Rust. Oxidation. Nature’s way of breaking down man-made materials into their most basic elements.
If you’ve hiked in our state’s backcountry for any length of time, you’ve probably found the ruins; decaying remnants from the past century, artifacts from what was once Alaska’s golden age of independent mining.
It was a time when thousands of stolid souls, fiercely driven by a fever of optimism, put everything on the line for a chance at their own “El Dorado,” their strike, their dream of riches.
Whether in the gold-rich tributaries of the Klondike, the beaches of Nome, high in the quartz-veined ridges of Hatcher Pass, or in the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula and Southeast Alaska, these impetuous fortune seekers came from many locations and stations in life. But they had one thing in common.
They were tough.
And as written in the Echo in past months, my father, Kenneth D. Baker, was one of them. He wasn’t nearly as successful as Robert Hatcher, who in 1906, made a big gold strike in what is now called Hatcher Pass. But in 1947, my father and his partner came upon a modest discovery on the north fork of Spruce Creek to the west of Seward. And “Bob” Hatcher was among several veteran miners who encouraged them.
A passage from one of my dad’s poems:
“There’s gold on Spruce Creek,” assured old Tom,
“I’ve seen it in the pan;
And I’d be out there tracking it down
If I were a younger man.”
“There’s gold on the Spruce,” said Hatcher Bob,
“Somewhere back in there’s a load.”
And they were pros, Hatcher and Tom
With many years on the road.
My own discovery: As reported in my series, it was a profoundly moving moment on the afternoon of Sept. 4, 1998, when I finally found my father’s mine site from back in the late 1940s.
But after a lifetime of tromping around in Alaska’s mountains and valleys, I’ve made what I believe to be an even more important discovery: It has to do with understanding the spirit and grit of those fortune seekers from a century ago. They were more than tough.
One can peruse books and archives about the hardships early miners faced, how their struggles often didn’t “pan out,” as the expression goes. But when you walk in their footsteps amidst the rubble of their work, either high on a mountainside or deep in a remote valley, you begin to feel it— the lengths they had gone to— how they were hanging out there on the edge.
Another passage from my father’s poem “The Conifered Heights:”
“Way out there in the nowhere,
You sweated and played at chance;
Way out there you lost your shirt,
Wore out your last pair of pants.”
In southcentral Alaska, I’ve explored the ruins of the Swetmann Mine at the head of Palmer Creek Valley near Hope. I’ve climbed high in the Talkeetna Mountains of Hatcher Pass to view the Independence, Bullion, War Baby, and Lucky Shot mines; which were among the largest gold producers in Alaska. And I’ve also hiked around some of the smaller claims. These include Kenai Peninsula mines in Summit Pass, Hope, Sunrise and those operated by Charlie Hubbard near Kenai Lake.
Hubbard was a friend of my father and one of the Kenai’s most prolific miners. After successes at Kennecott in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Hubbard was said to have rubbed elbows with Wyatt Earp in Nome during its gold rush. The ruins of one of Hubbard’s old mining cabins on the Kenai Peninsula can still be seen along the Lost Lake Trail from Primrose, accessed from Mile 18 of the Seward Highway.
Difficult logistics: In the early 1900s, getting heavy mining equipment to remote sites in steep terrain was by mule, or horse and wagon.
Given the distance from civilization, supporting mining crews with food and other provisions was a daunting task. For example, beginning in the early 1900s, support for the Swetmann Mine, Hirshey and nearby Coeur De Alene mines in Palmer Creek Valley (near Resurrection Valley) came from the then newly established communities of Sunrise, more than 20 miles away and later, Hope, roughly 13 miles away.
In contrast to the lower 48 states, where archaeologists have found evidence that the first humans into remote regions were Indians, miners were often the first to blaze trails deep in the backcountry of southcentral Alaska.
Today, old mining roads and trails offer hunters and adventurers access to areas that would otherwise be quite difficult to reach. The road north of Palmer to Independence Mine in Hatcher Pass, a popular recreation area, is a prime example. Year-round, the area has become a popular recreational haven.
Mining will continue to play an important role in Alaska’s future.
Here in the southcentral part of the state, there are still active mines in Crow Pass, Hatcher Pass and on the Kenai Peninsula. But the heyday of the independent prospector has long since passed. Today, we only have a few rusting relics to remind us of those heady days a century ago, when the dreams of fortune seekers reached beyond the distant horizons.
(Ed. Note: For a comprehensive history of Kenai Peninsula mining, refer to A History of Mining on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska by Mary J. Barry.)