Porcupine Gold Rush
Porcupine town site 4th of July, 1901. Note both the U.S. and Canadian flags are flying due to the border dispute at the time.
The year of 1898 was one of many gold rushes—not just the Klondike. On October 10,1898 S.W. Mix and his friends, Fenley and Wiley, were prospecting about two miles up Porcupine Creek, an eight mile tributary of the Klehini River, thirty-four miles from the town site of Haines. Mix saw and picked up some gold dust and nuggets from a slate shelf projecting above the water line. As he later reported to The Alaska Mining Record, (Juneau, December, 28, 1898): "...I told (Fenley) I would show him something that would gladden his heart...I put the pan against the bank, scraped it full and we got about $7 from this... (Fenley) took the pick, scrambled up on the shelf and picked down about a barrel of dirt and as it fell I could see the coarse gold all through it and some nuggets...." They panned $75 in two hours.
Prospecting party leaving Porcupine, early 1900s.
The three partners staked Discovery and the adjoining three claims which proved the richest deposits in the area. Porcupine Mining District was established and by mid-November (the end of the mining season) fifty men were in residence. They staked claims along the Porcupine and its tributaries, McKinley, Cahoon and Glacier Creeks. Ever the entrepreneur, Jack Dalton, developer of the Dalton Trail, acquired many claims through purchases and in payment for grubstakes. He built a trading post and a sawmill to provide lumber for sluice boxes and rockers.
$50,000 in gold was recovered by 1899. The Dalton Trail Company surveyed a 150-acre town site of Porcupine and the 200 residents were supplied by way of the Dalton Trail. Jack Dalton and Ed Hanley’s Porcupine Trading Company operated a general store and a stage line. The town also had four saloons and a mining recorder’s office. A post office opened in 1901.
This huge flume, the largest in Alaska at its time, was 6 to 8 feet deep, 24 to 40 feet wide and 8,000 feet long. It took 2 million board feet to build, circa 1916.
During the first few years, gold was mined with pick and a shovel, rocker and sluice box. As the richest claims played out, more sophisticated and expensive methods of recovery were required to make them pay. Individual and partner ownership gave way to numerous companies. By 1900, Porcupine Trading Company, which now included John F. Maloney of Juneau as a third partner, owned controlling interest in the original claims. The company built a large flume to divert the river and expose the river bed, allowing them to recover about $150,000 in gold per year (worth about $26.5 million in 2013). Heavy snow melt in the spring of 1905 flooded the river, destroyed the flume, buried machinery, filled excavation holes, carried away equipment, and in a matter of hours, destroyed the work of several seasons. Porcupine Trading Company ceased operations. A series of floods ruined nearly every company in the district. The gold rush to Porcupine Mining District was over.
The same flume as pictured above. In spring of 1915 flooding destroyed the lower end of the flume and buried portions of the creek under 12 feet of gravel. Another mining corporation took over rebuilding the flume, only to be wiped out once again with the spring floods three years later, circa 1907-1918.
Two factors reopened the Porcupine Mining District: consolidation of claims and construction of a road from Haines to Porcupine. Consolidation gave the Porcupine Mining Company, organized in 1907 by E.E Harvey, large capital backing. The road provided cheaper freight and access for heavy machinery. Hydraulic mining was now practical and another large flume was constructed to divert the river water A sawmill cut 15,000 board feet of lumber a day to provide the 2,000,000 board feet required for this flume. At 8,000 feet long, 6-8 feet deep and 25-40 feet wide, it was the largest in Alaska.
Many flumes were built and destroyed by spring flooding between 1900 and 1936.
Mining in the Porcupine District was uneventful for the next five years. The eighty men on Harvey’s payroll recovered an average of $3 per yard of gravel they moved from the creek bed. In 1915, however, work ceased when floods destroyed the lower end of the flume and filled portions of the creek with gravel to a depth of twelve feet.
In 1917, the Alaska Corporation took over the original Porcupine Discovery claims and began to repair building and flume damage. After two summers of hard work, more gold was being taken out with less expense than ever before. Bedrock was reached and a bit more water was needed for the final cleanup after the floods. Water came... and didn’t stop. Floods once more bore tons of gravel downstream, undoing the work of two summers.
The Porcupine lay dormant until 1926 when August Fritsche, a miner and businessman from St. Paul, acquired nearly all the claims in the district. His company constructed yet another 12,000-foot highline flume and with as many as 110 employees, worked the claims until 1936. Company records show a yield of $1,700,000 in gold.
On the last day of operations in 1936, Fritsche took $25,000 in gold to his home. When he didn’t show up at the "cleanup" celebration that night, investigating friends found him dead. The gold was not in the safe, and although the house and grounds were searched, not a trace was found. The mining equipment was sold to pay debts. In 1953, a miner living in Fritsche’s house is rumored to have found the missing gold, for he abandoned his claim and was never seen again.
Fording the Klehini River heading for Porcupine, pre 1914.
Supplying Porcupine has always been a challenge. In early days, goods were transported by trail. Even when a one-lane dirt road was constructed, hauling freight was a three to four day roundtrip journey. When Steve Sheldon and Tim Vogel began hauling freight in trucks, they reduced the time to two days. Tim Vogel reported on June 24th, 1915 that the roads were so good he drove from Haines to Porcupine in only 4 hours! Even today everything must be hauled along an 11-mile dirt road or forded across the Klehini River.
Steve Sheldon hauling freight to Porcupine, 1915.
Oftentimes when Steve Sheldon hauled freight, he’d include his family. The children enjoyed these outings. As the oldest, Elisabeth Hakkinen now explains: "We liked to go during clean up times. One of the men at the office would give us each a baking powder can with a lid and a pair of tweezers. As soon as the water had been diverted from the flume, the men collected the larger nuggets left by the washing process, but we could climb right up and crawl along the riffles picking up the small nuggets. We fit better up there than the men did. We were built closer to the ground, our eyes were sharp and our fingers were nimble. If we managed to fill a can to the top (and it takes a lot of small stuff to fill a baking powder can) we were given a whole quarter. Sometimes we would earn only a nickel or a dime, but in those days even a penny was a coin worth having."
One of the few tumbled down structures at the old Porcupine town site, 2007. Photo courtesy of Daphne Ormerod.
Mining on Porcupine Creek after 1936 returned to the small operations of individuals and partnerships. Today a few individuals still mine the creeks of the Porcupine Mining Districts. Nothing of the many flumes remain and only a few decrepit structures mark a town site once occupied by hundreds.
Gold Rush Alaska filmed near the old Porcupine town site. The series was renamed Gold Rush in the second season.
In the summer of 2010 the Discovery Channel began filming a reality TV series on placer gold mining entitledGold Rush Alaska on location less than a mile from the old town site of Porcupine. Various locals have been featured on the series, including the Schnabel family, who have maintained a small mining operation on Porcupine using heavy equipment since the early 1980s.
Cynthia Jones 1987
Updated by Blythe Carter, 2013
Ropel, Patricia. "Porcupine." The Alaska Journal. Vol. 5 no.1 (Winter 1975). 2-10.
Elisabeth Sheldon Hakkinen, interview