Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Autumn bunchberry colors along Steese Highway

Colors are turning here in Interior Alaska. I took this photo on a blueberry picking expedition up the Steese Highway on August 30th.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Little Eska engine a reminder of Matanuska Valley’s coal-mining past

A small industrial locomotive in front of the railroad depot in Palmer is a reminder of the Matanuska Valley’s coal-mining past. Engine No. 5 is a narrow-gauge Baldwin 0-4-0T saddletank locomotive. The 0-4-0 represents the wheel configuration, with no leading wheels, four drive wheels and no trailing wheels. The T denotes a “tank” engine, carrying its water tank and fuel bunker on the locomotive itself, instead of on a tender.

No. 5 was manufactured in 1910 for the U.S government. According to signage at the Palmer Depot, the locomotive spent its early years working on dam and land reclamation projects in eastern Washington state — work ideally suited to narrow-gauge railroads.

Historically, U.S. narrow-gauge railroads had rails 3 feet apart, as opposed to standard-gauge’s 4- foot 8.5-inch spacing between rails. Narrow-gauge railroads used lighter rails and equipment, were less costly to construct and maintain, and could be built with smaller radius curves. This gave narrow-gauge advantages in mountainous terrain and for industrial uses such as logging, mining and construction.

The federal agency that built the Alaska Railroad was the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC). When the AEC began constructing tracks from Anchorage to Fairbanks, it brought little No. 5 north.

Concurrent with the mainline to Fairbanks, the AEC constructed a branch line north along the Matanuska River to open land for coal mining. That branch line was completed by October 1917. The Matanuska line’s primary objective was Chickaloon, where the U.S. Navy wanted to develop a coal mine. However, smaller private mines sprouted up along the tracks, mainly at Moose Creek and Eska Creek near present-day Sutton.

A 1952 U.S.G.S report states that early in 1917, the Eska Mine, about three miles up Eska Creek, opened. Coal from the mine was initially sledded to the railroad tracks. The owners of the Eska Mine encountered problems, and the AEC, needing a reliable source of coal for its locomotives, purchased the mine in June 1917. It installed a narrow-gauge spur from the Matanuska line to the mine that same year. That spur was where No. 5 found a home.

The drawing shows No. 5 as it looked while operating on the Eska spur. Fresh from the factory it would have had a bell and perhaps a light in front of the smoke stack, but photos from 1919 show the engine sans bell or light. It also appears the engine did not have a number painted on it. An identifying number for the engine would have been superfluous on the short Eska spur. Or, perhaps the AEC did not paint a number on the little narrow-gauge tank engine so there would be no confusion between it and the AEC’s other No. 5 engine, a standard-gauge ALCO 0-4-0T locomotive that was shipped to Nenana in 1917.

The little Baldwin No. 5 served on the Eska spur until about 1925. The Eska spur had been converted to standard-gauge rails by then, and the AEC was constructing a narrow-gauge line up Moose Creek a few miles to the southeast, so No. 5 moved to the Moose Creek spur. When the lower portion of the Moose Creek spur was converted to standard-gauge track in 1926, No. 5 continued working on the upper narrow-gauge portion.

A 1942 flood washed out the lower portion of the Moose Creek spur and those tracks were never replaced, forcing mines along Moose Creek to use trucks for hauling coal.

In 1956 the now-abandoned No. 5 was hauled from Buffalo Mine at the upper end of Moose Creek to Palmer and set in front of the Palmer depot. It is now owned and maintained by the City of Palmer.


  • “A History of Coal-mining in the Sutton-Chickaloon area prior to WW II.” Mary Cracraft Bauer & Victoria Cole. Alaska historical Commission Studies in History. 1985

  • Alaska Engineering Commission photographs. Anchorage Museum collections

  • “Major Coal Towns of the Matanuska Valley, a Pictorial History.” Fran Seager-Boss & Lawrence Roberts. Matanuska-Susitna Borough. 1991

  • Signage at Palmer railroad depot

  • “The Wishbone Hill District, Matanuska Coal Field, Alaska.” Farrell Barnes &Thomas Payne. U.S.G.S. 1956

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The ebb and flow of mining at Kantishna is reflected in Eldorado Creek’s history

The Comstock Cabin on Eldorado Creek in 1994. This cabin was built  in the mid 1950s.

Kantishna’s Eldorado Creek, as opposed to the 26 other Eldorado Creeks listed in the “Dictionary of Alaska Place Names,” is a 5.5-mile-long tributary of Moose Creek, located just downstream from the confluence of Moose and Eureka creeks. Mined since the short-lived 1905-06 Kantishna gold rush, Eldorado Creek’s mining history is a microcosm of the ebb and flow of mineral development in the Kantishna area.

During the brief six months the rush lasted, lode deposits of silver were discovered along Eldorado Creek, as well as a stibnite deposit (an ore of antimony) on Slate Creek, an Eldorado Creek tributary near its headwaters.

Mining picked up again during World War I. Slate Creek’s stibnite deposit was worked between 1915 and 1918, the Kantishna Hydraulic Mining Company mined along Moose Creek as far south as the mouth of Eldorado Creek until about 1922, and a silver deposit at the head of Eldorado Creek produced ore through 1923. Along with other Kantishna mines, those along Eldorado Creek were hampered by high transportation costs, as a road from the Alaska Railroad to Kantishna was not completed until 1939. Most mines, even those with rich deposits, were simply uneconomical to operate.

World War II brought gold and silver mining at Kantishna to a standstill, as it did elsewhere in Alaska, since the two metals were not vital for the war effort. However, stibnite was considered strategic (since antimony was used in munitions) and from 1942-44 it was mined at Slate Creek. During the war, a tractor road was pushed up Eldorado to Slate Creek.

Gold and silver mining resumed after World War II. Johnny Busia, who lived at Kantishna since 1918, opened the Comstock claims along the middle section of Eldorado Creek. At his claim he built the 12-foot by 16-foot wood-frame cabin shown in the drawing, now known as the Comstock cabin. Busia drove at least one adit (a horizontal entrance into a mine) into the hillside behind the cabin searching for silver. He later sold the claims to Frank Bonnell (relationship to me unknown) who excavated several more adits before abandoning the mine.

In 1959, Dan Ashbrook moved into the Kantishna area. He settled in to the Eldorado Creek area, acquiring 180 acres of patented claims. During a visit with him in 1994, he told me that he mined the lower portions of Eldorado Creek with a “dry-land dredge.’ Although I did not ask him specifics, dry-land dredges usually consist of a tracked excavator trailed by a mobile washing plant. Kantishna’s remoteness and shallow gravels played to these dredges’ strengths — small size, portability and economical operation without being hampered by their limited excavating depths.

Dan also related that when antimony was mined at Slate Creek in the early 1970s and again in the early 1980s (dependent on fluctuating metal prices) the road up Eldorado Creek was so smooth that he could drive his Cadillac all the way to the top. Mining at Slate Creek stopped in 1983, and in the following decade the mining road rapidly deteriorated. By the time I hiked it in 1994,   much of it was just a rough trail along the creek bottom.

Recently, gold mining resumed along Eldorado Creek. After the 1980 expansion of Denali National Park to include the Kantishna Hills, and a subsequent 1985 lawsuit, mining ceased. Valid mining claims were not extinguished, though. The Park Service bought most of these claims, but in 2016, a plan of operation was approved for a suction-dredge operation on the last remaining unpatented mining claims within the park, along the middle section of Eldorado Creek near the Comstock cabin.


  • Conversations with Dan Ashbrook, Kantishna resident. 1994
  • Conversation with Dave Shirokauer, Lead Science and Resource Team Leader, Denali National Park and Preserve. 2018
  • “Crown Jewel of the North, an Administrative History of Denali National Park and Preserve, Volume 2, Chapter 14: Mining and Kantishna Area Management.” Frank Norris. National Park Service. 2006
  • “Dictionary of Alaska Place Names.” Donald Orth. U.S.G.S. 1967
  • “Eldorado Creek Mining Plan of Operations Environmental Assessment,” Steve Carwile,Britta Schroeder, & Linda Stromquist. National Park Service.May 2016
  • Mindat.org mineralogical database — entries for Alpha and Comstock silver mines on Eldorado Creek, and Slate Creek stibnite mine