Significance of Mining in Alaska's Past
Showing the value of Alaska's mineral resources to the nation used to be a popular political tool for Alaskans. James Wickersham and other Alaska representatives to Congress loved to compare the modest purchase price of the territory and the total government's expenditures on improvements to the value of Alaska's product. With gold, salmon, and other products, Wickersham figured in 1932 that Alaska had contributed $2.5 billion more to the nation than the government had spent in the territory. Philip Smith of the USGS calculated that by the end of 1936, the total value of all minerals produced in the territory was $720,000,000 "or one hundred times the purchase price of the Territory." In January 1941 the Seattle Post-Intelligencer crowed about Alaska's record gold production of $25,375,000 in 1940. The editor reminded readers that Alaska's total gold production mounted to $561 million, "a wonderful return on an investment of the $7.2 million purchase price." 
Many general claims made by the Seattle editor were true enough: "The Yukon and Alaska discoveries of the Klondike era strikingly altered worldwide financial conditions, completely changed the trend of monetary theory over a large part of the United Statesand incidentally made Seattle as a modern city."  Pacific coast cities had prospered at least partly because of the gold rush, particularly Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Victoria, Vancouver, and San Francisco. Seattle gained most because the business community established the port as the best outfitting, shipping, and trading center for the North. Merchants, whose total pre-Klondike sale of goods was some $300,000, were selling $10 million worth in 1899.
The nation as a whole benefitted as well. Economic depression, which had dogged the 1890s, gave way to much better times with the gold boom.
Altering worldwide financial conditions was less important from a national and regional standpoint than was the impact of gold production on Alaska's development. Great wealth was produced in a region that had formerly produced little. The wealth was bountiful, widely distributed throughout the territory, and capable of supporting communities for decades.
An assessment of the importance of mining cannot be measured solely in terms of production. Alaska's development owes more to mining than perhaps any other region in America. But for gold discoveries on the Yukon and Seward Peninsula, the interior might have remained a scarcely known, sparsely populated region into the present. Thanks to the Klondike and Nome gold strikes the population of Alaska doubled between 1890 and 1900 to reach 63,592 persons. The native population remained stable at some 30,000, so the gold rushes were responsible for bringing in some 30,000 new residents.
Gold excitement helped to interest and educate the nation to the value of Alaska. It fostered progress in exploration, transportation, land administration, and law-making by government; and it greatly increased capital investment by private individuals. The general movement of the American population from east to west was stimulated by related economic activity in Pacific Coast cities.
The mining industry greatly influenced and largely directed the course of Alaska's development. By 1912 the total gold output exceeded $225.5 million. Copper production had been only $16 million by that early date, but Kennecott's operation had scarcely begun. In addition to the great wealth of gold and copper produced, there had also been more than $2 million in silver. It was significant in fostering development that the mineral production had been so widely dispersed from Juneau, Unga Island, Kenai, Prince William Sound, Seward Peninsula, and the subarctic and arctic interior. It was also important that the several major discoveries occurred over a number of years, thus allowing a more orderly development of transportation and other support services.
Exaggeration of mining's effects on development would be difficult. In several regions the first permanent communities were established as a direct result of mineral discovery. Tens of thousands of people first settled in Alaska because of the mineral discoveries and at times up to 60 percent of the population was supported directly or indirectly by mining activities. From 1885 to 1964 gold production totaled $750 million.
The peak year of Alaska's gold production was 1906, when the territory ranked second to Colorado in output. Overall, for production in this century, Alaska ranks fifth after California, Colorado, Nevada, and South Dakota. These states are generally referred to as "the big 5" and account for 80 percent of gold mined in the United States. Among the nation's individual mining districts, Alaska's leadersFairbanks, Juneau, and Nome, rank seventh, eighth, and 13th nationally. Fairbanks leads all placer districts, however, with a production of 7.2 million ounces. Nome's output totaled 3.5 million ounces. By comparison, Canada's Klondike district leads all those in North America with 11 million ounces. 
Alaska's contribution to the nation's total gold production has been substantial too. In 1908 Alaska's share was 8.8 percent rising to 16.9 in 1910, 16.7 in 1915, 17.1 in 1920, and peaking at 20.1 in 1933. From that time the decline was sharp, yet remained about 10 percent in the early 1960s. 
It was not until 1938 that commercial fishing superseded gold as the most valuable export from Alaska, but mining continued to be significant for several more years.
Mining supported nearly 40 percent of the territory's white populationan estimated 15,400 peopleuntil World War II. Some 600 natives also depended upon mining as did most white families in the interior. Some statistics of the governor's office for 1940 follow:
Other employment statistics for the 1900-1940 period show the rapid increase of population and employed miners from 1900 to 1910. Alaska's population decline in 1920 and 1930 was not reflected in numbers of miners employed.
Alaska Mining Employment, 1900-1930 
How Much Gold?
Production figures to 1979 for the many camps provide a sense of how widespread gold mining was and the disparity between great fields like Fairbanks and Nome and lesser ones.
Production for the following districts was reported with that of larger districts:
Production during the last decade is not reflected in the figures listed above, which break down the production by districts, but current total figures are available. From 1880 to 1988 Alaska produced 31,966,112 ounces of gold and 20,017,685 ounces of silver from lode and placer sources.
Any gain to individuals, communities, or the nation must be considered a significant value and be worth inclusion in an assessment of mining history. The perceived value of the experience in character building upon participants has been discussed (see Chapter 5). Though such intangibles are impossible to measure, it does relate to a well-known overall interpretation of the frontier experience. The Turner thesis, a contribution to American thought made by the 19th century historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, holds a number of elements. Of application here is Turner's view that Americans' westwarding tendencies stamped the national character with qualities of initiative, resourcefulness, courage, and other virtues. In substance, Americans became better people because they forced themselves out of settled molds into novel and unsettled conditions on the frontier.
Whether derived from Turner or not the same theory has been presented by Alfred H. Brooks, chief of the USGS in Alaska. Brooks, whose fieldwork dated from the Klondike era, liked to generalize about 50,000 stampeders to Alaska. They were "thrown entirely" on their own resources, Brooks argued.
Brooks may have overstated his case, but his position has some validity.
The attitudes of miners to the government reflect a negative cultural heritage. Miners long resisted the fact that investing in mining was a risky venture for both private capital and the government. Territorial mineral resources could not be exploited profitably unless transportation difficulties were reduced and the quantity of placer or ore was great enough to justify expenditures on equipment and other costs. Investors had to make the same calculations on a mining investment anywhere, of course, but particular considerations of distance, costs, length of working season, and other matters were required in Alaska.
Similarly, the government had to balance the demands of Alaskans for improvements against other national needs and in terms of long-range gains to the territory. But Alaskans also had a difficult time in assessing government's efforts in fostering mining and other development. Rather early in territorial history the tradition of blaming the government for everything but the weather became established. As mining opened up the country, it somehow seemed reasonable to praise the initiative and other fine qualities of involved individuals and to censure the government when conditions went sour. Government officials, on the other hand, thought that they deserved some credit for Alaska's progress.
This peculiar tendency of Alaskans was a familiar attitude on other western frontiers as well. Home-rule measures, including territorial representatives in Washington, elected officials, and a legislature were long in coming to Alaska so the "colonial" attitude persisted longer than elsewhere. Even when some elements of home rule were established, the critical attitude of Alaskans towards the national government persisted strongly until statehood. After statehood, Alaskans had control of many matters, but Uncle Sam remained the major landowner so the occasions for complaining did not vanish entirely.
Cultural influences expressed in mining literature and legend have been treated elsewhere (see Chapters 5 and 6), but some general characteristics are worth noting. Few Alaskans today have anything directly to do with mining, but a general understanding of methods and historic activities forms part of the popular culture. Alaskans commonly use mining terminology and metaphor. This was even truer in earlier decades, of course, particularly in areas where mining was common. Even with the decline of mining in recent times, interest in historic activity has flourished.
The efforts of state, federal, and private landholders to preserve remnants of mining industry have been valuable. The state park preservation of Independence Mine at Hatcher Pass; the National Park Service's care at Skagway and along the Chilkoot Trail; and the restoration of buildings in the old mining camp at Crow Creek near Alyeska are examples.
Still another explanation of the modern public's ease of identification with the mining tradition is in its relationship to other activities. Alaska's hunters, trappers, dog mushers, and hikers have a certain respect for those early miners. It required travel skills and a spirit of adaptation that is generally admired by Alaskans who have a particular sensitivity to their natural environment.
Emphasizing the great significance of mining in Alaska's economic history is easier than predicting what might occur in the future. The "boom or bust" cycle of Alaska's economy has been prominent throughout territorial and statehood history. The ups and downs of mining have contributed to this characteristic cycle. Whether those who in recent years have forecast the end of Alaska's metal mining have read the future accurately cannot be known. Interestingly enough, the latest statistics of 1988 show gold production of 265,500 ouncesa 16 percent increase over 1987. 
Many observers of the industry argue that other contemporary trends point to a gloomy future. The number of mines has fallen sharply over the last five years. Most of the production increase can be traced to the mines at Valdez Creek and Bima's work off Nome. Many placer miners have relocated in the Yukon Territory, where the government's policies favor mining and where support efforts far exceed any that Alaska miners have ever received.
Notes: Chapter 18
Last Updated: 01-Oct-2008