Story last updated at 2/1/2012 - 11:02 am
Soon after gold was discovered in Juneau, prospectors fanned out into the 25-mile strip of country between the Mendenhall River and Berner's Bay. Here, the Mendenhall, Herbert and Eagle glaciers descend from snow-capped mountains to gravel-strewn valley floors less than 200 feet above sea level. Prospectors panned the stream gravels hoping to find gold in similar quantities to the discoveries behind the rapidly expanding town of Juneau. In the basins through which Montana and Windfall creeks flow, gold seekers found enough gold to stir images of fortunes.
The discovery of placer gold in the Montana and Windfall creeks dates back to the early 1880s. These two creeks and their basins were separated by a high mountain. Miners worked on opposite sides of the summit.
The first placer gold work on Montana Creek was reported by John Olds in 1882, two years after the discovery of Juneau's Gold Creek. For several years, Olds and other fortune-seekers sluiced, yielding fair returns.
More extensive operations started around the same time on Windfall Creek, but continued for a longer period. Work here took place where the creek bed was relatively flat. Early placer miners in this area were hampered by large boulders, but they worked the gravels with shovels and sluice boxes. Some of the miners were making $10 per day in 1893.
As late as 1900, placer miners were successfully working the gravels of both Montana and Windfall creeks. The yield was steady, but was not making miners spectacularly rich.
In 1902 or 1903, the small-scale sluice mining was superseded by a hydraulic operation. The Alaska-Detroit Mining Company purchased 300 acres of placer ground covering the Windfall area. The company installed powerful hydraulic equipment on claims starting from a point on Windfall Creek one-half mile above Windfall Lake and extending to the headwaters of the creek.
When work started in January 1903, the biggest obstacle the company faced was the transportation of heavy equipment from tidewater up the valley and past a lake. The company, with George W. Otterson as superintendent, decided to sled 20 tons of machinery from Tee Harbor. In later years, the usual route to the mine workings was over wagon roads and trails from Eagle Cove or Peterson's Landing, a distance of about 7 miles.
By April 1903, sawmill machinery, 1,800 feet of hydraulic pipe, an engine and other equipment had been hauled to the claims. The crew busily sawed logs into lumber for 2,200 feet of flume to carry the water to run the hydraulic giant and the associated sluice box. The lumber was also used to construct a boarding house, storeroom, a blacksmith and carpenter shop and an office.
The gravel deposit was 150 feet in width, 20 feet deep and extended for the claim's length until it was cut off by a canyon. More than 40 percent of the gravels contained cobbles and boulders that averaged 4 to 8 inches in diameter. A narrow bed of sand containing the highest concentration of gold lay 2.5 feet above the bedrock. The gold itself was jagged, a dull color and usually fine.
Actual hydraulic work commenced when Otterson and the crew turned on the water in June. However, it took time to wash away the topsoil so actual mining could start. Though the amount of gold recovered is unknown, it was sufficient to encourage the Alaska-Detroit Mining Company to enlarge its operation during 1904. A new hydraulic elevator was installed and the water-supply flumes enlarged. Because the season in 1904 was very dry, work only took place sporadically, but satisfactory results were reported.
A man named Tom Ellis ran the operations in 1905. When he and his crew left Windfall Creek in October, they brought with them 200 ounces of gold.
The following season, Ellis continued to work the placer claims for the company and ran 1,000 cubic yards of gravel through the sluice boxes. The company, encouraged by results, planned to further enlarge its operation by building a ditch to divert the upper waters of Montana Creek into Windfall Creek.
In the fall of 1907, the property was reportedly highly productive. A group of Portland men may have purchased half of the property in 1909, after which point the company and its operations faded from view.
The next mention of operations in the area was in 1914, when a man named Ray Wilson installed a small hydraulic plant at the headwaters of Windfall Creek. It consisted of one hydraulic machine run by Wilson and a crew of three men.
Renewed interest in the placer gravels of Montana Creek came in 1927 when a group consisting of Elliot Fremming, Dominick Perelle, Frank Cincentini and Tony Torro staked claims on the majority of Montana Creek. Another man named Harry Watson bought a large interest in their claims and began operations the next year. In May, Watson built a bridge over the creek and began moving a Caterpillar tractor and a dragline into the claims. To aid Watson's mining work, the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads and the U.S. Forest Service built a road up Montana Creek. In late June, Watson began sluicing and was occasionally confronted by bears; he was chased from his machinery at least once. Watson worked the gravels intermittently until 1936, recovering only small amounts of gold.
After this time, the placer gravels of Montana Basin and upper Windfall Creek were abandoned. However, prospectors and miners also attempted to extract gold from hard rock as early as 1888 in the Windfall Creek area and 1894 near Montana Creek. Operations ceased in the mid-1930s.
Recently, gold in this area has again been in the news. In the early 1980s, mining company Echo Bay Mines Ltd. and the U.S. Bureau of Mines discovered promising lode gold prospects in the vicinity of Windfall Lake. According to well-known Anchorage economic geographer and miner Charles Hawley, veins are now exposed at the toe of retreating Herbert Glacier. The old prospectors would have seen only the face of the glacier.
A large number of claims in the area have been staked by Dale Henkins, Floyd Branson and Jim Wilson along what has turned out to be five parallel gold-mineralized quartz veins. These claims have been leased to companies with the financial capability and expertise to determine if the claims have sufficient mineral content to be mined. Following drilling and trenching in summer 2011, an announcement was made by Quaterra Resources Inc. of a new joint venture with Grande Portage Ltd. to continue to explore and develop this Herbert Glacier gold project. A Canadian news release stated the option agreement between Quaterra and Grande Portage, giving the latter the possibly of earning 65 percent interest in the property by spending $1.25 million in two development stages. Data from assays performed on core samples bored in 2011 have been made public, and core drilling is planned to continue in 2012.
Placer mining is the mining of deposits for precious metals by method of gold panning, sluicing, hydraulicking or by use of a trommel screen.
Sluicing is performed by shoveling gravel into a sloping wood trough through which water runs. The heavier gold sinks below riffles and is trapped while the water stream, or sluice, washes away the waste rock.
Hydraulic mining, or hydraulicking, uses high-pressure jets of water to dislodge rock material, which is then sent through a sluice box for gold/waste separation.
Lode gold is found in high concentrations, usually in the form of veins running through bedrock.
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.