Mineral mining was of paramount importance in Alaska's history. The timing of discoveries and the shift in locations were not the result of orderly planning but neither were they entirely accidental or spontaneous. A flow of mining development courses through northern history. Although the primary focus of this study is on mining history within present park regions, it is best understood in the context of the northern scene as a whole. Each event from the 1880s influenced others in turn. The movements of individuals, the advances of technology, and the considerations of transportation and marketing should not be viewed in isolation.
High points in mining history are represented by sensational discoveries that precipitated stampedes. Following an initial small rush by the Stikine River in 1862-63, American miners were drawn north in large numbers for the first time in 1871 because of a gold strike in Cassiar, northern British Columbia. Nine years later, they established their first Alaska base at Sitka, then at Juneau when gold was discovered there. Next, in 1886, the prospectors who had been patiently searching the interior since the mid-1870s struck it rich at Fortymile. Ten years later in 1896, the lid blew off with one of the most sensational mineral discoveries of all timethe Klondike gold fields.
Sometimes the interest in the Klondike overshadows later events too much. For Alaska, the Klondike provided a major push towards the discovery and development of bonanzas within the American borders. In a certain sense, the Klondike was almost a beginning for Alaska. With a huge influx of prospectors in 1897-98 it was inevitable that any rich Alaska deposits would be revealed. So in 1899, Nome became the "American Klondike," and in 1902-1903 other prospectors found the gold of Fairbanks and the Tanana Valley.
From the founding of Fairbanks flowed discoveries at Kantishna, Yentna, Ruby, Iditarod, Marshall, Chisana, Livengood, and others. Over those same years, the copper prospects discovered by 1898 prospectors out of Valdez were developed. Production at the great Kennicott copper mines began in 1911 and ore was hauled to port over a railroad built for the purpose until the mine closed in 1938.
The ebb and flow of mining affected other territorial developments. Old mines were worked out and when new discoveries became rare, operators dredged over all diggings to create a long-lasting, prosperous industry in the interior. The placer mining industry gained considerable stability when the United States Refining and Mining Company consolidated claims and began extensive operations in 1925. Until 1965 the company's dredges were busy most seasons near Fairbanks, Nome, Hotntzen, and Chicken.
In time, World War II and postwar high costs slowed mining to a near standstill. But with the freeing of gold prices, interest has revived since the 1970s. Another recent development, environmental concern, now prohibits traditional placer mining methods and has severely affected mining's future in the parks and elsewhere.
Gold, copper, silver, mercury, tin, and platinum have been the most important metals. The gold placers of Fairbanks and Nome regions were the most productive in Alaska. Juneau and its environs produced 75 percent of Alaska's lode gold production of nine million ounces. Prince William Sound and the Copper River region produced 97 percent of Alaska's total copper production of 690,000 tons. Almost 86 percent of the copper came from the Kennecott mines which also accounted for nearly one-half of Alaska's total silver production of 20 million ounces. Mercury has come from the Kuskokwim River; tin from the Seward Peninsula; and platinum from Goodnews Bay.
The development of so-called strategic minerals: platinum, antimony, tungsten, tin, mercury, and chromium should also be noted. Mining of these metals was significant even though development has been intermittent and confined to periods of international shortages. Each development caused great interest on its occurrence, particularly the platinum discovery at Goodnews Bay. For a time Goodnews Bay was the nation's largest producer of platinum metals.
From the arrival of the first prospectors a particular lifestyle developed throughout many parts of Alaska. Prospectors appeared wherever there were mineral prospects, even in the most isolated portions of today's parklands. Many built log homes from which they trapped in the winter and prospected or mined in the summer. The big mining centers of Nome and Fairbanks became well-established, but the far flung prospecting and mining had significance for many localities where few people ventured. Early on Alaskans started using the term "Outside" to describe the states and other places. Inside and Outside are terms that still have meaning for Alaskans and have been used in this text.
Last Updated: 01-Oct-2008