Story last updated at 6/4/2014 - 3:06 pm
Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of 2 in a series looking at the history of mining near the site of the proposed Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell mine on the border between the United States in Canada. To see the first part of this series, visit www.capitalcityweekly.com.
Renewed interest in gold mining in the headwaters of the Unuk River, just across the border in Canada, brings to mind early attempts to recover gold as mentioned in a previous column. In the 19-teens or early 1920s a group of gold and silver claims on the south fork of the Unuk were discovered. Several tunnels were drilled and a small stamp mill and concentrating table were purchased, but it is doubtful they reached the property. More than likely, this equipment joined the rusting machinery of the Unuk River Mining and Dredging Company. When the latter ceased operation in 1905, the machinery, destined for Sulphurets Creek, never reached its destination. Its rusted remains were scattered along the old road paralleling the river.
Owing to the difficulties and hazards of transportation, no further interest was displayed in the Unuk area until 1929 when T. Terwilliger and Thomas McQuillan of Ketchikan did some cursory prospecting. Their finds did not prompt others to follow.
Then in 1932, R. A. Mackay, A. H. Melville, and W. A. Prout, representing a Premier, B.C. syndicate, discovered a wide area of mineralization containing gold. This time, there was an influx of more prospectors. During 1934-35, McQuillan, G. E. King and Bruce and Jack Johnstone of Ketchikan also entered the section by means of river navigation from tidewater.
In the latter year, a large placer dredging lease was taken by a group known as the Unuk River Placer Gold Syndicate. Walter Blanton was the principal backer with several other Ketchikan men.
A new departure in freighting started for Blanton's operation. Herb Munter flew supplies in his Bellanca airplane. All supplies were double-wrapped and tied, then dropped on gravel bars. The biggest loss was the 15-gallon gas drums that flattened upon impact.
At that time, pilsner beer was manufactured in Ketchikan. It advertised that its beer barrels were so strong they could be dropped from a two-story window. It was worth a try! The gas was put into beer barrels and dropped on the gravel bars. Success!
It was a short-lived triumph. The sugar residue from the beer gradually froze the rings in engines. Apparently, no one thought to wash the barrels. The syndicate's operations lasted two seasons. The methods used were reportedly not adequate for the heavy type of gold, and an unknown amount of gold was recovered.
With activity up the Unuk, the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce in 1932, requested the U.S. Forest Service and territorial officials make a survey and then construct a suitable trail up the Unuk to the Canadian border. In 30 years, the old road bed was clogged with new growth: alders up to 10 inches in diameter and spruce three to four inches. Windfalls practically obliterated parts of the road, and in many places the river had eroded sections of the road. Bridges had washed out.
The USFS investigated conditions on the river and decided until such time as developments in the back-lying country warranted the expense of road construction, river navigation would have to be used. When funds permitted, stream clearing to facilitate river navigation would be done. This began in 1934 when two major log jams were cut and dynamited. But when the crews returned in 1935, the flood periods had destroyed all of the previous clearings. The cost of keeping the river open led to a decision to clear a trail along the original roadbed.
The USFS contacted the Territorial Highway Department to acquire funds. With this money, a horse trail was built, a road blasted around the cliffs, and bridges and shelter cabins constructed. Many Ketchikan men were employed.
On the Canadian side, the Provincial Department of Public Works built 15 miles of the Unuk River trail in 1935-1936. Now there was a good pack trail from the International Boundary to Sulphurets Creek, where a trail was cut along the creek to the claims.
Then came the war with the shortage of funds and men, and all work ceased. When interest renewed about 10 years later, the trails showed neglect. On the Alaskan side, in 1947, it was reported that in the first 16 miles there were a total of 49 bridge crossings: 24 of these were completely gone and of the remaining 25, only 11 could be used without repair. Many were downstream and needed to be winched back in place. Much decking had rotted. The trail was again full of windfalls. On the Canadian side, by 1949, the trail was in poor condition mostly owing to a large number of windfalls. Ropes on cable crossing on the river had to be replaced.
In that year, C. M. Archbold, USFS Division Supervisor, wrote to the regional forester in Juneau that "We have dropped plans for maintaining the Unuk River trail from the Little Blue Creek up to the boundary when the Canadian Government made it too costly to land supplies on Boundary Lake. We would have to clear each trip through Canadian customs, so we will abandon the work. We should probably give this trail back to the Territorial Highway engineer."
For years, Stan Bishop had the contract from the latter to maintain the trail, but each year less and less money was allotted to keep the 25 miles clear. The trail was eventually abandoned entirely.
In 1973, when I flew over the Unuk River valley, we could see an occasional break in the timber where the road had been. Bruce Johnstone told me that it was possible even then to find parts of the trail. The horses packed the center of the trail so hard that little grew there. The river had washed out great sections of the roadbed, and the bridges are gone.
Mining continued despite the damage. Duke Kilbury of Ketchikan worked a claim on Sulphurets Creek during the 1970s. At that time, Don Ross (who discovered the uranium deposit on Prince of Wales Island) had claims on one of the tributaries. He predicted correctly that it would not be gold that opened the Unuk country but other metals. Seabridge Gold, a Canadian company, has proposed development of the old Sulphurets Creek claims, not only for the gold but mostly for the copper.
Recently scientists and environmentalists have released numerous warnings about contamination from the proposed three open pit mines. They especially point out the massive amount of waste rock that might expose salmon runs to toxic chemicals. Alaskans are concerned about the stock of salmon that return to the Unuk. This controversy will take time to resolve, as will the question of whether mining will again take place up the Unuk River.