ALASKA GOLD MINING
YOUNG’N’ STRUCK IT RICH
Published in the Sunday Journal Gazette
By Forest J. McComb
Not many of us ever get a chance or opportunity to mine gold, but VERNON HORN of 436 W. Fourth St. did – and it was in Alaska.
In 1909 Vernon, a lad of 18, was working for Western Union Telegraph Co., at Seattle, Wash. The Alaska Yukon Exposition was on at Seattle, and it was there Vernon “caught the fever” to go see the country.
He managed to work his way to Skagway on a combination passenger and freight ship, rode a 100 mile railroad to Whitehorse, Canada, then into Alaska by boat down the Yukon River to a town named Eagle.
It was summer and Vernon was much taken in by the beauty and unsurpassed scenery of the country. Wild flowers grew in profusion, and the clean waters offered any amount of fishing, while an unbelievable quantity of game stalked the mountains, forests and plains.
These ranged from bear, moose, caribou, deer, beaver, and smaller animals down to the lowly rabbit. The Indians had a name for a tenderfoot or greenhorn; it was “Chichacker.” Vernon looked around the town of Eagle and decided he’d soon fix that – he was young, strong, healthy, not afraid of work and made his way to the general store. There he met the manager, Billy Gilliland. He was a large man, six feet tall, black hair and eyes, and weighing about 180 pounds.
The Storekeeper An Important Man
Gilliland not only directed most of the business of Eagle but also had the talent of quickly sizing up a stranger. Alaska needed people and when he saw a strong lad with a sandy complexion who’d come to see the country, he offered a job at the store. If this worked out well, he’d be able to put Vernon onto something better.
Eagle was a town of 60 cabins and 150 townspeople in summer but dwindled to about 75 in winter. The gold strike at Dawson had brought many prospectors but Vernon quickly learned that fishing was the main resource of Alaska, while gold mining was second, trapping third, and timber fourth. Agriculture was just getting started.
The store at Eagle carried groceries, clothing, shoes, and a large hardware line of guns, axes, picks and shovels, traps, and small mining equipment. The store also had the mail contract from Whitehorse to Nome and handled all the legal work on mining for hundreds of square miles of Alaska. It was set up something like half a wagon wheel, with Eagle at the hub.
Vernon worked hard at whatever task he was given to do and Gilliland was well-pleased. One day DICK MITCHELL a trapper and prospector came to the store. He was a tall man with gray eyes and hair, weighing 175 pounds, and formerly a mountain man from Idaho who’d easily adjusted to the Alaska country. He was 65 years old, and had come to get the next winter’s trapping supplies.
“Do you have a partner for the season?” asked Gilliland.
“No – not yet.”
“Would you be interested in an honest, upright, hardworking young fellow that wants to learn the country?”
Vernon was introduced to Mitchell, and the outcome of the meeting was that they stayed together one whole year, trapping in the winter, and mining gold in the summer. Vernon was very lucky, for he received a fine education from an expert in the art of living and surviving off the country. Of course, being a tenderfoot, Vernon didn’t come in for a full share, but what he did get helped in building up a stake.
They had a good winter of trapping, but just fair success at mining. Due to the severe cold winters placer mining only lasts only 5 months – May through September. Mitchell’s claim was on the Chicken Creek that empties into 40 Mile River, and they worked at an altitude of 2,700 feet. The stream ran steadily, fed from the hills and valleys above, and the creek’s banks were lined with scrub timber. It was warm and pleasant too, the temperature being at 60 to 70 degrees due to the long days of sunshine. And, there was company in leisure hours, with plenty more miners up and down the creek.
Placer Mining’s A Matter of Luck
There is lots of luck, both good and bad, to placer mining. No one can say how long Nature took to bring the gold down from the hills, depositing and hiding it in a fickle way here and there along the streams. Some Chichacker might get a claim, sink a shovel into paydirt right away, and the news would travel like wildfire, while a hard-working veteran might not hit anything. Gold is a heavy metal and tends to sink into the soil, sometimes stopping only at bedrock. And, there just aren’t any hen-egg size nuggets laying around waiting to be picked up. Mining is hard work, and any piece of gold worth 25 cents is considered a nugget, but Vernon once found one worth $12. That instantly caused a great furor of excitement along the creek.
Most of the streams have been covered and placer mining is about over, but there are several ways it can be done. The most simple is to shovel dirt into a pan with a screen on the bottom, then wash it with water. The screen will catch the gold – if any.
A faster way is the sluice box. The best box is made 14 inches wide, 16 high, and 10 feet long. This is set up along the stream where it will be handy to get water, and sometimes, as many as five boxes will be built in line. The degree of fall is very important; the water must run fast enough to wash out the dirt but give the gold time to settle to the bottom. It is caught there by cleats or baffles nailed to the box. This kind of mining can only clean away about 95 per cent of the dirt.
In the old days, the kind of people that came to stay in Alaska were hardy, adventurous men, and a few women, who believed in honesty and integrity, for one’s very life might depend on it in this rough and rugged country. Any person who showed a criminal tendency was firmly run out of the country and given to under-stand “it wouldn’t be healthy to come back!”
Game trails and dog-sled runs were the roads, except the road from Valdez to Fair-banks, and most travelers followed the watercourses. Any person caught in a storm or out at night was welcome to the use of a cabin, provided he cut as much fuel as he used and left a note promising to pay for food taken from the cache. This was usually tin goods placed outside on a platform built 12 feet high for the purpose of keeping the food away from animals. This was the “code of the country,” and anyone breaking it was dealt with severely. Even the Indians recognized the necessity and lived by the code!
Honesty in Alaska is pointed up by a deal between a young chap and a claim owner. Becoming tired of mining, the owner leased the claim to the young chap for 15 per cent of the take, then left the country.
The youngster, working alone at the stream, stopped one day to assess the layout. He reasoned that the water had taken thousands of years to cut to its present level. There were ledges left by the water in the V-shaped cut, and he decided to find out if there was any gold left up there. He climbed to a ledge, shoveled some dirt down where he could get at it – and hit!
In two months, he decided he’d better get the hoard of gold into Eagle for safe-keeping. At the store Billy Gilliland looked hard at the size of the sack.
“How many are working out there?” he asked.
“Just me,” the lad replied.
“You must’ve found something pretty good!”
“Yes! How much have I got?”
Gilliland weighed the gold and figured it up. “Over $6,000 worth!”
“When I leased the claim I agreed to give the owner 15 per cent,” the lad said.
“Yes, I know – he told me! But he also told me, if you took a notion to buy the claim he’d take $1,000. Did he tell you that?”
“No – he didn’t”
“Well what do you think you want to do? Send 15 percent or buy him out?”
The lad thought it over and said. “A deal is a deal; I think the fair thing is to send 15 per cent and $1,000 of my share to buy the claim!” And that’s the way it was settled.
Vernon Horn didn’t become fabulously rich on Alaska gold, neither was he shut out. Over the long haul, however, he acquired a beautiful stake there. He and a partner own 1,060 acres representing 53 twenty acre gold claims. The gold is there, but it will require heavy machinery to get it, and the present pegged government price of $35 an ounce prevents the use of inflation-priced machinery and labor at this time. But Vernon loves Alaska, and has had many adventures there.
He was traveling one time with a Chichacker. Wanting to cross a stream, they came upon a swinging bridge put up by a prospector. Vernon looked at the bridge and decided the builder must have been under the influence of the bottle, for one cable was longer than the other. The greenhorn was elated to see the bridge, and rushed out on it to where his weight set up a vibration he was unable to stop. Pretty soon the bridge upset, dumping the chap unceremoniously into the water while Vernon doubled up with laughter.
That made the greenhorn angry! Standing waist deep in water, he sputtered, “I believe you’d laugh yourself sick even if a man was drowning! I bet you can’t cross it either!”
Vernon held tight to the shorter cable and crossed safely.
He once had the job of taking a census taker to the headwaters of the Tanana River. There were some Indian tribes camped there the government wanted to enumerate. Some of the tribal names were a queer mixture of Indian, Eskimo, Russian, French and Spanish. The census-taker couldn’t even begin to pronounce the names, nor spell them, so he handed out Bible names like Peter, Paul, Luke and John. The Indians were proud to receive “White Men names,” and they retain them to this day.
Vernon, of course, heard of many fortunes won and lost. Typical, was where two men had a copper claim that required capital and machinery. A company offered a sizable down payment plus 4 per cent of future earnings. The men refused, but sold out later for $60,000 cash. The company is reputed since to have taken out $4,000,000 worth of copper.
Agriculture is making great strides in Alaska, as food is in demand and prices high. Much of the soil is rich and can grow almost anything we can except corn – an example is 30 pound heads of cabbage on display at fairs. The season is short, but so are the summer nights and plants get the benefit of long days of sunlight. Vernon says it takes awhile to adjust to the long daylight of summer, and later, the long hours of darkness in winter.
One of the summer features is at Fairbanks: the playing of The Midnight Sun Baseball Game. It is on June 21, starts at 10 p.m. and is played entirely without lights!