Story last updated at 1/2/2014 - 2:26 pm
"There was a copper mine in Tracadero Bay," I told my husband Frank. "Can we stop to see if we can find it?"
We were on a cruise around Prince of Wales Island in the early 1980s and had just left Waterfall cannery en-route to Craig. A stop in the bay, called Big Harbor by early residents, would not be out of our way.
A 1945 U.S. Geological Survey told us the trail began at the mouth of a creek that entered a small bight about three and a half miles from the head of the bay. Frank anchored in the bight and put the skiff in the water to go ashore.
In 1944, there may have been a trail, a reported three-eighths of a mile, but 30 years later it was so overgrown that we could find no defined trail through the heavy underbrush. We struck out taking the line of least resistance up the hill into tall timber.
The mountainsides around Tracadero Bay were prospected just before the turn of the last century. The first claims were staked in 1902 by prospector Victor Vigelius. The next year another Ketchikan prospector George E. Brown staked the War Eagle and Grey Eagle. These men combined the claims into the Big Harbor Mine.
As was typical of all copper mines in Southeast Alaska, it took a great deal of money to learn the extent of the ore. It took even more for equipment to drill and blast shafts to extract the copper ore. Neither Brown nor Vigelius had that kind of money.
The pair approached the owner of the Coppermount smelter on the south end of Prince of Wales Island. In 1905, the Alaska Copper Company expressed interest in the claims and building a tramway to the mine. However, the company encountered financial difficulties and soon closed the smelter permanently.
Undaunted, Vigelius and Brown, who were determined to continue development work themselves, hired a crew. A showing of value made it easier to interest investment capitalists. The shaft reached 57 feet and produced 50 tons of ore that was stockpiled. In May of 1908, investors decided to take a chance and purchased the claims. A. B. Hill, C. D. Calhoun, and P. A. Tucker organized Northland Development Company and placed Tucker in charge. Copper prices were unstable worldwide but the market had just begun to recover after a crash because of an oversupply of copper.
Miners continued to sink the shaft to find more ore. To move the ore, a 2,400 -foot aerial tramway was built leading from the mine to tide water Three tons of ore were shipped out in December of 1908 for testing. Results showed 10 percent copper. Encouraged, Tucker's 10-man crew continued to sink the shaft and drive drifts and adits. By 1910 there were 400 feet of workings. Several more small shipments of copper ore were made in 1912 and 1913. Development work was reported in 1914 and 1915 although no records of shipments were found.
Then in 1916, the mine was leased to the Southeastern Alaska Copper Corporation incorporated by W. W. Sweet, R. W. Sweet and N.P. Olson. The company shipped out 150 tons of ore in 1916. That appears to have been the last shipment.
The Bureau of Mines in 1945-46 surveyed the claims intending to see how much ore remained. The main shaft was located and found to be flooded below the main level. Unable to determine ore bodies, the geologists said the ore bodies apparently were small and from samples, contained six or seven percent copper. No values of gold or silver were recorded.
We took a cursory search beside the creek and among the second growth, but did not find evidence of the saltwater terminal of the tramway. Nor did we locate evidence of a wharf that extended to deep water so ocean-going vessels could load ore. These had been reported to be in ruins in 1945, and the intervening years had reduced the rubble sufficiently to be indistinguishable.
The 1945 report gave us some directions on where to go. Our goal was an old log cabin near a small creek. From there we expected to find the main shaft and workings about 300 yards to the north. A trail supposedly would lead us to another shaft.
We continued our uphill climb, following what we believed to be game trails, but later identified as claim lines. With yellow and orange surveyor's flags, it was evident that the area was still being prospected. The first indication we were on the right track was the remains of one of the aerial tram stations. Rusty pulleys were mounted on large, tall squared timbers. Metal wheels and cables were scattered in the brush. We searched for other stations, but the going was difficult. We were no longer in timber. Underbrush, fallen trees, swamps of skunk cabbage, patches of devil's club impeded progress.
The sound of running water became more and more audible. Perhaps this was the small creek we sought. Suddenly, as we pushed through the low hanging branches of a cedar tree, we saw it: the remains of the log cabin! Only a few layers of logs were still in place. A few boards, so rotten they fell apart when touched, were scattered within the enclosure. Everything was covered with mosses, and there were neither signs of a stove nor litter of rusty cans. We didn't dig to see what might be there.
While our kids, John and Cindy, explored nooks and crannies in the old cabin, Frank and I sloshed through the wet mosses trying to find the log trail. Unsuccessful, we turned back, deciding with the brush so thick, the ground cover so matted and so many fallen logs, we would not attempt to find the shaft. It would be too easy to step into its hidden opening.
The difficult hike had taken longer than expected so we turned back. We started to follow the creek and its descent through a steep-sided canyon. The water was too swift to wade. It was hand over hand, up the mountainside, testing each bush to see if it would hold. "You'll never believe it." Frank called from the top. We were on a very narrow ridge. A series of gullies and ridges were perpendicular so it was impossible to follow the creek.
We worked our way back along the brushy ridge, down the hillside and through more tangled bushes until we once again found the claim lines. We were exhausted when we came out on the beach. The cruiser with heat, dry clothes and warm food, was more than welcome.
"How come they quit mining?" asked Cindy.
"Too hard to get there, "groaned John.
"Market conditions," I explained.
Both Southeast copper smelters were closed. All the heavy ore went to Tacoma or British Columbia by ship .Copper prices in 1917 were fixed by the government when it took over sale and distribution during World War I. After the war, copper prices plummeted and 90 percent of the U.S. copper companies suspended operations. Never were market conditions favorable again for small producers such as the Big Harbor mine.