SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska



July 28, 2006

Ketchikan, Alaska - These days, when millions of dollars worth of non-native gemstones are sold each summer in Ketchikan, it pays to remember that once upon a time mining was the principal industry in town.

Although Ketchikan was initially settled because of its proximity to the great Ketchikan Creek salmon run, by the time it was incorporated as a city nearly half of the 95 individuals who signed incorporation petition in 1900 were miners or employed by the mining industry.

As far back as the late 1880s, there were a few miners in the area, picking away in the gullies and streams for a little color. Many had come here after going through previous booms in Juneau and the Cassiar in Canada.

jpg Hadley smelter

Hadley smelter on Prince of Wales Island, 1904
Photographer: Harriet Hunt
Donor: Forest J. Hunt, THS
Photo courtesy Ketchikan Museums

By the middle part of the 1890s, some larger mines had sprung up on Prince of Wales in places like Hadley, Dolomi and Niblack as well and Ketchikan was growing as the main supply center for those projects.

But it was the "activity" in Dawson City, Yukon Territory, some 700 miles north of Ketchikan, that gave the village its first economic jolt between 1897 and 1900.

More than 100,000 gold seekers headed north for the Klondike gold rush in the last three years of the 19th century. Quite a few didn't make it all the way to the Klondike and most that did came back empty handed from the Yukon gold fields. As a result, mining activity throughout Southeast Alaska boomed as unsuccessful Klondikers dipped their pans elsewhere.

In reality, they found little gold in the Ketchikan area but they had just enough strikes of it and other minerals to keep the industry operating at least through the first two decades of the 20th century.

jpg Dolomi

Downtown Dolomi, circa 1910 -- Houses at Dolomi, Alaska
Donor: Bert Libe Estate, THS
Photo courtesy Ketchikan Museums

In those days, the industry was as much about on the perception of riches as the reality.

Ketchikan's first successful newspaper, the Mining Journal, frequently carried reports of new finds and published yearly editions trumpeting the success of the mining industry in the Ketchikan Mining District, which included Prince of Wales Island and much of the mainland to the Canadian border.

These reports often detailed precisely what was found and the methods that companies were using to extract the ore, in a breathless prose that is lacking in the generally circumspect, closed-mouthed way that modern mining companies publicize their work .

But there was a reason behind the publicity blitzes in the Mining Journal. Most of the mining companies were losing money and the only way to attract new investors was to make it seem like the mining operations were more successful than they actually were. When these same operations folded up it was rarely noted in the pages of the Mining Journal.

jpg Copper Mountain smelter

Copper Mountain smelter, 1906- Tram rails and smelter on Prince of Wales Island.
Photographer: Harriet Hunt - Donor: Forest J. Hunt, THS
Photo courtesy Ketchikan Museums

The first mining claim in the territory of Alaska was filed shortly after Alaska was purchased from Russia. Charles Baranovich established The Copper Queen lode near Kasaan Bay on the east side of Prince Of Wales Island.

Baranovich was a Yugoslav immigrant who had taken part in the 1849 Californian Gold Rush before heading north via the Caribou Rush in British Columbia. He has also been credited with starting one of the first fish processing operations in Alaska nearby.

The Copper Queen was not initially successful, but it was briefly reopened and prospected again in 1900.

jpg Hotel Hadley

Hotel Hadley, 1905
An entire town, including this hotel, sprang up at
Hadley when gold was discovered there. A few
years later, it was all gone.
Harriet Hunt photo
Donor: Forest J. Hunt, THS
Photo courtesy Ketchikan Museums

Baranovich was on the right track, though, because a significant increase in copper prices in 1between 1895 and 1900 drew more prospectors to Prince of Wales and several significant finds were noted. Significant sites also included Dolomi and Niblack, which were south of Kasaan.

Two of the largest copper producers were at Hetta Inlet on the west side of Prince of Wales and Kasaan on the east. Alaska's first copper smelter was built in 1905 at Coppermount in Hetta Inlet, five months later a second smelter was built at Hadley on the Kasaan Peninsula.

The copper produced by these smelters was shipped elsewhere and profits were dependent on fluctuations in the worldwide market. Prices rose from 12 cents a pound in 1904 to 24 cents a pound in 1906 and local industry boomed. Several new mines opened up to take advantage of the market.

Communities such as Hadley grew rapidly, adding stores, hotels and other amenities like Ketchikan. Still, the main supplier and shipping point for these mining towns remained Ketchikan and the young town grew to meet the demand.

Unfortunately, the copper market turned down in 1907 and prices dropped back to pre 1904 levels. The Prince of Wales copper had never been as high grade as the copper in other areas and too much effort was required to process too little ore. Coppermount closed and Hadley struggled on for a few more years. When the high grade Kennicott Mine opened up in central Alaska in 1911, it was the end of most efforts to extract high-grade copper from Southeast.

Over the next three decades, there were small attempts to take advantage of price fluctuations and reopen the local mines, but nearly all came to naught. By the time all copper activity ceased in the area in the 1940s, nearly 28 million pounds of copper had been taken from the region with an estimated value of nearly $9 million.

jpg loading limestone at View Cove

S.S. Diamond Cement loading limestone at View Cove, 1938
Donor: Manley Kjonaas, THS
Photo courtesy Ketchikan Museums

While many of the larger mines in the area processed copper, there was a fair amount of gold prospecting going on. The eastern side of the Cleveland Peninsula sprouted several claims as did the Thorne Arm and Carroll Inlet areas south of the Ketchikan. Mines like the Gold Standard (Helm Bay) and Sea Level (Thorne Arm) produced some gold.

Closer to town, mines developed in the upper reaches of Bear Valley and along the numerous creeks on the north end of town. But none of these mines paid out large sums.

Occasionally mines such as the Puyallup and Blackbird near Hollis returned tidy sums, if not immense wealth for the owners. The Puyallup was reportedly worth up to $200,000 a year, a considerable sum in 1905.

jpg Dock and quarry at View Cove

Dock and quarry at View Cove
Photographer: Otto C. Schallerer - Donor: Louise Brounty, THS
Photo courtesy Ketchikan Museums

But a far more lucrative find was marble and ­ unlike the other minerals mined from this region ­ you can still see the results. Alaska's own capitol building in Juneau, for example, was made from marble quarried from Marble Island, near Tokeen. In one of those familiar ironies of the Alaskan resource development, nearly all the Alaskan marble went into projects outside the state. Primarily because the marble was sent to Tacoma for processing and it was too expensive to ship back.

In the years before World War I, local marble made its way into buildings all across America including Hawaii's Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital; Minnesota's Great Northern Railway Building; Washington's State Capitol; Boston, Massachusetts's Orpheum Theatre; Los Angeles' Southern Pacific Passenger Station; Idaho's State Capitol. New post offices from Bellingham to San Diego were also built from the marble.

At its height in 1914, the mine employed more than 100 workers and a public building boom in the western states kept it operating a full capacity.

You can still see the gaping holes left by the marble quarries. They dot the area around Tokeen like misplaced cement swimming pools with shining marble sides. Chunks of marble lie nearby like discarded building blocks.

jpg Bunkhouse at Sulzer mine

Bunkhouse at Sulzer mine.
Photographer: Mr. Wynne
Donor: John T. Wynne, THS
Photo courtesy Ketchikan Museums

A sharp decrease in the demand for marble closed most of the mines by the mid to late 1920s. In 1932, the Tokeen quarries reopened to supply marble for the Fairbanks Federal Building, but that was the end of the industry. As with all forms of mining, it is hard to estimate a final value, but approximately $1.8 million dollars worth of marble was taken from Alaska quarries between 1900 and 1920. From 1920 to 1925, the Tokeen quarry alone made nearly $800,000.

As with gold, the major silver mining in the region took place farther to the north, around Juneau, with the Greens Creek mine producing large amounts of silver to this day. In the early part of the 20th Century, several large claims were found at the head of Portland Canal, 100 miles northeast of Ketchikan and the town of Hyder sprang up to service them. Unfortunately, the richest mines proved by on the Canadian side of the border at Portland Canal and Hyder settled back into near ghost town status for many years until a recent tourism boom.

Over the years, there have been numerous mines that harvested other metals ranging from antimony to zinc. During the Cold War, a valuable uranium deposit was found at Bokan Mountain near the Southern tip of Prince of Wales and mined successfully through the early 1970s. Limestone deposits on Prince of Wales have also spurred interest, most .recently in the last few years by the Sealaska Regional Native Corporation.

Since 2000, gold and silver mines have been proposed at Union Bay on the Cleveland Peninsula and Woewodski Island south of Petersburg, but still remain in the exploration only stage.

jpg Schoenbar Mine Ketchikan

Schoenbar Mine - Bear Valley - Ketchikan
Donor: Bert Libe Estate, THS
Photo courtesy Ketchikan Museums

In most cases throughout Southern Southeast Alaska's history, the grade of the ores has been too low and costs too high for mines to make a go it. Miners have faced a constant lack of capital, the finds are nearly always too far from salt water. The heavy precipitation destabilizes mine sites and landslides are common. Many mine sites - and miners - just simply disappear back in the dense rainforest.

Perhaps the best byproduct of the early 20th Century mining era in Southern Southeast Alaska has been the "lost mine" stories. Just about every area from Hyder to Tree Point to Kasaan to Helm Bay has spawned a tale of a fortune waiting to be rediscovered by someone who is luckier than the original finder.

Even the exact location of some of the Schoenbar mine sites in upper Bear Valley are in question leading to speculation that gold could be waiting in some resident's back yard.

A typical story harkens back to the late 1880s, when Ketchikan was still informally called "Tongas Narrows" and was little more than a handful of shacks on the north side of Kitschkan Creek.

One day a stranger ­ it is always a stranger ­ arrived in town with a large poke of gold, reportedly from the mountains on the mainland behind Tree Point south of town. He sold the poke for a "handsome" sum, did a little partying with the locals, bought supplies and disappeared, even though some of the locals tried to tail him to find out where the "mother lode" was. Of course, he was never again seen 'round these here parts.'

Years later, a keeper at the Tree Point Lighthouse was hunting and stumbled across an old cabin in the woods with rusty tools and ore samples. He had heard of the lost mine and suddenly believed that he had found it. But after returning the lighthouse, he was never able to locate the cabin again. A similar fate befell another lighthouse keeper several years later. So, the "mother lode" is still there. Just waiting for you to find it!

Since World War II, there has been very little significant mining in southern Southeast, but for the past 30 years, the possibility of a huge operation has lingered in the minds of many Ketchikan residents.

In 1974, industry giant US Borax announced a major molybdenum claim at Quartz Hill in what is now the Misty Fjords National Monument south of Ketchikan. Molybdenum ­ a metal used to harden steel - had been found in other sites in the region, but the price was low and amounts were too small to bother with.

jpg Colonel John Schoenbar

Colonel John Schoenbar with Toby,
the hunt family dog.
Photographer: Forest J. Hunt
Donor: City of Ketchikan, THS
Photo courtesy Ketchikan Museums

That changed, when Borax announced that the Quartz Hill site contained enough molybdenum ­ approximately 1.5 billion tons - to operate a large mine for several decades. It was the largest known molybdenum deposit in the world and the value of the ore was placed in the tens of billions of dollars.

But by the 1970s, the environmental movement was gaining strength, as was a proposal to change the area near the mine from national forest to national monument status. When monument proposal came before the federal government in the late 1970s, there was a heated debate over whether or not to exempt the site of the proposed mine from the national monument ­ much of which would be placed into wilderness status that would preclude such activities as mining.

Eventually, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 confirmed the monument designation, but exempted the mine site, as well as access corridors from tidewater. Borax announced that ­ rather than build a community of up to 5,000 people at the site ­ it would house the workers and their families in Ketchikan. This led to a boom in local construction as several new developments sprang up to handle the expected influx.

Several more years passed as environmental studies were carried out and Borax continued to assess the site. By 1991, the company said it had spent more than $100 million on the property and would likely spend more than a $1 billion before any molybdenum would be mined.

In the meantime, the worldwide price of molybdenum dropped, finally reaching a point where even preparatory work at the mine stopped. Eventually the site was purchased by Canadian mining giant Cominco. Cominco continues to assert the mine will be developed when molybdenum prices rise. A half decade into the 21st Century, those prices are still not high for work to resume.

Quartz Hill is the largest mining project ever envisioned for southern Southeast Alaska, but it continues to be held hostage to the worldwide mineral markets, the same situation that plagued even the earliest mining operations in the Ketchikan area more than a century ago.


Editor's Note: Dave Kiffer is the great-grandson of James Allen Hart who managed the Niblack and Schoenbar Mines.


Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2006

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