When people think of Alaska’s golden past, the stampede to the Klondike and Nome usually come to mind.
But even before George Carmack discovered gold on a tributary of the Yukon River or the Three Lucky Swedes found fortunes on Anvil Creek, the Cook Inlet area was abuzz with prospectors. The yellow stuff that fires one’s dreams can still be found nearby today.
The first reported discovery of gold in what was to become Alaska was around 1850 by Russian trapper Petr Doroshin. The small nuggets he found were enough to be noted by his employer, the Russian-American Company, but not enough to cause excitement. Had it been, later discoveries might have changed history because the Czar would have received far more than the $7.2 million he got from the United States in exchange for “Seward’s Icebox.”
After the 1867 purchase of Alaska, American adventurers took an interest in exploring the new land to the north. Some of them followed Capt. James Cook’s exploration of what the Englishman thought might be a connection to the Northwest Passage. His Majesty’s ships “Resolution” and “Discovery” entered the estuary at the northwestern corner of the Gulf of Alaska on May 25, 1778, two years after the United States declared its independence from the British royal realm.
In the 1890s, while prospectors were venturing along the length of the Yukon River, others were checking the Turnagain Arm tributaries. Small placer discoveries were made in Mills, Canyon, Resurrection, Bird, Crow and Sixmile creeks. Vein outcroppings were also discovered on mountainsides above those areas, including on the south bank of Eagle River.
According to the Hope and Sunrise Historical Society, 8,000 prospectors were tromping through the area, seeking their fortunes. Ten percent of them were centered around Sunrise City, located on Sixmile Creek. There were three trading posts, an equal number of saloons, a post office, a hotel and a restaurant. As district headquarters, Sunrise had a U.S. commissioner and a deputy marshal. The town is believed to have gotten its name from the fact that the sun rose three times daily from behind mountain peaks, rising and sliding out of sight before rising twice again.
Hope, located on Resurrection Creek, had two trading posts, two saloons, a pool hall, a hotel, a post office and a deputy recorder’s office. It also boasted a brewery, a sawmill and a school. The two camps were about eight miles apart. Hope is 16.5 miles past today’s Seward Highway cutoff and about 100 miles from Eagle River.
A number of old mine sites are located in the Hope-Sunrise area and a museum at Hope is open to the public. Friendly and knowledgeable people are on hand to explain the exhibits and share stories of the town’s colorful past. Many century-old buildings and artifacts are located there and can be visited to hear recordings explaining what is inside.
More than a million dollars’ worth of gold was produced in the Hope-Sunrise area during the 10 years after 1895. With the price then around $16 an ounce, it would come to more than $78 million today.
Information on the Bird Creek mines on the northern shore of the Inlet is limited, although A. W. “Jack” Morgan discusses the area in his autobiography, “Memories of Old Sunshine.” Morgan tells of sailing across Turnagain Arm to Bird Creek in 1898. He saw several claims being worked and was told there was open ground above, so he and his two partners explored farther upstream. They found colors in each pan of gravel they washed, but decided the ground was not rich enough to pay wages. There were several claims staked along the stream, but not being worked at the time, he noted.
Morgan was impressed more than the gold showing by what he called trout in the stream. He recalled straightening a safety pin, cutting a snip from a companion’s red flannel underwear, using some twine for a line, cutting a sapling for a pole and casting a line into the water. The fish one after another eagerly took the “bait” and in no time he and his companions retrieved 24 fish measuring 14 to 16 inches each. “They were fat and tasty,” he wrote. “I don’t know what kind they were. I never saw any more like them while I was up there.”
While the Hope-Sunrise district was productive, even more gold was taken from creeks at the upper end of the Inlet. Crow Creek Mine employed a large number of men and was the biggest producer of gold in the area originally known as Glacier City but now named Girdwood.
According to Morgan, Crow Creek Consolidated Mining Company was formed Jan. 1, 1898, by Ralph Oldham, Dante Barton, Charles J. Brooks, Thomas “Fritz” Fenstermacher and others, including a man named Jack, one named Buckley and another, Chris. Morgan had an unfavorable opinion of the abilities of the group, feeling they were unsuited to mining, but their company operated successfully, nevertheless. In 1898 an estimated 40,000 to 45,000 ounces of gold were extracted.
“Chris and Buckley were the only ones who could do a real day’s work,” Morgan wrote.
A respected miner who worked claims on Lynx Creek, Morgan said he was sent to serve legal papers on the Crow Creek owners and identified a “Mr. Code” as being in charge of the operation. The mine later was owned by a succession of groups over the next two decades. During the period 1979-1984 production was reported as 400 ounces. The largest nugget found there reportedly weighed 4.5 ounces, worth about $5,625 at today’s price.
The mine was acquired from Arne Erickson by Barney and Cynthia Toohey in the 1960s. They successfully applied to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1967. Erickson (not related to Gold Rush miner John T. Erickson, the grandfather of this writer’s bride and a Swede) was born in Bergen, Norway, in 1887. He came to the U.S. in 1909, then went to Fairbanks to look for gold. He mined in Iditarod and Flat. In the winter of 1920-21, he drove a dog team along the Iditarod Trail from Flat to the bustling young city at Anchorage. He was hired by owner Paul Denkert to supervise operations at the Crow Creek Mine in 1922. A few years later he joined in a partnership with John E. Holmgren and in 1933 became the sole owner.
The mine was shut down during World War II but reopened in 1967 in connection with the Alaska Purchase Centennial. It was seen as an attraction for tourists visiting the Girdwood area. Erickson estimated that 10,000 people visited the site that season. He guessed that those who panned gravel samples from the creek took almost a hundred ounces of gold dust home.
Crow Creek Mine continues to operate today, catering to people wanting to view an actual working placer mine and remnants of the past. Its income now is mostly derived from tourists. The mine property has several buildings and artifacts from its early days and sits in a well-cared-for site off the Girdwood access road. Tours are available and people are able to try their hand at panning for gold, with instructions and demonstrations from a guide.
The Toohey family still operates the facility which is open daily during the summer season. They offer a salmon bake and entertainment on Monday evenings. A variety of gold-panning experiences are available and those who want to give gold mining a try for real can rent a sluice box, shovels and pans and even camp out overnight. There’s a chance they might find enough of the yellow stuff to recover the cost of their trip.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com.