approximately $20,000. [8]

Despite the district's overall decline, some traffic still utilized Hazelet's old trail over the Nizina and Chisana Glaciers. In May 1920, for example, census taker George Walker employed that route in traveling from McCarthy to Chisana City. He experienced an especially harrowing trip. Encountering a fierce storm, Walker and companion Joe McClellan eventually lost the trail and were forced to bivouac.

With a snowshoe and a frying pan they dug out in the snow a hole big enough for both to get into the glacier. This they roofed over with snowshoes and canvas, but in spite of this precaution the hole kept filling up with drifting snow, and the men were constantly besieged with a desire to sleep. After passing forty hours in this snowy tomb, they scrambled out to find the storm over and a bright sun shining. [9]

Upon reaching Chisana City, Walker found that the population had substantially declined. He reported only 148 residents in the vicinity, 105 of whom were Alaska Natives. The forty-three white residents included the U.S. commissioner, a merchant, a trader, a blacksmith, a cook, two trappers, three freighters, ten prospectors, seventeen placer miners, and six wives or children, recorded as being without occupation. [10]

Six mines still operated in 1921, employing a total of sixteen men. Most utilized fairly primitive technology. While many employed automatic dams to remove the overburden, all still hand-worked the underlying gravel. Despite such labor intensive methods, gold production increased slightly. Local miners recovered 1,113 ounces or about $23,000. [11]

Several claims experienced renewed activity that year. Pete Eikland and Jack Carroll, for example, purchased Bonanza No. 4 from N. P. Nelson, and Hans Running and John Swanson leased Bonanza No. 6 from Billy James and Percy Thornton. Both pairs worked open-cuts that summer and drift-mined the following winter. [12]

Big Eldorado Creek also received some attention. In about 1921, Red Stevens noticed that no recent assessment work had been done on Big Eldorado Nos. 3 and 4 Below Upper Discovery. After checking the recording books, he re-staked the property. According to Knut Peterson,

nobody paid much attention . . . until the next spring when it was noted that he had a big tent camp set up on #3. He had hired six men, all good workers, and he was ground sluicing to beat the band. [13]

Although Tony McGettigan and Dud McKinney insisted that Stevens had jumped their claims, the prospector was never arrested and the original owners eventually let the matter drop. No one knows for sure just how much gold Stevens ultimately took out of Big Eldorado Creek. It was rumored, however, that when he left the Chisana, he paid $100,000 in cash for a farm he purchased in Washington state. [14]

In 1922 only nine mines operated in the district. Employment, however, increased to twenty-five men. In total, these mines moved about 10,600 cubic yards of gravel during the course of the season, producing 1,403 ounces, or $29,000 worth of gold. [15]

There were few changes the following year: nine operations employed twenty-two men and recovered approximately $23,000. Billy James and Percy Thornton boasted the largest camp, employing six men on Little Eldorado No. 1 and Bonanza No. 6. Two other partnerships also worked Bonanza Creek that season. One consisted of Miles Atkinson and Pete Eikland and the other included Don Greene and Joe Davis. Tony McGettigan mined Bonanza Creek as well. [16]

Three other creeks received less attention: Carl Whitham continued to mine Little Eldorado No. 2; Shorty Briggen, Aaron Nelson and Jack O'Hara operated on Big Eldorado; and Dud McKinney and Jack Carroll worked property on Gold Run. [17]

Transportation remained the district's most enduring problem. In the summer, most supplies arrived via pack horse from McCarthy, a six-day trip of approximately eighty miles. Freighters changed twenty-five cents per pound to Chisana and usually required an additional nickel for delivery to the creeks. In the winter, cargo travelled by dogsled. Rates by this method, however, were somewhat lower, averaging about twenty cents per pound. [18] Bill Berry and Sid Johnson did much of the hauling, although neither carried the mail. [19] That important contract went to Harry Boyden. [20]

Fig. 35. A pack train crossing the Russell Glacier in Skolai Pass, 1915. Capps Collection, courtesy Alaska and Polar Regions Department, Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The district's decline continued in 1924, when eight mines produced $23,400 worth of gold. [21] By now, Chisana City was largely abandoned. According to Milton B. Medary, a member of a Smithsonian expedition which visited that summer, the town consisted of "452 log cabins in which one man lives alone." [22]

Six mines operated in 1925, producing $24,000 worth of gold. The following year, the district was down to only five. Gold production also fell, now barely reaching $18,000. A. S. Johnson fielded the largest crew. His three employees worked Little Eldorado Creek, employing a small hydraulic plant on the adjoining benches. [23]

Two other creeks received more limited attention. Jack Carroll worked Gold Run and three other men operated claims on Bonanza: Pete Eikland mined No. 3; Tony McGettigan and Don Greene operated No. 5; and Aaron Nelson worked an unidentified claim, probably No. 4. Miles Atkinson, who had consistently worked Bonanza Creek in the past, did not return for the 1926 season. [24]

Local miners, who blamed much of the area's decline on its high transportation costs, began lobbying the Alaska Road Commission to improve their access. Most favored establishing a new trail via Gulkana, "the only safe and feasible way to get supplies into camp." A. S. Johnson was especially persistent, arguing that "if half the energy that was wasted [in building and maintaining the glacier trail] was used on the Gulkana route . . . we would be getting freight landed here at a reasonable rate." Genuine improvements, however, remained far in the future. [25]

Production continued to fall for the remainder of the decade. In 1927, for example, a few small camps recovered about $15,000 worth of gold. [26]

In 1928 about twelve men worked five separate claims, but were greatly hampered by a lack of water. Although several operators attempted to alleviate the problem by constructing automatic dams, none were completed in time to salvage the season. Miners hydraulicking on Bonanza Creek discovered a rich new channel, however, and as a result the district's total gold production rose to $16,000. [27]

Although the water supply increased in 1929, production plummeted to only $7,000. Miners now worked less accessible areas which had been passed over during the district's boom. Only five operations were even moderately active: Miles Atkinson, Aaron Nelson, and a partnership consisting of Tony McGettigan and Don Greene worked Bonanza Creek; Joe Davis mined Carl Whitham's ground on Little Eldorado; and Barney McKinney sluiced Gold Run. [28]

Chisana City experienced a more eventful year. Death took Charles Simons, the community's postmaster and sole remaining merchant, bringing genuine hardship to the region. Robert McKennan reported that local residents were forced "to trade at the posts on the Copper River," the nearest, that at the mouth of the Slana River, being about one hundred miles away. [29]

Fortunately, this problem was somewhat ameliorated by the addition of another travel option. In 1929 the Alaska Road Commission hired Gus Johnson to build an airstrip in Chisana City. Placed in an abandoned channel of Chathenda Creek, Johnson's 1,500-foot-long by 150-foot-wide strip was relatively level, possessing a grade of only 2 percent. Few pilots, however, risked using the strip, despite government claims that it was "comparatively safe to land on." [30]

The area's gold production consequently continued to decline. In 1930 it amounted to only $5,800. Although some mining occurred on at least six properties, none reported any significant new discoveries. [31] Most of the district's gold came from Carl Whitham's claims on Little Eldorado, still leased by Joe Davis. [32] Billy James concentrated on Bonanza Creek, building an automatic dam on his Discovery claim. A persistent drought, however, limited its effectiveness. [33]

Fig. 36. Earl Hirst's workings at Bonanza No. 2, June 1940. Wayland Collection, courtesy United States Geological Survey.

Barney McKinney worked Gold Run, employing a "boomer" dam on No. 1 Above Discovery. Although he eventually cleaned about 6,000 square feet of bedrock, he, like James, was hampered by a lack of water. [34]

Conditions worsened in 1931 with only about a dozen men continuing to mine. Production totalled about $3,000. [35] Billy James worked his Bonanza Discovery, still employing his automatic dam to ground-sluice. A. S. Johnson reworked Bonanza No. 8, cleaning around 20,000 square feet. Tony McGettigan operated Bonanza No. 11. Installing a new splash-dam, he ground-sluiced about 4,000 square feet of bedrock. On Little Eldorado, Jack Carroll mined No. 1 and Joe Davis again operated No. 2. Louis McCallum even reported an encouraging lode discovery, finding three gold-bearing veins on the right limit of Alder Gulch. [36]

The next year brought some recovery. Chisana City finally began receiving regular airplane service and pioneer Alaska aviators like Bob Reeve flew several loads of passengers and supplies into the district. This improved transportation probably helped to rekindle interest in the area, doubling its gold production to about $7,000. [37]

Fig. 37. Detail of Earl Hirst's hydraulic pit, 1940. Wayland Collection, courtesy United States Geological Survey.

Substantial changes occurred in 1933. The Alaska Road Commission built a road from the community of Gulkana to the Nabesna River, greatly facilitating local transportation. [38] As a result, twenty men mined in the district, the most in a decade. [39]

Tony McGettigan continued to operate on upper Bonanza Creek, and other creeks received some attention as well. Knut and Ulrich Peterson, for example, began working Big Eldorado Creek, and a new company opened a tract on Little Eldorado Creek which yielded especially heavy gold. One nugget, in fact, weighed seven ounces. [40]

In 1934 some seven camps operated in the district, together employing about twenty men. The government's increase in the price of gold from $20.67 to $35.00 per ounce and the improvements in transportation had created incentives that encouraged mining. These factors prompted operators to explore deposits which had previously been ignored.

N. P. Nelson, for example, built an elaborate ditch and flume system to Bonanza No. 5, starting about a half mile below the confluence with Coarse Money Creek and extending downstream past the mouth of Little Eldorado Creek. [41]

The next year the number of active operations increased to ten and the Chisana gold production jumped to $21,000. N. P. Nelson continued to field the largest crew, engaging six men for most of the season. Earl Hirst headed the second largest outfit, where four men were employed. Mining also continued on Little Eldorado, Big Eldorado, and Gold Run Creeks. [42]

The boom expanded in 1936. Although the district still only utilized about twenty men, total gold production jumped to $37,500. As usual, most attention focused on Bonanza Creek. [43]

Fig. 38. Don Greene's operation at Bonanza No. 3, June 1940. Wayland Collection, courtesy United States Geological Survey.

Billy James, for example, employed two men on his Discovery claim. Although they cleaned an abundance of bedrock that season, their returns were poor. [44]

Earl Hirst and his crew had a more productive year. Locating an old creek channel on Bonanza No. 2, they used a giant to remove the overburden. By fall, Hirst had cleaned 3,000 square feet of bedrock, recovering an average of three dollars per foot. [45]

Don Greene and two employees hydraulically mined the left bench of Bonanza No. 4. They cleaned 2,000 square feet of bedrock and pocketed one hundred ounces of gold. [46]

Fig. 39. N. P. Nelson's bench workings at Bonanza No. 6, June 1940. Wayland Collection, courtesy United States Geological Survey.

The N. P. Nelson Mining Company hydraulically mined Bonanza No. 6, like Greene working the left limit of the bench. Utilizing a giant to remove the overburden, its six man crew cleaned 9,000 square feet of bedrock and reportedly recovered a substantial quantity of gold.

Other claims were equally active. A. S. Johnson drift mined a bench on the left limit of Bonanza No. 9, though he only recovered a few ounces of gold. Tony McGettigan did better working Bonanza Nos. 11 and 12, which produced nearly twenty ounces in just ten days. Joe Davis continued operating both Little Eldorado No. 2 and the adjoining claim on Skookum Creek, though apparently his returns were substantially less. [47]

The Peterson brothers operated a "boomer" dam on Big Eldorado No. 1 Below Discovery, recovering forty-two ounces of gold. They also discovered a sulfide deposit, which they optimistically called the Monte Carlo Lode. [48]

As the 1930s ended, the Chisana's gold production slowly began to fall. In 1937 it equalled $30,000, and in 1938 it totalled $29,000. Otherwise, conditions remained much the same, with most operators concentrating on Bonanza Creek. [49]

Earl Hirst hydraulicked on Bonanza No. 2, working an old channel on the canyon's left limit. Don Greene mined a similar bench opposite Bonanza No. 3. An Upper Tanana Indian called "Shushanna Joe" worked the fraction between claim Nos. 3 and 4. The Nelson Mining Company remained the largest operator in the drainage, employing five men on claim Nos. 5 and 6. Tony McGettigan operated on the creek as well, shoveling-in on Bonanza No. 12. [50]

Operators also worked three other creeks. An unidentified Native man worked the upper portion of Little Eldorado, Joe Davis hydraulicked on Skookum Creek, and Al Wright ground-sluiced on Gold Run. [51]

The closure of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway in the fall of 1938 complicated operations in the Chisana district. That winter, however, Cordova Air contracted to deliver all the miners' freight. Both the terms and the service must have been satisfactory, for the parties continued the arrangement for several years. [52]

Gold production continued to decline. In 1939 it barely totalled $20,000 and in 1940 it fell even further, reaching only $14,000. Nelson remained the largest operator, though other miners worked Little Eldorado, Big Eldorado, and Gold Run Creeks. [53]

Earl Hirst still mined Bonanza No. 2, working an old channel located on the east side of the valley about twenty-five feet above the existing stream. To sluice at this location, Hirst diverted water from the upper end of the claim, transporting it to the site via an elaborate wooden flume. [54]

Don Greene worked Bonanza No. 3, operating on the east side of the canyon about one hundred feet above the creek. Greene obtained water from a gulch to the west of Bonanza, using an inverted siphon to bring it to his pit. [55]

The Nelson Mining Company conducted the district's most extensive placer operation on Bonanza No. 6. It employed hydraulic pressure to mine a low bench located approximately a hundred yards east of the stream, and roughly fifty feet above it. [56]

Several others miners also operated claims on Bonanza Creek in 1940. Tony McGettigan worked Bonanza No. 12 and a group of unidentified Native men mined Bonanza No. 3B Fraction and No. 4. Like everyone else in the district, both outfits were hindered by a lack of water. [57]

Other properties received more limited attention. Al Peterson and Charlie Hawkins prospected on Coarse Money Creek and Earl Hirst and Sam Gamblin even started a tunnel on their Eire group, a cluster of sixteen quartz lode claims located above Chathenda Creek. [58]

By now, Chisana City contained a substantial Native community, with several cabins grouped just northeast of the airstrip. [59] Its residents during this period included Shushanna Joe, Jack John Justin, Charley Toby, Sherry Nickolai, Bessie Joe, Suzie Joe, and Martha Mark. [60] According to Holly Reckord, Chisana City's Natives remained extremely mobile:

Using tents, they went hunting, trapping, or fishing during the times of each year when these activities were productive and undertook cash labor at Chisana during the summer. Thus they combined their traditional subsistence way of life with the new opportunities offered by mining activity. [61]

Gold production was stable in 1941, still totalling some $14,000. [62] That winter, however, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forever altered Chisana mining.

It continued in 1942, but total production fell to $8,000. In October America's War Production Board issued Limitation Order L-208, which closed all but the smallest mines. Like most western states, Alaska fought the order. As a result, the federal government permitted some mines to operate, including those in Alaska employing five or fewer men. [63]

Although legally allowed to function, many operators closed their mines for the duration of the war. Most miners were now too old to work their claims without the help of younger labor. Seventy-five-year-old Tony McGettigan was one exception. He continued operating Bonanza No. 12 until he disappeared one spring while hiking in from Chisana City. The probable victim of a bear attack, McGettigan's body was never found. [64]

By 1944 things were grim in the Chisana district. Due to the necessities of war, Cordova Air had discontinued its service, and local residents had not received a shipment for eight long months. Although most were over sixty-five years old, they realized that they must soon attempt to hike the eighty or so miles back to civilization. Fortunately, only two days before they were due to start, Merle "Mudhole" Smith landed in the community, bringing their long awaited food and supplies. [65]

Mining resumed in 1945, though on a scale far smaller than in the immediate pre-war years. Only five outfits operated in 1945 and 1946, four of them on Bonanza Creek. Louis E. "Lou" Anderton, the Bonanza Mining Company, and the partnership of Earl Hirst and Harry Sutherland utilized hydraulic methods, while N. P. Nelson shoveled-in. Nelson's return was predictably meager. He reportedly recovered only three ounces in 1946. [66]

Davis performed his annual assessment work on Little Eldorado Nos. 2 and 2 Fraction, Snow Gulch No. 1, Skookum Creek No. 1, Blue Fox Claim on Skookum Creek, and two claims in Caribou Pass in 1946. [67] He also retained Gold Run Creek No. 1 and No. 1. [68]

Although Billy James failed to complete his assessment work in 1945, he continued to control much of the district's most promising ground. In July 1946 he and his wife Agnes deeded their claims to the Nutzotin Placer Company, which they founded with the help of Almer J. Peterson. Reflecting their respective contributions, the new corporation selected Billy as president, Agnes as vice president, and Peterson as secretary. [69]

John Hodel mined Gold Run Creek in the late 1940s. Operating alone, he conducted that drainage's first reported hydraulic operation. [70] Al Wright held claims on Gold Run Creek as well, although he failed to work them in 1947. [71]

Both the Bonanza Mining Company and the Hirst/Sutherland partnership returned to Bonanza Creek in 1947. [72] Lou Anderton, however, moved on. Although he ran a hydraulic plant on Nugget and Thumb Creeks that summer, he seems to have devoted more effort to managing his Chisana City general store. [73]

Only one other miner worked in the district. Joe Davis resumed his hydraulic operation on Skookum Creek. [74]

Fig. 40. The remains of a tentframe, 1987. NPS photo.

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Last Updated: 21-Mar-2008