A History of the Chisana Mining District, Alaska, 1890-1990
NPS Logo


Gold has always been an elusive mineral. This was especially true in Alaska, where persistent seekers followed its trail for decades. Beginning with a strike in the Silverbow Basin near Juneau in 1880, prospectors soon crossed the Coast Range and explored the upper reaches of the Yukon River. In 1886 they moved down the Yukon to the Fortymile River and, in 1893, on to Birch Creek, near Circle. Three years later, George Washington Carmack filed the first claims on Rabbit Creek, soon renamed Bonanza Creek, initiating the Yukon Territory's famed Klondike rush. Other stampedes followed, including ones to Nome in 1899 and 1900, Fairbanks in 1903, and the Iditarod in 1909. In 1913 discoveries along the northern margin of Alaska's Wrangell Mountains provoked the territory's last important rush: to the remote headwaters of the Chisana River. [1]

Although a relatively minor producer by world standards, the Chisana district remains interesting for several reasons. It typifies, for example, the development of placer mining in Alaska, advancing through a number of discrete stages and employing a broad range of technology and equipment. It is also unusually well preserved. A scarcity of water and an abundance of steep terrain limited hydraulic mining and prevented dredging. Its remote location helped to reduce pilfering as well. As a result, this district retains extensive evidence of its early use. [2]

Its rush was also quite distinctive. Unlike the stampede to Livengood, which occurred the following year, this one was widely publicized and contained a clearly international component, including members from throughout the Pacific Northwest. It was also larger. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which had a correspondent on the scene, estimated that over eight thousand people joined the Chisana rush. Even more conservative government sources guessed that over two thousand prospectors participated. The Livengood stampede, in contrast, only attracted a few hundred individuals. [3]

Two ingredients contributed to the unique character of the Chisana rush. One was its timing. In 1913 most of the world was still at peace. Had the strike occurred the following year, the First World War would undoubtedly have interfered.

Transportation played an important part as well. The newly completed Copper River and Northwestern Railway and the vastly improved Valdez Trail greatly simplified the approach to the diggings. Unlike its predecessors, this strike occurred less than one hundred miles from the railhead.

To grasp the true nature of any stampede, however, it is first necessary to understand the needs and goals of the individuals who joined it. Historians, for example, have offered many explanations for the size and duration of the Klondike rush. Most have concentrated on the issues troubling American society during of the 1890s. [4]

The United States changed radically during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Although the nation successfully entered the modern age, it was a costly transition, fostering the maldistribution of wealth, power, and prestige in a country that boasted egalitarian traditions.

The 1890s were a particularly trying time. The panic of 1893, for example, sharply curtailed industrial growth. It also caused thousands of bankruptcies and generated extensive unemployment. Serious differences now separated rural and urban constituencies, capital and labor, large and small manufacturers, and new immigrants from the older population. [5]

Farmers were probably the hardest hit. Once viewed as the standard-bearers of Jeffersonian democracy, they now received pathetic returns for their toil. They also enjoyed little protection from exploitation by the banks and railroads. [6]

Historian John Hicks, writing about the origins of the Populist insurgency of the 1890s, detailed the crux of the problem:

In an earlier age the hard-pressed farmers and laborers might have fled to free farms in the seemingly limitless lands of the West, but now the era of free land had passed. Where, then, might they look for help? [7]

Prevented from achieving prosperity at home, some of these individuals undoubtedly sought out new opportunities in the Klondike.

The Chisana stampede, however, occurred nearly a generation later under vastly different conditions. The interclass conflict which characterized the 1890s had largely dissipated by 1900. Most Americans were far more prosperous, and the agricultural sector had done especially well. Farm prices, for example, increased by nearly 50 percent between 1900 and 1910. Despite the short-lived panic of 1907, industrial workers had also benefitted. Unemployment levels had dropped and job opportunities appear to have grown. What then motivated this new generation of stampeders? [8]

Many participants, both in and out of Alaska, were aging veterans of the Klondike rush. Some, like George C. Hazelet, by then a successful businessman living in Cordova, may have seen this stampede as a last grand adventure. [9]

The majority of stampeders probably pursued more tangible objectives. Virtually all of the older Alaska-Yukon gold camps were now in decline. Most were also dominated by large industrial concerns, limiting the options available to individual miners. Although Alaska's gold production peaked in 1909, the day of the solitary prospector was ending. [10] In the Klondike it took outside investors more than ten years to capture control of the area. [11] The Morgan-Guggenheim Syndicate, however, dominated most of the Iditarod district after only two. [12]

Forced out of established diggings, prospectors sought new openings elsewhere. Some must have seen the Chisana area as their final opportunity to make a stake. That perception may also help explain the length of their stay there. All three discoverers and many early stampeders spent the remainder of their lives in the district, eking out small but consistent incomes while continuously searching for that one last strike.

Fig. 1. Alaska. (click on image for a PDF version)

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

Last Updated: 21-Mar-2008