Thursday, April 27, 2017

Knik, Alaska: Little survives of early Cook Inlet commercial center





About 14 miles southwest of Wasilla on the western shore of Cook Inlet’s Knik Arm lies the hamlet of Knik. Its history may be most linked with the 1910 Iditarod Gold Rush and the Iditarod Trail, however, Knik’s recorded history dates back to about 1880.

Knik was originally the site of a Dena’ina Athabascan Indian village. According to exhibits at the Knik Museum (operated by the Wasilla Knik Historical Society), one of the first American traders in the area was George W. Palmer. He established a trading post along the eastern shore of Knik Arm at a Dena’ina village called “Old” Knik (now known as Eklutna). In the 1880s he moved his business across the inlet to “New” Knik. U.S. Census records indicate 46 Athabascan Indians lived at the village in 1880.

Palmer’s move to New Knik proved fortuitous. Gold was discovered along Cook Inlet’s Turnagain Arm in the early 1890s, and the 1896 Cook Inlet Gold Rush brought an influx of prospectors to the region. Those fortune hunters fanned out over the countryside in search of gold, including to the Talkeetna Mountains north of Knik, and to the base of the Alaska Range to the north and west.

The Alaska Commercial Company soon moved to Knik. By 1905 the community found itself the commercial center for the Upper Cook Inlet, supplying goods to trappers and homesteaders, to miners in the Willow Creek Mining District, to government exploration parties and other adventurers.
Knik did not actually have an ideal location to be a commercial center. Because of Cook Inlet’s high tides and Knik’s lack of a good anchorage, freight was unloaded onto skiffs at Fire Island (near present-day Anchorage) and lightered to Knik. Docks were eventually built out across the mud flats into Knik Arm so deep-draft vessels could unload at Knik.

The town’s fortunes were lifted considerably with the discovery of gold in the winter of 1908-1909 in the Iditarod area, 375 miles to the northwest on the far side of the Alaska Range. The first stampeders into the area were from the Fairbanks area—miners taking the first steamers headed downriver in spring. They were joined by other gold seekers, many who journeyed north out of Knik, and soon the towns of Iditarod and Flat, both with more than 2,000 residents, sprang up.

A 2011 Alaska Geographic Association publication about the Iditarod Trail states that more than 65 tons of gold were mined in the Iditarod region. Most of that gold was transported by dog team through Knik. Photographs from that period show convoys of dog teams being used to haul gold—sometimes carrying more than a ton of gold in one shipment.

By 1915 the town had about 500 residents. The 1985 book, Knik, Matanuska, Susitna: a visual history of the valleys, states that the town boasted four stores, four hotels, three saloons, a movie house, barbershop, pool hall, U.S. Commissioner’s office and jail.

Prosperity was not to last, though. The federal government’s decision to route the Alaska Railroad through the Susitna Valley brought ruin to Knik. Railroad tracks reached Wasilla by 1917. Businesses relocated either to Wasilla or Anchorage, and Knik quickly withered away.

Most of Knik’s buildings disappeared — moved or scavenged for building materials. Knik Hall, shown in the drawing, is one of only two remaining buildings. Originally the Fulton-Hirshey Pool and Billiard Hall, it was constructed in 1910, and was later used as a roadhouse. It was donated as a historic site by Lois Bjorn Birdsall and rehabilitated in 1967 by the Wasilla Knik Centennial Committee. It is now operated as a museum by the Wasilla Knik Historical Society.

Sources:

  • Conversation with Diane Williams, docent at Knik Museum
  • Exhibits at Knik Museum
  •  “Iditarod Historic Trail.” Alaska Geographic Association. 2011

  • Knik, Matanuska, Susitna: a visual history of the valleys. Matanuska-Sustina Borough. 1985

  • “Knik Site – National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” William Hanable. U.S. Park Service. 1973

  • “Town of Knik epitomized mining boom-bust cycle.” Laurel Downing Bill. in Senior Voice. Vol. 31, No. 7, July 2008

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Livengood Placers and its vagabond gold dredge




Warehouse at Livengood constructed by Livengood Placer, Inc as it looks today

The building depicted in the drawing is an old warehouse near Livengood. Of heavy timber-frame construction, it has ship-lap siding (except for the gable ends which are board-and-batten), a metal roof and is painted blue. About 40-feet-wide and 80-feet-long, there are offices/workshops located on one end, a large parts room in the middle and an even larger storage area at the far end.

The warehouse is in remarkable condition considering how long it has sat vacant. It is one of the last remnants of Livengood Placer’s two-decade-long struggle to develop and operate a gold-dredging operation just north of Livengood.

Clark Spence’s book, The Northern Gold Fleet, states that in 1924, a Livengood mining engineer tried to interest the Fairbanks Exploration Company (FE Co.), which was bringing dredges to the Fairbanks area, into expanding its operations to Livengood. Those talks never came to fruition.

Not until 1934 did Outside interests pay attention to Livengood and conduct tests that showed the potential for profitable gold-dredging. In 1936, Goldfield Mines of Reno acquired an interest in Livengood claims, formed Livengood Placers, Inc., and began construction of a dam on Hess Creek northeast of Livengood to provide water for a dredging operation. It also began excavating a 3,200-foot tunnel from Hess Creek to the head of Livengood Creek. Later that year the Interstate-Callahan Company acquired a 75 percent interest in Livengood Placers and advanced funds to continue work on the dam and tunnel, as well as build support facilities such as the warehouse.

Unfortunately, unsteady economic conditions during the 1930s brought investment in, and work on the fledgling project to a standstill. In 1939, Livengood Placers finally received a $1,050,000 loan from the federal government’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) and resumed work on the project.

While work was being completed on the water supply, along with ground thawing and stripping, a diesel-powered Yuba gold dredge, with six-cubic-foot buckets, was trucked in an assembled. It began operations in October 1940 and operated through 1941 with less-than-anticipated yields. The company was forced to borrow additional funds to cover construction costs, and ended up owing the RFC $1,500,000.00.

Unfortunately, in 1942 the federal government shut down all gold-mining activities across the nation for the duration of World War II. According to Audrey Parker’s book, Livengood, the Last Stampede, the dredge did not start up again until 1946.

Livengood Placers operated the dredge through the summer of 1954, but was never able to dig itself out of debt.

Even before the dredge resumed operations after World War II the RFC had urged the FE Co. to take over Livengood Placers, but FE Co. officials declined. According to Spence’s book the RFC threatened foreclosure, and in late 1954 followed through on that threat.

The RFC put Livengood Placer’s assets up for sale, and the FE Co. bought the dredge and extra parts, thawing and stripping equipment, and machine shop equipment for $150,000. The FE Co. wasn’t interested in the Livengood claims.

The dredge, with its on-board diesel power plant, was designed for remote operations. According to John Boswell’s history of the FE Co., the dredge was disassembled and trucked to Fairbanks where its pontoons were re-assembled in the Chena River to use as a barge.

Laden with supplies, the pontoon/barge was then pushed 750 miles down the Chena, Tanana and Yukon Rivers; and up the Koyukuk River to the Hogatza “Hog” River. At Hog Landing it was disassembled, and everything trucked 26 miles to Bear Creek. After reassembly, it started dredging in 1957. After successfully operating for many years, it now sits amidst Bear Creek’s dredge tailings.

The Livengood warehouse is on private property. Before exploring the area please check out land status and get permission from land owners.


Sources:

  •  Conversation with Karl Hanneman, Fairbanks resident with experience mining in Livengood area
  • History of Operations of United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company. John Boswell. Mineral Industries Research Laboratory, University of Alaska. 1979
  • Livengood, the Last Stampede. Audrey Parker. Hats Off Books. 2003
  • The Northern Gold Fleet, Twentieth-Century Gold Dredging in Alaska. Clark Spence. University of Illinois Press 1996