MOUNTAIN ECHOES: Turning a page on the past makes one appreciate the present

Friday, September 16, 2016 - 13:06
  • Approaching the John Hirshey and Swetmann mine area at the head of Palmer Creek Valley. Photo by Frank E. Baker for the Star
  • Blue Lake above the mining ruins – a terrific lunch spot on a spectacular day. Photo by Frank E. Baker for the Star

The time-weathered road angling up the mountainside was quickly narrowing. Hiking slightly under an elevation of 3,000 feet, I was literally following the footsteps of gold seekers from the last century.

I soon came upon an open adit, or tunnel, where gold ore was taken from the mountain. From this point the raw ore was loaded onto a tramway that transported it about 1,000 feet down the mountain to milling equipment. 

Old, rotted timbers lay on the ground inside the adit and I wasn’t curious or brave enough to venture inside. Glancing far below to the scattered bleached-out boards and other mining ruins, I was struck by the lengths people would go to find this precious yellow metal, which wasn’t priced at $35 an ounce until the mid-1930s.

These now abandoned hardrock (lode) gold mines are located at the end of a 12-mile road at the head of Palmer Creek Valley, on the Kenai Peninsula, not far from Hope. It’s reported there are still some active claims in the area.

In this column three years ago, I wrote about viewing the area from a considerable distance, high on a mountain ridge. On this stunningly beautiful sunny day, August 30 of this year, I was standing right in the heart of it — once one of the most productive gold mining areas on the Kenai Peninsula.

Historical background

Palmer Creek is named after George Palmer, who in 1894 discovered placer gold on the lower portions of the creek. Later, in 1911, John Hirshey developed hard rock (lode) deposits at the head of the valley.

One of the richest deposits was called the “Lucky Strike Mine,” which was active until the 1930s.

Hirshey came north with one of the first groups of prospectors in 1895. He staked one of the first claims on Resurrection Creek and was among the founders of Hope City.

According to author Mary Barry’s book, A History of Mining on the Kenai Peninsula, the four claims Hirshey held in the area contained a six-foot-wide vein that averaged about $100 per ton. Another noted miner in the area was Elwyn Swetmann.

Getting there

The Palmer Creek Road branches off the Resurrection River Road after about a mile. About 6½  miles of the road to the Cour de Alene U.S. Forest Service campground, is drivable by an average car. With four-wheel-drive one can go about two more miles. From there it’s either mountain bike or hike.

I chose to park my car at about Mile 5 and then bike to Mile 10, where I stashed my bike. I then hiked the last mile. It’s a good trail (it was once a road) to the head of the valley. I was surprised by the lack of mining ruins — considering what a large operation it was back in the day. Perhaps the Forest Service has cleaned up some of the debris.

After my exploration up the mountain, I dropped down to the tundra and hiked over to a beautiful blue glacier tarn, where I had some lunch. 

With no wind it was actually hot, and I had the place completely to myself. I was surprised that the bugs left me alone!

Reflecting on the past

It was unearthly quiet — so different than it must have been nearly 100 years ago, when scores of miners toiled relentlessly to render pure gold from tons of rock. From old photos (In Mary Barry’s book) I could see there were once cabins and other buildings not far from where I was sitting.

Hirshey and some of the other men brought their wives here. From this location they were at least 13 miles from Hope. And during the early days, transportation was by horse and wagon.

I didn’t linger as long as I’d liked because I thought it would take me quite awhile to get back to my car. But my ascent into the valley that morning was so gradual I didn’t realize how much of a grade it was. Biking back out in the afternoon, I coasted nearly all the way and was back out in less than two hours!

Visiting places like this, steeped in so much history, reminds me how easy our lives have become. Yet, something deep within me wonders how very alive those people of yesteryear must have felt, despite their struggles and hardships. I suppose realistically, given the choice, they would opt for our modern lives instead of theirs. I wonder.

Note:  This will be my last article for the Star. Being a weekly columnist has been a privilege, and a task I have thoroughly enjoyed for more than six years. I will continue writing about the Alaska outdoors, however, so keep your eyes peeled for my byline — I’ll be around. Over the years I’ve seen many of you out on the trails, and if my articles have prompted some folks to venture outdoors, then I feel I’ve been doing my job. Happy hiking, and most importantly, stay safe!

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