Story last updated at 5/28/2014 - 2:03 pm
Editor's Note: This is Part 1 of 2 of a story exploring the history of mining along the Unuk River. Part 2 will be published next week.
Recently, the proposed British Columbia mine Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell has been in the Southeast news. Although the mine is in Canada near the border with the U.S., it is in the headwaters of the Unuk River. This river flows into the Misty Fjords National Monument's Burroughs Bay, the northern end of East Behm Canal on the east side of Revillagigedo Island upon which Ketchikan is situated. According to Katie Moritz of the Juneau Empire, this would be one of the world's largest mines if it is built as planned and produces copper, silver, gold and molybdenum for perhaps 52 years.
These deposits are not newly discovered, and early prospectors were faced with their remoteness. The only feasible way to reach the border was up the Unuk River. Typical of large glacier-fed rivers, enormous quantities of silt have resulted in numerous bars, a network of small channels and sloughs, and low islands. Because of its glacial character, the river is subject to sudden rises and drops. On the lower river, the water can drop over a foot in a night when the temperatures lower in the mountains cause glacial action to slow. It can rise equally fast. The river is swift, crooked and full of log jams, snags, sweepers and featherdusters - a cottonwood or alder that is barely submerged.
The first Euroamericans to go upriver were gold seekers. The between the U.S. and Canada had not been settled when gold was first discovered in 1881. For five successive years some 50 or more placer miners rocked and sluiced in the canyon of what is now known as Sulphurets Creek. Miners reportedly took out 3,000 ounces of gold, but the challenge of getting up and down the river, transporting supplies, and braving the remoteness discouraged the miners.
More activity took place in summer 1893 when a prospector named O'Hara came out of the Unuk area with 11 ounces of placer gold. As a result, a number of prospectors outfitted at Loring on the west side of Revillagigedo Island. During 1893 and 1894, the men took out an unreported quantity of gold.
According to one of those prospectors, there was little gold on the Alaska side of the boundary. Calvin H. Barkdall recalled: "We had a great time getting up the river. It was a case of lining and poling the boats as far as we could and then backpacking our outfits from placer to placer where we stopped to prospect. We were continuously panning, and I want to say right now that we panned from the mouth of the Unuk River to the head and then over on the Iskut side (Stikine River) and got gold every place we panned." He added, "It was nothing to get excited about."
Gold is concentrated on the Canadian side of the boundary, as those first prospectors discovered. The largest early project took place between 1900 and 1905. The Unuk River Mining and Dredging Company, with offices in Dansville, Ill., bought the Sulphurets claims.
In 1902, the company hired crews to move machinery for a mill to treat the gold ore. The barges reportedly made it about halfway up river before the current became too swift and treacherous to continue. Consequently, the company started a road from Hooligan Slough at the mouth of the Unuk River in 1903.
This road followed the blaze marks of a primitive trail built along the northwest side of the river by those 1890s prospectors.
A crew averaging 50 men constructed a wagon road. Of this crew, 15 men did nothing but build bridges, several of which were 75 to 180 feet long. In 1905, the men completed the road to the landing at the head of the third canyon, a distance of 31 miles, of which six miles were in Canada.
At a rock bluff at Mile 13, a donkey engine on a scow pulled loaded wagons around a high bar. The apparatus had a steam boiler to operate a hoist or winch, but a cable broke and everything was lost.
For years, the scow could be seen half-buried in the sand. At some time the company lost more equipment to the river. The late Bruce Johnson remembers hearing about seven barges going up river tied together. The first barge had the steam donkey on it. One or two men would walk up the bank and tie a line to a tree. The steam donkey winched the remaining barges up the river. At the third canyon, the tree uprooted, and when the entire outfit was lost, nine men were reported drowned. The barges broke up, dumping their contents into the swift river.
Active operations seemed to have ceased about the end of 1905. However, neither mining nor the road was abandoned. The Hammond Dredging Company in 1908-1909, drilled parts of the river to determine the depth of the gravel starting from a point five miles from the mouth of the Unuk to 13 Mile Station. Although the engineer in charge reported favorably, actual dredging never started.
Other miners and companies attempted to bring the Sulphurets Creek gold deposits into production, especially when helicopters could bring in supplies and men. It will be interesting to see, in this environmentally conscious world, whether the proposed mine comes to fruition.