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Teacher's Guide

Regional History
Southcentral Alaska

In this section you will learn about:

  • Railroad development
  • Copper discoveries
  • Conservation issues
  • National forest establishment
  • Talkeetna Mountains gold discoveries

Ballaine plans a railroad

During the summer of 1900, Seattle real-estate developer and journalist John E. Ballaine began studying ways to construct a railroad over an all-American route to Interior Alaska. In 1902 Ballaine had a survey made of the mineral, timber, and farming potential of the Kenai Peninsula, and Susitna and Nenana river valleys. Based on the enthusiastic reports, Ballaine decided on a route from Resurrection Bay north to the Susitna River then to the Tanana River.

Chief Nicolai reveals hidden copper

At the same time Ballaine was thinking about his railroad to the Interior's gold, a discovery sparked interest in a different mineral. Rival railroad builders hoped to exploit Southcentral Alaska's copper deposits.

Prospectors staked copper claims in the Copper River basin in 1899. In that year Allen's friend, Chief Nicolai, led prospectors to his own copper deposits. It had been a hard year. Nicolai and his people were suffering from hunger. Nicolai gave directions far reaching his copper in return for the prospectors' cache of food, but the richest claims in the region were still to be discovered.

In the summer of 1900 Clarence Warner and Tarantula Jack" Smith were prospecting about 60 miles east of what today is the town of Chitina. On a sunny July day the two men stopped to rest and eat lunch. They noticed a bright green patch high on the mountain above them and climbed up for a closer look. To their surprise they found an outcropping of high-grade copper ore. The copper deposit proved to be one of the richest ever discovered.

The copper strikes gave rival railroad builders a new reason to push for a route to Interior Alaska that went up the Copper River instead of up the Susitna River.

Alaska Syndicate chooses Valdez

Coastal towns in Southcentral Alaska vied to become the seaport from where the railroad to the Interior would drive inland. In 1903 the Valdez Chamber of Commerce proclaimed there was no doubt a railroad would be built from Valdez, although other locations were being considered.

In 1905 mining engineer Stephen Birch persuaded wealthy East Coast financiers, among them J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheim brothers, to organize the Alaska syndicate. The syndicate proposed to build a railroad to the Kennecott Copper Company claims. Birch and his friends also operated the biggest shipping firm in the north, the Alaska Steamship Company, and had large holdings in Alaska canneries, gold mines, and gold dredges. Just as the Valdez Chamber of Commerce had predicted, the syndicate chose Valdez for the railroad terminus.

Before any rails were laid from Valdez, another line was started from Cordova. The builder was Michael J. Heney, construction supervisor of the successful White Pass and Yukon Railway in Southeast Alaska. Heney quickly pushed his railroad up the Copper River. His project was short-lived, however. The Alaska Syndicate bought out Heney and his backers in 1906.

The syndicate changed their plan. Valdez was not to be the railroad center after all. Katalla, nearer to coal deposits, was now considered the wisest choice. Then a series of violent storms destroyed Katalla's dock and breakwater, along with most of the town.

Coal is the key

Either the Susitna or Copper river routes could carry freight and passengers to Interior Alaska. Both, however, needed coal to power the engines. Coal would also fuel copper smelters that would process Alaska ore.

Coal was available in plentiful supply close to both routes. Immense deposits of coal had been discovered near tidewater to the east of Prince William Sound. Ballaine's railroad could make use of coal deposits in the Matanuska Valley, near the SusitnaRiver.

Roosevelt closes Alaska coal fields

Just as several proposals to build railroads neared reality, the president, Theodore Roosevelt, closed the Alaska coal fields to further entry. The 1906 action was part of a conservation movement led by the president and supported by Gifford Pinchot, chief of the new national forest system. Roosevelt wanted the nation to conserve natural resources for the benefit of all citizens. He feared that Alaska's coal resources would be used to benefit only a few corporations.

When Roosevelt closed the Alaska coal lands to development, almost a thousand claims had been filed in the Bering River coal fields near Katalla. The closure was the subject of much debate and criticism. Some skeptics said that eastern coal interests had engineered the closure because they wanted to prevent competition from Alaska coal. Other critics blamed Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Division of Forestry, because the forest reserve withdrawals that were proposed in Southcentral Alaska included coal deposits.

When Pinchot arrived in Alaska in 1911 to investigate the Bering River coal fields, bitter Katalla residents tacked welcome signs on the now-empty buildings. The signs read "Closed-Result of Conservation."

Rails end at Kern Creek

Although government conservation measures were blamed for the failure of some railroad efforts, the reasons for failure of others were more complex. Among the railroads that failed was Ballaine's. His workers had built a dock and a wharf at Seward and laid out a townsite. After two years of construction work, however, only 20 miles of track had been laid.

This 1908 photograph of Cordova shows the Copper River and Northwestern Railway trestle across the Eyak Lake. The small sternwheeler in the foreground was one of several used by canneries in the area.

Ballaine's company was sold to the Alaska Northern Railway in 1905. The new owners completed 52 more miles before they, too, went bankrupt in 1909. An attempt at reorganization failed. Federal taxation and the closure of the coal fields were blamed, but poor management also played a part. The rails ended at Kern Creek near the head of Turnagain Arm.

The "Can't Run and Never Will" runs

By the time the Alaska Northern Railway had declared bankruptcy, the Alaska Syndicate had broken ground for its own railroad. Cordova was to be the terminus. The syndicate would continue the line that Heney had begun. Even before the railroad was completed, the mail contract for the Interior was transferred from Valdez to Cordova.

Mail carriers used a combination of water and overland transportation on the Cordova route until the completion of the railroad. Sternwheelers had been transported in sections over Abercrombie's military road from Valdez and down the Tasnuna River valley. They were assembled at the upper end of Abercrombie Rapids on the Copper River. For three summers, the steamboats carried mail, passengers, and equipment upriver from above the rapids to Chitina. Athapaskan Indians, who had an uncanny knack for judging the shifting channels of the Copper River, were hired to help pilot the riverboats. From Chitina, passengers and mail traveled over a newly-built wagon road which joined the TransAlaska Military Road at Willow Creek.

In 1911, the 196-mile Copper River and Northwestern Railway, nicknamed the "Can't Run and Never Will," was completed from Cordova to the Syndicate's copper mines near Kennicott Glacier. The railroad spanned some eight miles of bridges. The last spike, copper not the usual gold, was driven on March 29. National politics would ultimately keep the railway from becoming the desired all-American route to the Interior.

Eustace Paul Ziegler

Copper mining brought artist Paul Ziegler to Alaska. When construction began on the Copper River and Northwestern Railway hundreds of men arrived in Cordova. Saloons were the only place they could go for companionship. To remedy this situation, the Episcopalian Church built a mission that could be used for church services on Sundays and as a home-like refuge at other times. Painted bright red and dedicated to St. George, the mission was nicknamed the Red Dragon.

In January, 1909, a slender, 27-year-old artist named Eustace Paul Ziegler arrived in Cordova to manage the Red Dragon and serve as a missionary. In his spare time he painted murals on the walls of the mission and the rotunda of the Lathrop Company theater. His individual paintings were purchased by the Alaska Steamship Company and by summer tourists, and his popularity grew. Ziegler's first show was held in the dining hall of the Kennecott Mines. The room was the only place large enough to hold all of the paintings that the busy artist produced. Most showed Alaskans at work. Today his paintings are highly valued for their depictions of early Alaska.

Langille recommends forest reserve

In 1904, the supervisor of the new Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska, William Langille, was ordered to survey other parts of Alaska to see if additional forest reserves were needed. The federal government hoped that such reserves would prevent the uncontrolled logging which had stripped large areas of the northern continental states. Langille spent three months in Southcentral Alaska. He hired what boats he could find to take him along the Prince William Sound shore. There he saw that the coastal forests were poor quality for harvesting. With an Indian guide, he hiked inland to Tustamena Lake on the Kenai Peninsula and observed the slaughter of big game animals that was taking place.

The railroad construction had helped publicize Alaska's big game populations. The Kenai Peninsula was becoming more and more popular with trophy hunters. Langille reported that hunters often shot as many good animals as they saw, but kept only the best trophies. Traders were hiring Indians to kill game animals for the trophy-sized heads which they sold to sportsmen. Langille recommended a stricter permit system and licensed guides to help control the slaughter.

At the end of his tour, Langille concluded that a forest reserve was needed in Southcentral Alaska. Even though Southcentral timber would not yield top quality lumber it could provide building materials for new settlers. Protection was necessary because of the extremely slow growth rate of the trees. Near Seward, railroad construction crews had already cut many of the best stands either for firewood or for railroad ties.

A reserve system would also establish a means for fire control. Fires, most of them man-made, had destroyed much timber on the Kenai Peninsula. One large fire had resulted from an unsuccessful attempt by construction workers to get rid of mosquitoes. The mosquitoes survived, but the timber did not.

The new Chugach National Forest was created on July 23, 1907. The reserve's five million acres included most of the land that lay between the Copper River on the east, the Kenai Peninsula on the west, and the Chugach Mountains to the north. Valdez was selected as the headquarters for the new federal reserve. With a year-round ice-free port, Valdez was also a supply center for fishermen and prospectors. It also was the connecting point between the new underseas Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System's cable to Seattle and telegraph lines to Interior Alaska. Langille did not propose any agricultural classification within the Chugach National Forest boundaries. He believed that only the Matanuska River valley had potential for crop production. Langille suggested that some land settlement should be permitted within the reserve, but he did not share the popular feeling that a homestead on Alaska's frontier was a romantic ideal. "The time for a sentimental consideration of the time-honored privileges of the pioneer has passed," he wrote. "The conditions which have brought about a relaxation of law in his favor are no more." Alaskans disagreed. They regarded Southcentral Alaska as an area where land should be available for farms and homesteads, and they believed the Chugach National Forest would be an obstacle to land settlement and agriculture.

At the time of Langille's study, however, little agricultural development had occurred in the area which many viewed as the future bread basket of Alaska. One writer observed:

The majority of the so-called farmers are old, broken down prospectors, most of whom are single men. They have no cows and no poultry and in many cases these prospectors acquire a homestead only for the purpose of putting up a shack where they could live during the winter months as the cost of living in hotels in the town was too high.

Independence Mine

High in the rough grey peaks of the Talkeetna Mountains north of Palmer stand the picturesque remains of Southcentral Alaska's largest lode gold mine. The Independence Mine structures are empty now. Cross-country skiers, hikers, and photographers have replaced the miners and their families who, in the years before World War II, enjoyed what were described as "modern living quarters, well-equipped and dry," and well-paying year-round jobs.

The streams and gulches of the southern Talkeetnas had yielded little gold until a Texan named Robert Lee Hatcher located the first lode claims on a ridge below Skyscraper Mountain in September, 1906. Other claims were quickly filed near what came to be called Hatcher Pass. The claims that became Independence Mine lay nearly idle for more than two decades. William Martin built the first mill in the area to process ore from his mine on Skyscraper Mountain, but the building was destroyed in a landslide. In 1936, many claims in the vicinity were bought by a company that later became Alaska Pacific Consolidated.

Under general manager W.W. Stoll, Alaska Pacific Consolidated rose to be one of the most important lode gold producers in the Willow Creek Mining District. Nearly four miles of tunnels, drifts, cross cuts, and shafts were developed to bring out the ore. The company owned 83 claims by the time World War II broke out. The ore was carried by five gravity-operated aerial tramways to two large mills where it was screened and crushed. The pure gold was separated from the particles of rock by the process of amalgamation.

In 1940 the Independence Mine payroll was second to the Alaska Railroad's in Southcentral Alaska. Twenty-eight families lived in homes they built and owned on company land. There were bathing and recreational facilities and a territorial school for the children of mine employees. The University of Alaska offered courses in prospecting and mining.

Most Willow Creek District gold mines were ordered closed in 1942 because they were not essential to the war effort but Independence Mine also produced scheelite, a source of tungsten, which was considered a strategic mineral. The mine was allowed to operate until 1943, although the stockpiled scheelite was never used. Stoll succeeded in raising funds to reopen the mine in 1949. When he died that same year, his son, W.M. Stoll, became manager. The younger Stoll hired miners under a contract system that gave them a minimum wage plus a percentage of returns on the gold they mined. The mine ran only briefly, however. Increasing operating costs and the fixed price of gold shut down Independence Mine in 1950.

A quarter of a century later, the State of Alaska acquired part of the old Independence Mine property for a historical park.

Knik prospers, then dies

Knik had become the major town on upper Cook Inlet. The old Knik trading post had been moved from the east to the west side of the inlet. A community had grown around the new post and five white women were reported living there by 1906. The town's first evening ball was held in Whitney's new restaurant building.

A Texan, Robert Hatcher, discovered the first lode gold in Southcentral Alaska on a ridge west of Fishhook Creek. Hatcher had prospected at Juneau and other spots along the Alaska coast. Eventually, he arrived at Knik where he spent the summers looking for gold and the winters trapping. His discovery in 1906 was followed by other claims that were staked nearby by William B. Barthold and a syndicate of miners called the "Carte Prospect." The three groups built a wagon road over Hatcher Pass to haul supplies from Knik.Putting lode mines into operation was expensive. The claims were located above timberline and all the building materials and mining equipment had to be packed in. Machinery for the stamp mills came by ocean steamer up Cook Inlet. From there it had to be shifted to shallow draft boats that could cross the flats on Knik Arm. At Knik, the freight was transferred once again for the overland trip to the mines. Despite these difficulties, three mills were in production by 1912.

Employment in the mines and mills attracted people to Knik. "Sunny Knik," as the town was called, enjoyed peak prosperity in 1915. The Gold Bullion Mine at Hatcher Pass employed round-the-clock shifts. Freight and passengers were unloaded from a fleet of ten boats that served four different docks. Some of the boats were owned and operated by Natives, who were experienced boatmen. That year, some 700 residents joined in a Fourth of July celebration that featured parades, races, and baseball games. Two years later, Knik was a ghost town. Events that took place thousands of miles away in the nation's capital and a few hundred miles distant in Prince William Sound caused its downfall.

Summary questions

  1. What regional resources decided John Ballaine to try to build a railroad from Seward to Fairbanks and others to build a railroad from the Prince William Sound area through the Copper River valley?
  2. Give two reasons Ballaine's route failed.
  3. Why did William Langille recommend establishing a national forest in Southcentral Alaska?
  4. Why did some people oppose a national forest in Southcentral Alaska?
  5. Name a major drawback to Knik as a port.

Inquiry questions

  1. Look at a topographic map of Southcentral Alaska. Do you see any other natural overland transportation corridors from the sea to Interior Alaska besides the Copper and Susitna river valleys? They should go from protected harbors on the Southcentral Alaska coastline through river valleys and low mountain passes to Interior Alaska.
  2. Compare the decision to close Alaska coal lands to entry to prevent their exploitation by a few corporations with the history of other resources discussed in other units of this text. Do you find any similar events in the history of fur, fisheries, timber, or oil development?

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