Koyukuk River Regional Gold Mining History

Natural resources development in the Koyukuk River region dates back to the early 1890’s when miners began to find gold on the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River. Tramway Bar in 1893 was the first significant pay strike. By 1898 the miners that could not find suitable paying claims at the Klondike region began to migrate to the new ‘Koyukuk Gold Rush’ through two routes; through steamboat’s beginning in St. Michael and traversing the Yukon and Koyukuk rivers, or east with dog sled from Dawson City using the Chandalar River.

 “My fortune is in the ground. How much my claims are worth, I cannot say, but no one could buy me out for $100,000. No! I dream of millions.” – August “Deep Hole” Tobin, known as the stubborn Swede, in 1900 (BLM, 1999).

Newcomers soon learned that Northern Alaska and the Koyukuk River were a formidable environment. “In 1898 a sudden freeze-up, not uncommon in Koyukuk country, provided a sub-zero wake-up call for most of the adventurers. Almost overnight, 68 steamers carrying 900 passengers were frozen in place for the winter’s duration. About half of the disillusioned miners grabbed whatever rations they could carry and escaped to the Yukon River via dogsled. The 350 who stayed were broke, but survived with rations left behind by others. (BLM, 1999)”

New Arctic City (mouth of the Kanuti River) was the first prospector settlement that sprang up in 1898, but lasted less than a year as the miners moved north (The town would still remain as a Athabascan town for many years until the move to Allakaket). Other small settlements such as Bergman City (approximately 12 miles below Allakaket), Peavy and Bettles were built in the first few years of the gold rush. “Saloons sprang up, and the town of Bergman even offered a string band and boxing matches for entertainment (Capps & Tacquard, BLM 1999)”. Due to the low waters, freight costs were extremely high (see figure 1).

 Figure 1: Freighting Costs in 1903 (BLM, 1999)

Although relations between whites and the Athabascans and Inupiaq’s appear to be friendly, the huge influx of outsiders brought a huge disease epidemic in 1902. “They had a name for it. K’inaalnonh di saanh, they say. That’s the name of “People Die That Summer.” That’s the only name I hear. Afterward when I get to be man I ask White people, “What kind of sickness?” They say it was measles. I never get Measles… How we never got sick is, about July, my mother and father go up Old Man River. Up about fifteen miles from the mouth to this place called Lynx Creek. We stay up there and put fish trap in again. We never see nobody. Pretty soon it start getting dark again. Days getting shorter. My father said, “I’m going down Koyukuk River, visit people.” He was gone one night and come back. He say, “Lot of people died. Some whole families just wipe out. Kids, old people. Everybody die.” – Edwin Simon (A biography, 1980).

Around 1902 Coldfoot (Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River) was the primary settlement in the area – after the Northern Commercial Company established a small store at the settlement. But like the settlements before it, the miners moved where the gold was. “With the discovery of gold in 1906 at Nolan Creek, the richest strike in the area, a new surge of people filled the valley. During the first five years of production, this strike produced more than $800,000 in gold (or 42,300 ounces)… The town of Wiseman sprang up near Nolan Creek strike and soon became the mining hub. Over the next several years, some cabins and even the schoolhouse and post office were sledded up the river to Wiseman, leaving Coldfoot virtually abandoned (Capps & Tacquard, BLM 1999)”.

Figure 2: Allakaket/Alatna area settlements (BLM, 1999)

Sometime between 1908 and 1911, the Indian Mountain placer gold rush also started. Alfred Isaac, a local Athabascan Indian, along with another unidentified person (either Andrew, or another man named Harry Butler) where the first to discover the area. Unfortunately these local Alaska Native’s would see little of the fortune’s to come.

 “My uncle, Alfred Isaac, he’s the fellow that discovered the gold. Him and my older brother Andrew (?) spend whole summer in Indian Mountain. Go up, go down creeks. Go way up Indian River. Spend whole summer to find that prospect. They call the place Indian Creek and Indian Mountain because this Indian discovered the gold. But you see, they got no sense enough to hold ground. My uncle sold his claim for a thousand dollars. He got that much out of his find. My brother never got nothing out of it. He stake ground and some white people jump that ground. What they call claim jumpers, they just take ax and cut a person’s name off and write their own name.” – Edwin Simon (A biography, 1980).

Late elder Joe Beetus discussed Alfred Isaac’s discovery in 2003. “Maybe around 1911. September month, he go downriver him and Harry Butler go up Indian. They go to place, right across from Indian River called White Bluff. Then go up to Utopia, where airforce base is today. Panned where Indian and Utopia meet. Panned and color in it. They keep panning all the creeks… He got no school education, just like me. He took two claims for Albert Pilot, his brother in law. Next year he say lots of people come here, lots of white people. Two claims was the limit at that time. He said if he knew any better he would have took two claims for himself. Later on, I ask him “how much you sold your claim for?”, he say $2,000 (maybe he was referring to his brother in law’s claim). $2,000 is just like $20,000 these days. After that Hughes City start. Store. Saloon.” – Joe Beetus, 2003 (Joe and Celia Beetus – Part 2, Project Jukebox 2003)

Figure 3: Upper Koyukuk River settlements (BLM, 1999)

By 1915 the Koyukuk Mining District had produced an estimated $2,900,000 worth of gold (153,439 ounces), making it one of Alaska’s largest mining districts. Gold mining would continue throughout the area for the next half century. Placer gold mining still continues in the upper Koyukuk River regions today.