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  • Writer's pictureAdam Christiansen

Where the Mountains Meet the Skies

“I wanted the gold, and I sought it;

I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.

Was it famine or scurvy—I fought it;

I hurled my youth into a grave.

I wanted the gold, and I got it—

Came out with a fortune last fall,—

Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,

And somehow the gold isn’t all.”

This is how the English writer Robert Service begins his poem “The Spell of the Yukon,” whose rhymes have been immortalized down through the years due to their apt description of what life may have been like for some lucky prospectors during the days of the Yukon gold rush. After exploring the Yukon wilderness for himself, Service was inspired to pen these words by men who forsake everything just for the rush of gold. As he wrote it just five years before his death, it was evident that though his body had aged, Service was still young in spirit and his soul still wanting.

As I look back on my summer of exploring bits and pieces of history from our own gold rush in the Talkeetna Mountains of southcentral Alaska, I can only imagine what the heyday in Hatcher’s Pass would’ve been like, and how stories like those written by Service came to life right in our own backyard. How the lust for virgin lands and unexplored territories tempted those hungry souls who came here in search of gold. How the trials and tribulations they faced on their journeys only made the destination that much sweeter. And how finding the gold gripped them with a fever that never let go. This is a story about bringing the past back to life because one can’t help but wonder what it was like. It’s a story about men and women who lifetimes ago called ‘home’ the same places we do today. It's about the making of a historian in a season – me. But above all, it’s a story about gold!

I didn’t have to see the gold. I didn’t have to mine it out of a mountain or pan it out of a creek. I just had to hear the stories to catch the mystique. At a wedding in the summer of 2017 on the Gold Mint Trail in Hatcher Pass, I met a man whose father trucked supplies from the Palmer Train Depot up to the Independence Mine when it was operating at its peak in the late 1930s and early 40s. While walking back to the trailhead after the ceremony, I received a short history lesson from him about the area. Being a lifetime resident of the Palmer region and recreating in Hatcher Pass on a regular basis, I thought I was well acquainted with, or at least familiar enough with the history of the pass. Oh, how wrong I was! I learned more about the pass’s history in 15 minutes than I’d learned in 20 years of living nearby. This sparked a desire in me to know more. I spent some time afterward wondering about what things used to be like in the Pass and in the valley below it in lifetimes past. What did it look like in its prime? How did people get up there when they first started going? Why did people go up into the pass in the first place? With all these questions and no answers, I decided I needed to know a little more about the Pass we call ‘Hatcher’s.' So, I went looking. I went to libraries. I went online. I found people to answer my questions. In the end, I only scratched the surface of the rich histories scattered over those mountains and valleys, but what I did learn I wrote down to share with you, and my hope is that you’ll enjoy reading stories I was told as much as I enjoyed hearing them.

There are three primary valleys on the east side of Hatcher’s Pass in the Willow Creek Mining District. The Fishhook Creek valley (where Independence Mine is located), Archangel Valley and the Little Susitna River valley. All three obtain rich mining histories.

The first discovery of lode (hard rock) gold by an American in the Willow Creek Mining District was in September 1906 when Robert Lee Hatcher (for whom the pass is named) quite literally stumbled upon a large outcrop of gold-quartz on the side of Skyscraper peak. Before his momentous find, mining in the Talkeetna Mountains had been limited to placer (stream bed) mining on the Willow side of the pass. With Hatcher’s strike, prospectors flocked to the east side of the district to find their fortunes there also. Subsequent strikes occurring in each of the three valleys caused a dramatic increase in the number of mines and prospects. It became quite evident to me that the summer wouldn’t be long enough to investigate all of them. So, I decided to pick one mine from each valley and delve into their histories.

Through talks with the Last Frontier magazine staff, it was discovered that Editor Anne Sanders had family ties to the Highgrade Mine that sits in Friendship Pass above the Independence and Gold Cord mines in the Fishhook Creek valley. In Archangel valley, there was a prominent mining operation at the end of the road, called Fern Mine. I didn’t know anything about it and it was more easily accessible than others in the same valley, so that seemed like a good fit. As for the Little Susitna River valley, there was only one mine developed there and it was created by Robert Hatcher, so that was an easy choice. I had my three mines and I was ready to explore them, but a little way into my research I began to wonder how the miners accessed their mines? They must have built a road, but was it the same one we drive on today? If not, could I still find it? All these questions led me to investigate the routes that were taken into the district. What I found was fascinating.

The first route into the east side of Hatcher’s was cut by Robert Hatcher and a few others in 1908 who were anxious to get to their claims on Skyscraper and Granite Mountain. Probably following Indian trials at times, this new route diverged from the Chickaloon Trail starting at Knik that was cut by Captain Edwin F. Glenn on a military expedition in 1898 and went North between Lucile and Wasilla lakes. The trail then cut northeast until it hit the Little Su (Susitna) River and followed it as it hugged the base of the Talkeetna mountains and went up into the canyon. It continued along the river to where Fishhook Creek feeds into the Little Su, where Fred Lobner and David Skarstaad would later build their Fishhook Inn. The trail then shot uphill to the headwaters of the creek where the mines were located. Shortly after, a man named J.S. Carle who managed the Independence Mine on behalf of the Alaska Gold Quartz Mining Company, organized and funded for an approximate $2500, the clearing and grading of a wagon road into the pass. Every individual who accessed the district in any amount owed a great debt to Carle. With increasing traffic into the area, a well-built road was needed to transport heavy equipment to the mines in a more efficient manner than on the back of a horse or a man. The miners had originally petitioned the federal government to build a road into the district but had been told the funds didn’t exist. So the miners constructed a road themselves, and the Carle Wagon road (as it would come to be known) was the primary access point to the mines by the end of 1909. Carle’s road used part of a summer trail that went up over Bald Mountain and into the West end of the pass where placer mining was done. His road diverged from the summer trail just north of Lucile Lake and continued running northeast until it ran into the Little Su, the whole time staying just West of Hatcher’s trail. Carle crossed the river and climbed a little way up onto the side of the mountain to get out of the wet ground below then cut across the base of the mountain. Once down out of the foothills, a system of cables was used to drop the wagons and their supplies down into the canyon where they intersected Hatcher’s trail and continued to the mines. These improvements allowed for the increased development of the pass which in turn benefited the prosperity of the entire Matanuska Valley. Gold production quadrupled from 1909 to 1911 and the feds suddenly saw the value of a quality road into the pass and by 1914-15 the Alaska Roads Commission had spent $12,000 in the improvement and maintenance of Carle’s road from Knik all the way to those precious mines. Sections of Hatcher’s and Carle’s roads are survived today in the current roads of Knik Goose Bay, Wasilla-Fishhook and Palmer-Fishhook. Over the decades, parts of the roads were changed or moved, but most of the mileage can still be traveled by car and the rest can be found and explored on foot in the late Spring when breakup is over, and the roadbeds are passable.

The encouragement of a quality road leading up into the pass soon brought more prospectors to town. One of them, named Gerrit “Heinie” Snider, would have a subtle yet substantial impact on the mining community in Hatcher’s, the territorial government of Alaska and the expansion of the city of Wasilla.

Snider threw his hat into many rings before he finally landed in Wasilla, and even when he did he was a difficult man to keep in one place for long. Seeking adventure at a young age, Snider shoved off from his hometown of Monnickendam, Holland with his wife Alice and 85 cents in their pockets. Snider traveled the world as a merchant sailor then tales of gold lured him north and he mined Thistle Creek on the Yukon River for a time before becoming a section foreman with The Alaska Railroad as construction began. The rails took him to Wasilla, as it did with many others, and he began his enterprising there. Snider cut and sold ice out of Lucile Lake for a few winters and started mink farming on his homestead there. It was very successful for a number of years, selling shipments of furs for as high of $9000 at times. However, the great depression killed the mink farming business and not even the fifth avenue ladies could afford to buy them. So in 1929 Snider turned his eyes to the Talkeetnas and purchased one-half interest in the High Grade Gold Mine. The other half was owned by Albert G. Dodson who would have an immense impact on the gold recovery in Hatcher’s Pass as manager of the Independence Mine in its most productive years. Snider and Dodson followed several quartz veins into the hillside at the Highgrade, and as I entered the tunnels last summer and followed the same veins, I could almost hear the rattle of the ore carts on the tracks. Most of the work on the Highgrade was done in the 1930s when the mine was operating at capacity. The veins weren’t the size of those found at the Independence or the Fern Mine. They averaged between 2 and 4 inches but made up for it in their famously high gold content, earning the name of the mine. It was rumored the veins were so rich that a ton of ore from the tunnels of the Highgrade sold for as high as $1200 in 1915.

As with all things, there came an end to those days. World War II saw the downfall of the district and the closure of many mines including the Highgrade. When the United States entered the war, a ban was placed on gold mining in the Willow Creek Mining District as the mineral was deemed a “non-essential” to the war effort. Snider’s likable and electric personality landed him a show at the KENI radio station broadcasting out of Anchorage, and he told his stories every Friday night at 8:30 p.m. He also entered politics serving in the territorial legislature of Alaska. Snider was named the delegate to the 1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago where he told Eisenhower if he promised to make Alaska a state, Snider would vote for him. In 1955 Snider decided he’d had enough of politics, and he and his wife returned to their home in Holland where they lived out their last days. The Sniders donated large parcels of land to the City of Wasilla to expand and the ownership of the mine was transferred to the Snider’s three daughters and then on to their descendants after them. Since the late ‘40s, the mine has been leased to several individuals who chipped away at the veins occasionally. Most of the tunnels have caved in since their earlier operation, but one of the open portals is still used to work the mine on a small scale each summer by members of the family. Generations later, gold is still being taken out of those mountains.

The Fern Mine in Archangel Valley, though not in operation today in any amount, was at one point recovering gold at enormous levels from veins that one old-timer said, “could choke a horse.” Sitting at the very end of Archangel Road, Fern is one of the more assessable mines in Hatcher’s Pass and is situated in one of the most beautiful valleys I’ve ever set foot in. The jagged peaks shoot up to the sky from every direction and can make one dizzy trying to take it all in.

The claims on which Fern Mine is located were first staked by Robert Lee Hatcher in 1909 and eventually bought up by other miners as Hatcher had no intention of starting a large mining operation at the time. Around 1917 Jerome Drumheller consolidated the Hillis, and Fern & Goodell property into the Fern Gold Mining Company, and in ‘22 began work in earnest. A few years before, the effects of World War I had been felt in the district resulting in a significant decrease in activity. The populations in the Matanuska Valley decreased, and mining was somewhat forgotten. Fern put optimism back into the Willow Creek Mining District when early operations yielded large quantities of rich ore. However, production started to fall in the late 20s for various reasons, eventually causing the mine to close in 1928 when an unsuccessful last-ditch pursuit of the Talkeetna vein drained the coffers dry.

No one mined the claims from 1929 to ‘30 but in ‘31 a new man emerged on the scene and turned the whole operation around. Thomas McDougal of Wasilla leased out the property from the Fern Gold Co. and resumed activities. From 1931 to ‘41 McDougal transformed the Fern lode from a failed prospect into the fourth largest gold producing mine in the district. In the summer of ‘36 McDougal brought in a few more employees to work the Fern and output rose immediately. In 1937 the Fern was the highest producing mine in the district. Higher than that of the Independence, Gold Bullion, and Lucky Shot mines. The property at Fern soon sported a mill capable of processing 25 tons of ore per day, a large bunkhouse, aerial tramways, and even a blacksmith’s shop. When I walked among the large complex of buildings now in ruins, I closed my eyes and built it all back up in my mind and imagined what it must have been like. The sound of the mill crushing rock day and night. The light from the carbide lamps reflecting off the tunnel walls, and the delightful smell of food being prepared in the cookhouse for the miners just getting off their shift.

In the decade that McDougal worked the claims, upwards of a million dollars in gold was recovered from the Fern veins. Unfortunately, operations ceased in 1941 due to the wartime gold mining ban that too many mines fell victim to. Though it wouldn’t become nearly what it was at its peak, the Fern was the first mine in the district to be up and running following World War II. McDougal had given up his lease of the property in 1945 and it was picked up by Albert Dodson the same year. Things didn’t bode well for Dodson at first when a fire in ‘46 razed several structures on the property, but once the mill started running again in ‘48 things picked up a bit. Sadly, the post-war success was short-lived when Dodson died on a hunting trip in 1950. The mine closed for good in 1951, not because the gold ran out, but because rising production and employment costs made commercial mining less than profitable.

Although it has faded into history a bit and is not nearly the attraction that the Independence Mine is today, Fern was described as “one of the largest producers of gold in its day” and deserves a prominent place in the timeline of Hatcher Pass.

The Gold Mint Mining Company established by Hatcher himself was among those mines that gave life back to the district after the first World War. It is unclear when exactly the claims were staked, but mining began at a large scale in 1920 after Hatcher returned from Seattle where he married Cornelia Templeton Jewett, an outspoken women’s rights advocate and the reason we know as much as we do about Hatcher. After landing in Seward, Hatcher mined on the Kenai Peninsula for a few years before making his way back up to his pass, and the Gold Mint.

The worst part about Hatcher gaining fame for being a miner is that he believed it. He knew a bit about placer mining from prospecting his way up from Texas during the days of the Klondike rush, but he was not a miner by trade. Hatcher was a trapper. He earned a living trapping and selling furs and would prospect a little in the summer when he had time. He was no seasoned hard-rock miner, so when he punched a hole in the bedrock above the Little Susitna River it didn’t go very far. There was “gold in them thar hills,” but perhaps not as much Hatcher anticipated when he built a mill, cookhouse, and bunkhouse to facilitate his operation. After blasting in four areas, Hatcher’s outfit found quartz veins of good size, up to 18 inches at their thickest points and containing rich quantities of gold. However, not very far into the rock they became extremely difficult to locate. The thick veins were erratic and separated by tight barren intervals, evidenced by one miner saying they were “crooked as a Scotsman’s cane.” After seeing them for myself, I’d have to agree. One interesting thing about Hatcher’s mine is that it was the only mine in the district to have a uniquely high silver content mixed in with the gold. This could be attributed to the theory that the sediment in the Little Su valley is from a younger geologic age than that of its neighbors. Whatever the case, gold being the prize and not silver, Hatcher inevitably ran out of money to fund the endeavor about the same time as the Fern did and ceased operations. His marriage with Cornelia fell apart shortly afterward and he proceeded to move down to the Peninsula and back into seclusion, where he immerged years later reporting to have made a rich strike in 1943 that he deemed the “greatest gold discovery of his career.” Even with rich ore samples in his hands, no one was interested in gold at the time, and his sad story ended in a cabin 23 miles north of Seward in 1950.

After Hatcher left the Willow Creek Mining District, some others picked up where he left off and attempted to mine the Gold Mint on a smaller scale. The owners of the Marion Twin mine on the other side of the pass, took over the mine primarily to use the mill that was on the property. They vacated in 1931 and the lease was given to a man named Fred Johnson who worked this mine off and on for several years as well as the nearby Mabel Mine. In 1940 the site was abandoned, and the claims expired, staying that way until ‘46 when two men named Lloyd Hill and Charles Cope re-staked the area and mined from 1948 to ‘49 taking out the last good ore according to hobby prospectors who later explored the workings. In 1948 Hill and Cope re-named the Gold Mint to the Lonesome Mine and worked it until an avalanche demolished the mill in ‘49 and a fire burned the bunkhouse in 1950.

The road to Lonesome that was cut by Hatcher and his crew remained open and could be traveled by car up until the late 60s when a flood washed out the bridge over the Little Su. This made crossing it last summer a real challenge. At one point, my dad and brother and I were linked together like a human chain to prevent us from being washed off our feet.

The road is still visible on the east side of the river, survived by the Alder trees that grew up in its bed. The beginning section of the road on the west side can still be hiked on as the Gold Mint Trail. Hikers can continue up the trail past where the road would have crossed the river and with a keen eye, can spot the ruins of the mill building just below the round rock face on the other side of the valley.

These are only but a few of the stories I came across when researching the pass in our backyard. I wish I could have done more, but the summer ended too quickly and the termination dust lighted on the tops of those granite peaks that guard the gold and history beneath them. But in the short time I’ve come to know them, they have been a friend to me. I’ll just have to wait until the ice and snows melt again, unlocking the portals and the voices of the mines and they can recount to me again what they’ve seen where the mountains meet the skies. Until then, the fever will grip me as it did with countless souls before, and the final words of Robert Service’s poem will ring in my ears.

“There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;

It’s luring me on as of old;

Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting

So much as just finding the gold.

It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder,

It’s the forests where silence has lease;

It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,

It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.”

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