Alaska in 1900.
Looking for copper prospect two hundred miles in the interior from Valdez.
The Kennicott Pot Hole. At the Bonanza Mine. Copper River Indians. Scotty
Crawford's claim a disappointment.
quickest way to open up a new country is to make a discovery of gold there. No
matter where it is, be it around the North Pole or in the interior of Africa,
the prospector will do the rest. This was exemplified in the Klondyke craze, the
rush to Nome, and the frenzied excitement on the Copper River in 1898, the
latter did not prove so wide or rich a field as the others, and its gold boom
faded. The excitement was revived by the copper discoveries in 1900, both on the
coast and in the interior of Alaska.
During the winter of 1900,
while we were still in New York, my syndicate obtained an option on some copper
claims lying some two hundred miles in the interior north of Valdez, Alaska.
They were owned by one Scotty Crawford, a Copper River prospector. It was
arranged that as soon as the snow had gone in the spring, I should make an
examination of the property. When May came around, I bade my wife goodbye in
Washington, where she was visiting with her sister, and entrained for Seattle
with no more preparation for the trip than if I were going to Arizona.
At Seattle I secured passage on
the "Elihu Thompson", a small steamer that had a mail contract. There
were no other passengers on the boat, which was a leaky old tub that under no
circumstances would be allowed to clear from an Eastern port. The captain was a
veritable drunken sot whom the crew called "Bunny." I was given a bunk
in the mate's cabin and took my meals in the fo'castle with the crew. We were to
take the outside passage. The first night out, when off Port Townsend, Bunny was
so drunk and his conning of the ship so peculiar that I protested to the mate
and insisted that he drop anchor until morning, the mate agreed, and coaxing the
skipper into his cabin where he dropped off to sleep, we anchored the boat in
three fathoms of water and I felt safe for the night. The next morning the
captain was duly sober. He expressed astonishment at finding his ship riding at
anchor, and damned everybody for a lot of land lubbers as we got under weigh.
For seven days and nights we
were buffeted by gales, during which we shipped seas that threatened to break
the back of the old Elihu Thompson with each comber and kept the crew diligently
at the pumps, until on the eighth day we entered Prince William Sound.
Prince William Sound is formed
out of the eastern corner of the Gulf of Alaska, and the north-bound passenger
drew a breath of relief when the steamer passed the long headland of Kyak and
swept from the rough waters of the open sea into the quiet waters of the Sound
Islands, large and small, dot the estuary, all covered with a dense growth of
spruce timber with an undergrowth that defies the most hardy adventurer to
penetrate. Excepting a few Indian villages, a fox farm, and a mining camp or
two, the islands are mostly given up to the wild life of the region. On the
mainland side there is unfolded to the view an expanse of towering peaks for
hundreds of miles, outlining the coast range, most of them covered with snow,
with great glaciers extending to the water's edge. A belt of timber reaching to
timberline two thousand feet above sea level fringes the foot of the range,
through which small inlets formed by mouths of rivers and the erosion of the sea
form minute breaks in the coastline.
Passing through these waters we came to a narrow
opening at the extreme eastern boundary of the Sound, through which the tide
rushes with tremendous force. The walls on either side are vertical and smooth,
and one standing in the waist of a ship can almost toss a biscuit (if they
haven't a dollar) to the shore on either side. The passage is about a half mile
in length and opens into the great harbor of Valdez. This is one of the finest
bodies of water in the known world, and from this landlocked bay Alaska could be
defended from all the navies of Europe. Great mountains rise into the clouds all
around, and little side bays through which glaciers sweep down in awesome
magnificence nestle behind coves and inlets. Rushing streams pour their torrents
down the Mountainsides, and some of them have since been harnessed to furnish
lights and power for the town and surrounding mines. The town of Valdez is
situated in the extreme northern corner of Valdez Bay.
On that June morning the sun
was rising over the Valdez glacier as the steamer slid into the mud bank that
skirts the town at low tide. With the lowering of the gangway, leaving my
baggage to be brought off later, I stepped off into the mud of the tide flat and
picked my way to dry land.
Valdez was only a
village at that time, but it had many of the creature comforts that had been a
stranger to me on the boat. There was a large merchandise store, a jeweler's
shops two restaurants, a number of saloons, and one dance hall. The mail boat
came twice a month, and there was talk of another steamer coming with a big load
of passengers. Several new buildings were in process of construction, and with
the expectation of a boom coming the people were preparing for it.
During the day I met
Pete Cashman, a relic of the days of '98. By reason of his having fallen through
an ice bridge covering a crevasse on the Shoup Glacier, he had acquired the
cognomen of "Glacier Pete." He had also made several excursions into
the interior, so I employed him as guide to pilot me as far as the Copper River.
With two saddle horses and two horses for packing the camp outfit and supplies
which I collected at Valdez, we took the Abercrombie trail, which was in the
making just then and had been completed along the bank of the Lowe River to the
top of the coast range, which is known as Thompson's Pass. For fourteen miles
the route lay along the river flat, and although it was covered with a heavy
growth of spruce timber we made good time. The river bottom then closed into a
deep canyon, which the stream had scored through the foothills to the main
range. It was called Keystone Canyon, and was too narrow for a trail by the aide
of the river, so a pathway was made above it. From the upper end of the canyon
the river curves to the east and finds its source at the summit of a low pass
which overlooks the Copper River, while the trail from the canyon maintains its
northerly course and zigzags its way over Thompson's Pass, which is a thousand
feet higher. This route was selected because of the impassability of the Copper
We camped on the other side of
the pass, where we found plenty of grass for the horses, but the mosquitoes were
a torment. On the Valdez side of the range they were the size of a dragon fly
and slow of movement, so that when they would land on a bare spot with their
cold feet one would have time to brush them off before they prospected around
and got their drills in operation. But with the army on the other side of the
range there was all the difference in the world. They were much smaller and came
in clouds; got in one's ears, eyes, and nose. We had to scan every mouthful of
food and scare off a dozen or so or they would surely go in with the morsel.
There was nothing slow about them either! They would sting as they landed. The
sleeping tent was not much protection so we got very little sleep that night and
were up and off at daybreak, which in that country at that time of year was soon
Four days of travel through
narrow valleys, open marshes, deep morass, occasional grassland, and patches of
timber, brought us to the Tonsina River, which we followed down for a few miles
to where it joined the Copper. The trail had ended at the Tonsina, and from
there on it was anybody's choice. Here Pete experienced a siege of "cold
feet" and decided to turn back in the morning.
We put up the mosquito tent on
the bank of the river, and it was not long before we had a visit from Copper
River Charley, whose wicky-up could be seen in the distance. The old buck was a
Copper River Indian, and he lived in the wicky-up with his squaw, a son and two
daughters, Mabel and Minnie. Outside his domicile could be seen the usual fish
line strung between two trees, decorated with split salmon hung out to dry. He
was accompanied by his family, as well as an aroma of fish that was far from
appetizing. It was apparent that Saturday night was unknown to them!
These Copper River Indians have
not received any assistance analogous to their cousins of the United States from
the federal government, and they live in poverty and squalor that the American
Indians would regard with contempt. Their clothing is nondescript, mostly
depending upon the generosity of the white man, and none know the luxury of the
furs of the Eskimos, being content with bare feet and legs so long as they can
have a blanket around their necks.
While we were preparing supper,
the Indian group squatted down and watched the process with great interest. When
we had finished the meal, Mabel emptied the coffee grounds from our breakfast
pot into a tomato can she was carrying,
then added the tea leaves from the meal we had just finished, and scraped the
bacon grease from the frying pan into the mess, after which with her filthy paw
she gravely mixed the concoction and whispered to me: "Bi'me by, hi yu
next morning Pete mounted his horse, wished me good luck, and trotted away up
the Tonsina for Valdez. Copper River Charley agreed to transport me
and my outfit across the river, so he and his boy loaded my belongings
into his flat-bottomed boat, with the two of them at the oars and me in the
stern holding the ropes which towed the horses behind, and we crossed without
mishap. There I was deposited alone, with nothing but my map to guide me to
Scotty Crawford's camp on the Kotsina River. I was one hundred miles from the
coast, with three horses to take care of, but I thought to myself, "If
McPherson of the Geological Survey could find his way through the country, I
two days I followed McPherson's route as marked on the map, which took me
northeast over divides, across rivers, and "nigger-head" flats. Those
nigger-head flats are found all over this part of Alaska. They are great
stretches of water-soaked moss with deep little ditches criss-crossing and
cutting up the field into small squares like a checkerboard. They are difficult
to negotiate on foot and almost impossible on horseback.
the long days had already set in and the fear of darkness coming on meant
nothing to me, I kept going the second day out until I emerged from the timber
on to a plateau overlooking the headwaters of the Kotsina River. Below me were
wide slopes on both sides, and with my binoculars I scanned the landscape for a
glimpse of Scotty's camp, but there was nothing in sight. Taking a
chance that he was somewhere in the neighborhood, I fired several shots
from my automatic, but no reply was heard. The grass was abundant, so I
dismounted and left my horses to graze while I worked around the point of the
mountain on my right into another open basin, and there I found a tent
but no Scotty. I deducted that this must be his camp, and yet if it were, where
were the samples of ore that a prospector always accumulates around his bed? All
I found was a bandanna handkerchief full of float pebbles, some of copper ore,
but most of them almost barren. Scotty had described his mine to be a vein of
copper glance, with hundreds of tons in sight, and his price was the modest sum
of $50,000! I figured that if he had any ore at all, some of it would be lying
around his camp.
While I was meditating over
these matters and trying not to be prematurely disappointed, Scotty appeared on
the scene. I listened to his story and then said: "Scotty, you have told me
where your claims are. Now take me to the best showing you have!
followed him two miles to the head of the basin, and he pointed out to me a
split in the greenstone with a knife-blade streak of chalcocite on one of the
wills. I then realized that my journey had been another of those will-o'the-wisp
hunts that crowd the life of every mining engineer!!