Building in an Ashen Land: Historic Resource Study
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Early Prospecting Activity

RUSSIAN MINING ENGINEER Petr Doroshin made the first exploration of the Katmai country with an eye toward its mineral possibilities. In 1852, he headed westward from Kamishak Bay to Iliamna Lake and on to Bristol Bay. On his return trip, he ascended Naknek River to Naknek Lake and continued on to the "Mishket River" (probably the Ukak River), then returned to the Pacific Coast via Katmai Pass. Hearing of enticing possibilities for coal extraction, he dispatched a party to investigate "Kanikagluk Bay," which was probably either Amalik Bay or Kukak Bay. He was enthusiastic over the results, regarding the deposit as the best in Alaska. (The Russians, by this time, had established Coal Village at the southwestern tip of the nearby Kenai Peninsula, but they had not yet begun to develop the local coal deposit.) Doroshin and other Russians sought coal-development locations in order to supply the new California market. But before he could develop the deposits along the Katmai coast, he explored other coastal areas for their coal potential. By the time he returned to Russia, he had become convinced that the deposits near Coal Village had the most development potential. By 1865, the Russians had found evidence of petroleum near Katmai Bay, but due to a lack of interest it remained undeveloped. [1]

Few prospectors entered the Katmai country in the years following the American purchase of Alaska. The first known prospectors to visit the area crossed over Katmai Pass in 1890, and later that decade a ragtag army of prospectors headed over the same route on their way to the Nome gold fields. But so far as is known, none found "pay dirt" along the way.

The U.S. Geological Survey began surveying the coastline in 1895. William Healy Dall and George Becker were dispatched to search for gold and coal potential; they found no gold, but found two pockets of coal. Near Cape Douglas they found minor coal deposits. Along the shore of Amalik Bay—probably in the same place identified by Doroshin's investigators more than forty years earlier—they found "three seams of a pretty good coal," although "the small dimensions of the seam forbid anticipating any commercial future for it." Ralph Stone, who visited the same stretch of coastline for the agency nine years later, provided much the same conclusions for the Cape Douglas coal seams; he found that "because of their small extent and bony character" they had no commercial value.

In 1902, interest in the area's petroleum potential was raised again when an oil well was drilled near "Cold Bay" (now known as Puale Bay), just south of the present park. The discovery brought a bevy of activity to the area, but the initial well was not successful and by 1906 the area had been practically abandoned. The U.S. Geological Survey, hoping to lend a hand, sent geologist George Martin to survey the area for its petroleum potential. His report regarding the Katmai coastline was glum to an extreme. "The geology of the coast ... between Douglas River and Katmai [village]," he wrote, "does not warrant in the slightest degree any petroleum prospecting."

Prospectors weighting out gold gust in payment for provisions that they purchased from the National Geographic Society's 1917 expedition. UAA, Consortium Library, Archives and Manuscripts Department, National Geographic Society Katmai Expeditions collection, Box 3, 3206.
Halferty's Cabin
Halferty's Cabin with Paul Hagelbarger, member of the National Geographic Society Katmai expedition, in Kuliak Bay, 1919. UAA, Consortium Library, Archives and Manuscripts Department, National Geographic Society Katmai Expeditions collection, Box 6, 5516.

The 1912 eruption in the Mount Katmai area created a thick ash layer over hundreds of square miles of the surrounding landscape. Some mineral resources, therefore, were doubtless lost, but others were created; the USGS's George Martin returned to the Katmai coast during the summer of 1912 and was effusive about the commercial possibilities for the coastal ash deposits. [2]

The eruption affected prospecting activity only slightly; a prospector by the name of Bob Scott reportedly fled the area with the Savonoski residents. [3] Others, however, began trickling into the area soon afterward. Perhaps that same year, Charlie McNeil and Norman B. Cook found copper-bearing veins about 17 miles inland on a stream running into a "southwest bight" of Kamishak Bay. (The stream was probably McNeil River.) Z. T. and C. D. Halferty located seven claims in the Kuliak Bay area in 1913 and 1917. [4] In 1915, Fred and Jack Mason discovered placer gold along a small stream, locally called Lonesome Pine Creek, just south of Cape Kubugakli. Two years later, Robert Griggs discovered that "There are some places where one can gather crystals of sulphur, almost free from impurities, by the bushel." In 1918, Alex Grant found placer gold on American Creek; he made several attempts to work the gravels but failed. [5] The same year, the Geological Survey encountered the Shelikof Mining Company working at its copper prospect near Kukak Bay. Of those discoveries, only the Mason claim, which produced a small amount of gold, tin, and molybdenum over an eight-year period, ever witnessed ore production. [6]

The Monument Proclamation and Its Impacts

In 1916, the National Geographic Society began to lobby various governmental officials to create a national monument in the ash-laden area surrounding Mount Katmai. In order to placate territorial authorities, the officials who roughed out the initial boundaries were careful to exclude known areas with commercial development potential; the southern boundary, in particular, was drawn so as to exclude the Cold Bay (Puale Bay), Cape Kubugakli, and Gas Creek mining properties. The relative lack of activity within the proposed boundaries encouraged park advocates to push for the creation of a monument that prohibited mining. [7] The USGS, which was asked for its opinion regarding the proposed withdrawal, indicated that it would not intercede against it, but neither could it muster much enthusiasm for it. Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, asked to make a final decision, conditionally agreed to the reservation despite the USGS's objections. Lane apparently felt that the land should be withdrawn pending a geological investigation; if that reconnaissance showed high mineral values, all or part of the monument could be returned to the public domain. [8]

In February 1920, Congress decided to open Alaska's public lands to oil prospecting again after a ten-year hiatus, and development interests responded by filing a flurry of oil leases in any areas in which USGS officials had shown petroleum potential. Thus in the Puale Bay area, oil leases blanketed the area to such an extent that some leases stretched all the way north to the monument's southwestern boundary. North of the monument, oil seeps had been discovered on the shoreline of Kamishak Bay; as a result, leases were scattered along the bay's southwestern shore and also went ten miles up the Kamishak River. The flurry of excitement, however, was all for naught. The only successful wells in the Cold Bay field were more than twenty miles southwest of the monument, and no drilling ever took place on the margins of Kamishak Bay. The oil leases were eventually cancelled. [9]

A small mineral development on the west shore of Shelikof Strait was responsible for the first alteration of Katmai's boundaries. In the early 1920s, John J. Folstad began working a coal seam on the western shore of Amalik Bay, opposite Takli Island. (This was probably the location that had been discovered by Becker and Dall in 1895.) In response, Folstad petitioned the government for a permit to develop the site. The NPS, recognizing the value of coal, knew that the petition might well result in pressure to open the entire monument to mining. The agency, therefore, felt it better to remove the area from the monument. On September 5, 1923, President Calvin Coolidge issued Executive Order No. 3897, which excluded 10 acres from the monument. [10]

In 1923, the long-expected Geological Survey expedition finally took place, when both Walter R. Smith and Kirtley F. Mather led survey parties into the Katmai country. Smith's party described and mapped much of the existing monument, and also fanned out to areas as far west as Dumpling Mountain and as far southwest as Becharof Lake. Mather's party surveyed the area to the north. It covered each of the coastal drainages from Paint River south to Cape Douglas, and also headed inland to survey the Savonoski River, Kulik Lake, Battle Lake, and Moraine-Funnel Creek drainages. The geologists found several mineralized areas in their surveys, most notably in the Paint River drainage and the Cold Bay area. The area within the monument, however, was "very little mineralized." Regarding the reputed petroleum deposits near Kamishak Bay, Mather could muster only a tepid enthusiasm. He felt that a search for petroleum was justified "throughout such of the southeastern portion of the Kamishak Bay region," but urged prospective drillers to first exploit the Cold Bay field first, where the geological structures appeared to be more favorable. [11] For the remainder of the decade, no other mining activities took place either inside the monument or in the immediately surrounding area.

In November 1930, Robert F. Griggs spearheaded an effort to extend Katmai National Monument's boundaries to the north and west. In a letter to an Interior Department official, Griggs gave a broad rationale for expanding the park and noted that there were "no minerals of value" except for a worked-out gold placer at Cape Kubugakli. As part of his expansion recommendations, he took care to avoid the oil-bearing tracts which surrounded Puale Bay. [12]

The following January the NPS, in consultation with Griggs and the Interior Department, laid out the boundaries of the proposed monument expansion. The Geological Survey, when asked its opinion of the area's economic geology, offered a dim view of the area's suitability as a park. The agency, advocating for known or suspected mineral locations, gave an optimistic analysis of the area's petroleum and gold potential. In addition, it noted that:

Regarding the area north of the present monument in the Kamishak Bay region, [geologist Kirtley F.] Mather reports a number of metallic mineral deposits in those places where igneous activity not related to recent volcanism has been intense. Conditions analogous to those described by him probably also occur in parts of the unsurveyed regions west and southwest of Cape Douglas, which is included within the boundaries of the enlarged monument. [13]

The Service, in response, offered to pare the size of its proposed expansion, and the final boundary line that was signed in President Hoover's April 1931 proclamation was a painful compromise between the NPS and the USGS. [14] A tacit effect of the expansion was its reincorporation of the 10-acre parcel that had been removed from the monument in 1923. (Folstad had long since lost interest in his coal claim.)

During the 1930s, as noted in Chapter 8, a small but stubborn group of trappers resided in various parts of the monument. Some prospectors doubtless also entered the monument, and a few of the trappers also prospected from time to time. As a result, three mining sites were located on the margins of the monument. Roy Fure and Martin Mickelson, both of Naknek, found a cinnabar vein in 1934 while traveling up Gorge Creek. Mickelson retorted about 200 pounds of the Gorge Creek vein but found that the mercury it contained was not of sufficient value to develop further. Fure, who continued to prospect in the area, found several more deposits just north of the original find. [15] In 1938, along American Creek, Bill Hammersly found additional placer gold deposits in the same general area where Alex Grant had prospected twenty years earlier. Hammersly continued to work the stream gravels each summer until 1941, by which time he had located eighteen placer claims that stretched one to two miles upstream from the monument boundary. He found extensive bench gold deposits; its quantity, however, was insufficient to sustain extended operations. The only other reported gold deposits were located along the shores of Lake Brooks. These deposits, located inside the boundaries of the monument—and thus extracted illegally—were apparently discovered in the late 1930s or early 1940s. Only small amounts were ever found. [16]

The situation was much the same along Shelikof Strait. As noted in other chapters, those who were attracted to the area were either trappers, fishermen or fox farmers. Once there, however, they sought whatever means they could to scratch out a living. On the north shore of Takli Island, W. E. Baumann located several placer claims beginning in 1931. There is no evidence, however, that either he or others in the area found anything of economic significance. [17]

In 1941, J. C. Roehm, an investigator from the Territorial Bureau of Mines, visited the Naknek Lake region and investigated the mining possibilities for various area properties. Roehm visited the American Creek claims and attempted but failed to visit those along Gorge Creek. [18]

Pumice Extraction

The Katmai area, in all likelihood, would have had little mineral extraction activity had demand been limited to hard rock minerals. What Katmai had in abundance was siliceous volcanic ash, otherwise known as pumicite. The 1912 eruption had extruded over five cubic miles of the material, enough to cover a 3,000-square-mile area a foot deep. [19] The ash, at that time, had no commercial value, and almost no one felt slighted when the 1918 proclamation placed most of the ash deposits within the monument's boundaries.

The value of pumicite, however, began to increase during World War II. Both the army and navy needed base materials in the construction of roads and airfields, and military personnel found pumicite superior to sand and gravel. After the war, Alaska faced an unprecedented demand for materials in the building construction industry, and various private sector interests recognized that pumicite might fulfill those needs. One Anchorage-based company began to extract ash deposits from Augustine Island, but it was soon discovered that the ash was an inferior material for the products they were producing. Casting about for an alternative, they visited Takli Island (within Katmai National Monument), took samples, and found them to be well suited to their needs. [20]

Pumice developers knew that Takli Island was located in Katmai National Monument and was thus off-limits to mining, but they hoped that the region's need for building materials might allow a legislative solution. So, beginning in April 1947, they began what proved to be a long-running campaign to allow pumice development. The campaign eventually involved the NPS Director, the Secretary of the Interior, and even the Attorney General's office. By the time it ended in April 1954, the pumice developers had been granted the legal right to extract pumice from the shore of Geographic Harbor, but by that time, the market had changed and pumice was no longer a sought-after material. [21]

Despite the Herculean efforts made by both developers and legislators to tap into Katmai's pumicite deposits, few on-the-ground impacts ever resulted. Takli Island was the site of a small operation during 1947, and Geographic Harbor witnessed some activity in 1950 and 1951. The latter operation, which took place along the west shore of the upper harbor, was never very sophisticated; major on-site equipment consisted of a barge, a Caterpillar, a duck (a large, amphibious truck) and a shack on skids. The shack remained for years afterward, but by 1985 all that remained was a large pumice berm, two four-foot pilings, and a few scraps of metal. [22]

Recent Mineral Development

In addition to the push to develop the monument's volcanic ash deposits, some hard rock extraction efforts were taking place as well. On November 14, 1948, pilot Bill Smith flew Charlie "Red" Robinson, trapper Jim Marlette, and a planeload of supplies to the eastern end of Lake Grosvenor. The location of the ore body, which supposedly held "rock mineral of high value content," is not known; it may have been the cinnabar deposits along Gorge Creek. Their entry into the area, however, was not discovered until the following April. Carlos Carson, the Dillingham-based fish and wildlife agent and deputy NPS park ranger, suspected that their entry was illegal and deduced that their mining activities were as well. Armed with a stack of regulations, Carson may have asked the miners to cease their operations, or perhaps the miners gave up on their own. [23]

Scattered amounts of other mining activity surfaced during the postwar years. In 1947, George Hadden occupied a cabin on the north shore of Takli Island; he was probably prospecting the same claims that W. E. Baumann had located back in 1931. (Takli Island had been absorbed into the monument in 1942. Mining claims made before that date, however, could still be developed.) [24] Marlette continued to prospect as well as trap, and had another camp along the Kulik River, north of the existing monument. His cabin was later eliminated by Northern Consolidated Airlines personnel, who had established a fishing camp on the river's north side, just west of Kulik Lake, in 1950. [25]

In 1954, the U.S. Geological Survey assigned A. Samuel Keller and Hillard N. Reiser to make a new investigation of the monument's geology and mineralogical potential. Their study also included a broad surrounding area, including Becharof Lake, Kulik and Nonvianuk lakes, the Kamishak River drainage, and the upper King Salmon River drainage. Keller and Reiser, who were primarily interested in the area's oil and gas deposits, gained the data for their study primarily by examining aerial photography and perusing existing reports, not by extensive field investigation. [26] To those who wanted to mine or drill, their conclusions were not encouraging. They were able to locate three broad bodies of coal-bearing rocks—west of Cape Nukshak, south of Geographic Harbor, and north of Dakavak Lake—but downplayed the monument's coal mining potential. In a similar vein, they described the location of several known or purported oil and gas seeps, but concluded that "it is unlikely that favorable petroleum strata can be reached at practical drilling depths on most of the structures that could be drilled." [27]

Another 1954 report dealt more specifically with the monument's hard rock mineral potential. G. Donald Eberlein, a mineral deposits geologist with the USGS, noted that the most promising mineral find was the gold deposit near Cape Kubugakli. Beyond that, however, Eberlein was pessimistic. He concluded that "we cannot rule out the possibility of ultimately finding additional deposits in the Monument ... although the likelihood that such deposits occur is not very great." [28]

When NPS officials, in the early 1970s, began to consider the expansion of Katmai National Monument and its conversion into a national park, they had to incorporate into their plans the proposed area's mineral values. Prior to August 1971, four copper and gold claims had been located along the south shore of Kulik Lake and six others were clustered in the upper Strike Creek drainage. A site containing an unknown mineral was also located in the upper Douglas River drainage, but no claim had been made there. In one of the NPS's three proposed "areas of environmental concern," there was also a series of unpatented lode claims, known collectively as the Pfaff claim, which were located on 1800 acres of land northeast of Battle Lake. None of the four mineral areas within the proposed park were patented. [29] In addition to the mineral claims, the proposed park addition contained 224 current oil and gas leases and one current oil and gas lease application, all located north of the existing monument. Based on the information in Keller and Reiser's study, however, the NPS felt that it was "unlikely that practical drilling operations in many areas will be able to reach structural and stratigraphic traps that have the potential for containing oil." [30]

When asked for their comments, in April 1974, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Bureau of Mines did not like the idea of an expanded Katmai National Park. The two agencies again noted the "high grade" deposits near Kulik Lake and Battle Lake, the high geothermal properties of the area, and continued to stress the high (though unproven) mineral potential of various geological structures in the area. But NPS officials were unmoved by such arguments, and the Final Environmental Statement continued to nominate for park status each of the known mineral potential areas that had been proposed in the draft document. [31]

In addition to those who responded with written comments, Ernest Pfaff spoke directly to NPS officials of the need to keep a portion of the proposed northern addition open to mining. Pfaff, a Naknek prospector who also held claims northeast of Battle Lake, told NPS staff that he had been prospecting in the area, particularly in the Kulik Lake drainage, since 1950. He had found five or six mineral deposits in the drainage during that time, but had recorded none of them. In the fall of 1972, he located what appeared to be a paying prospect north of the upper end of Kulik Lake, but because of the land freeze, he was unable to stake a claim. [32]

Soon after the Katmai enlargement, NPS personnel tried to ascertain the number of mining claims in the newly-expanded area. Their search revealed a total of eight claims—four lode and four placer—in three claim groups. They included four placer claims in the Sugarloaf Association group, the Dog #5 lode claim, and three lode claims which comprised the Pfaff claim group. None of the unpatented claims had records of previous mineral production. The Bureau of Land Management investigated these claims and found that the claimants to the Sugarloaf Association and Dog #5 claims had no legal rights to their properties, and by the end of May 1983 the agency had declared both claims null and void.

The Pfaff claim, therefore, was Katmai's only active mining claim group. Ernest Pfaff had discovered the lode, located four miles east of Battle Lake camp, in 1964. The mineralized vein, which straddles the border of the park and preserve, consisted primarily of gold- and chalcopyrite-bearing quartz, and also contained malachite, pyrite, and an unidentified silver-sulphosalt mineral. An undetermined about of ore was shipped during the next several years. [33] By July 1984, Pfaff had apparently abandoned his interest in the property, so he transferred his interest in the claim to Hawley Resource Properties, owned by Charles Hawley. The new claimant, however, made no further moves to develop its claim. In 1988, the claimant let its interest in the claim lapse, and on May 5, 1989, the Bureau of Land Management declared the claim null and void. [34]

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Last Updated: 22-Oct-2002