Saturday, November 5, 2016

Clarence Berry had major impact on Interior Alaska mining history

Berry Camp along Eagle Creek at about Mile 103 of the Steese Highway

Clarence Berry was one of the “Kings of the Klondike,” that small cohort of early gold-seekers who made fortunes in the diggings around Dawson City in the Yukon Territory.

Born in 1867, Clarence grew up near Fresno, California and by 1893 was operating a fruit farm. However, the depression of the 1890s forced him to abandon his fields. Eager for fresh opportunities, he headed to Alaska in 1894 with friends.

The group landed at Dyea, hiked over Chilkoot Pass, and eventually reached the diggings along the Fortymile River. Clarence ended up mining at Franklin Creek, a tributary of the Fortymile where gold had been discovered in 1886.

In the fall of 1895 he returned to California, and married his childhood sweetheart, Ethel Bush, in March of 1896. The day after the wedding, with little money but high hopes, Clarence, Ethel, and Clarence’s youngest brother, Fred took off for the Yukon.

Settling back into the Fortymile country, Clarence was unsuccessful at prospecting. He ended up bartending at Bill McPhee’s saloon in Forty Mile, the community at the confluence of the Fortymile and Yukon Rivers that served as the region’s administrative center.

George Carmack, who was one of the first men to discover gold in the Klondike, had to register his claims at Forty Mile, and Clarence was behind the counter when Carmack came into the saloon to announce his good fortune. Encouraged by Ethel, Clarence and Fred immediately set off up-river to stake a claim.

Their claim, along with others they acquired interests in, proved rich. According to a 2013 article by Michael Gates in the “Yukon News,” when Clarence and Ethel arrived in Seattle on the S.S. Portland in July of 1897 they carried $130,000 in gold with them—$9 million at today’s gold price.

Clarence used some of his profits to become one of the first miners in the Klondike to invest in steam equipment to improve efficiency. After noticing that steam exhaust from his boiler was thawing the ground, he ingeniously channeled the exhaust into a rubber hose and through a rifle barrel rammed into the frozen ground, consequently being credited as the first to use steam to thaw frozen ground.  He was also the first to install electric lights at his mines.

When the placer gold deposits supporting the Berrys’ mines began petering out, they moved operations to Ester Creek west of Fairbanks. Matthew Reckard, in a 1999 article in “The Ester Republic,” states that the mining camp of Berry, where the Berry family made another fortune, was located a couple of miles down Ester Creek from the camp at Ester.

From Ester, the Berrys moved on to the Circle Mining District in about 1909. Oscar Bredlie, who carried mail between Chatanika and Circle, told Jane Williams in a 1983 interview that the Berrys’ first venture in that area was at Berry Camp, on Eagle Creek south of Eagle Summit.

Berry Camp, which can be seen below the Steese Highway as you climb Eagle Summit, is shown in the drawing.  The camp, which is on the south side of Eagle Creek, was the support camp for a hydraulic mining operation. The two lines of vegetation seen at the top of the drawing mark the remains of ditches excavated to carry water from Upper Eagle Creek to mining areas lower down the creek.

The camp was located along the old winter trail over Eagle Summit.  Although never billed as a roadhouse, it was a frequent stopping place for travelers, and evidently supported a lively little community. During construction of the Steese highway in the late 1920s it was utilized as a road construction camp.

The Berrys also mined over the divide along Mammoth Creek where they successfully operated a dredge for many years. Clarence, who eventually resettled to California with Ethel, died in 1930.

Berry Camp is located on private property. Please check land status and get property owners’ permission before exploring the area.

  • “Berry, the Post Office on Ester Creek.” Matthew Reckard. In “The Ester Republic.” Vol. 1 No. 10, October 1999
  • “Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, Geological Survey professional paper 567.” Donald J. Orth. U.S. Geological Survey. 1971
  • “The Horation Alger Story of Clarence Berry.” Michael Gates. In ‘Yukon News.” 5-3-2013
  • Oscar Bredlie interview with Jane Williams on 11-2-1983. Oral History Collection at UAF Archives

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