XIII. COPPER RIVER REGION AND COOK INLET (Historic Information)
Great in value as are the auriferous placers and lodes of Fairbanks, Nome, and Juneau, it is believed that in time they will yield in importance and in value of output to the copper ores and coal fields of the coast region south of the Alaskan Range, extending from Yakutat westward to the Alaskan Peninsula.
The development of all this region has hitherto been slow and unsatisfactory. The gold output from 1895 to 1898 inclusive did not reach three and a half millions, an annual average yield of less than a quarter of a million, and of this amount 2o per cent, is credited to the years 1904 and 1905. It is beyond reasonable doubt, however, that the mineral productivity of this part of Alaska will be largely increased, and that within a few years.
Copper River Region
Valdez has been the centre of the activities of this district until 1908, when its new rival Cordova was founded as railway headquarters. Valdez is an enterprising town, with many advantages and attractions. Its site is beautiful and its picturesque surroundings are beyond description. The contrasting elements of bay and mountain, of glacier and valley, of moraine and forest, must be seen to be appreciated. Within easy reach are Port Wells and Harriman fiord with a succession of five glaciers, which for their size, number, and magnificence cannot be surpassed. A few miles inland from Valdez begins a wooded country, which by the size of its trees, the color of its abundant flowers, and the variety of its edible berries recalls the most fertile valleys of California and Washington. Valdez affords all the comforts and most of the luxuries of modern life, with its clubs notably the Tillicum -hotels, electric lights, telephone service, churches, schools, and hospital. Truck gardens thrive, and sawmills do a flourishing business. In short, there is everything to make a considerable town, except a railway into the interior, which there have been heroic efforts to build. Unfortunately, after the construction of several miles of completed track, the Alaska Home Railway Company went into the hands of a receiver. The port is the most northerly harbor in North America, possibly of the world, that is open throughout the year. In addition Valdez is the junction point of the Signal Corps Seattle-Valdez Cable and its military land lines, that reach, by a system of nearly 3,000 miles, Fairbanks, Egbert, Nome, and the Bering Strait region. More important, Valdez is the point of departure, over the Federal roads, for the, great Alaskan mail that serves tens of thousands of miners throughout the northland. These roads are the natural highway that leads to the Tanana Valley, by the only winter service in Alaska open to freight and passengers.
The mining interests of the Controller Bay region built up Katalla as a rival to Valdez, but complications arose and disadvantages developed, which ended in the practical transfer of the railway terminus to Cordova, where a thriving, bustling town came into existence in 1908. Its future success is assured, though it is uncertain, to what extent it will displace Valdez, about fifty miles farther to the north.
MAP NO. 4 LOWER COPPER AND CHITINA VALLEYS
As has been stated, the gold fields of the Copper River region, though promising in their future outlook, have not been profitable producers to any extent. The output of the placers in the Nizina district, at the head of the Chitina, and of the Chestochina Basin, could scarcely have exceeded $200,000 in 1908, though extensive improvements in the way of ditches, hydraulic appliances, and systematic development should greatly increase the future yield. Auriferous lode mining has been pursued on Jacksina Creek, where a small stamp mill has been operated and ore bodies uncovered.
The principal forms of mineral wealth in these districts consist of copper veins and coal beds, which are considered as almost inexhaustible in quantity and excelling in quality. Gold and oil are considered as yet only contributory and incidental resources.
The copper veins from which the greatest yield is anticipated are rich in quality and extended in distribution. Indeed, it is claimed that this district is unequalled elsewhere in its copper resources, whether viewed from the standpoints of extent of field, richness of ore, or facility of mining. The deposits are both sulphides and native copper, which are widely distributed and apparently unlimited in quantity. The copper-bearing area is included between the Nebesna watershed of the Wrangell Range and Chitina Valley to the south, and from the Kotsina eastward to the International Boundary.
In both the Chitina and Kotsina basins the deposits are being systematically developed, and mining installations are under construction. No less than six companies have done extensive work for development. At the Bonanza mine, in the Nizina watershed, the mining installation has been practically completed, pending the perfection of adequate means of transportation, which now consist of one boat connecting with the Copper River Railway.
Three disadvantages developed the winter snow, the short summer season, both insuperable, and the inadequate, most expensi\ e transportation both for men and material. The handling of winter freight; by horse sleds is less difficult than the transportation of miners in and out. In consequence, the necessity of speedy and economical transportation was early recognized as the most important factor in, if not absolutely indispensable to, successful operations. Pending the determination of the financial expediency of developing the ore bodies, there arose numerous schemes, involving legal complications and bitter rivalries, as to route, construction, and control of such road. Several railroad wars occurred with violence and manslaughter, necessitating the intervention of the Federal authorities to restore the public peace. Eventually transportation facilities were provided by the Copper River Railroad, which, beginning operations in 1908, constructed a standard-gauge railway to Abercrombie Rapids, a point from which the upper Chitina is regularly reached by light-draft steamboats.
Railway construction is progressing steadily, and the completion of the Copper River Railway up the Chitina, to the mouth of the Nizina, is practically assured. This will furnish speedy and economical transportation, over a down-grade, of copper ores mined in the watershed of the Chitina. With the development of the Bering River coal fields, thus bringing together cheap coal and cheap copper ores, will undoubtedly spring up a large smelting industry in this district.
Prince William Sound
Copper production in this district has not waited, on railroad building for its incipiency. On Prince William Sound, immediately adjoining Cordova, copper mines have been developed and operated at Ellemar, as well as farther west on Latouche Island and on Knight Island. Of these mines the Bonanza, Latouche Island, was operated continuously during 1908, and the Gladhaugh most of the time, while several other properties made small outputs. The ore shipped was high-grade, "averaging probably between 7 and 8 per cent, copper and $1 to $2 in gold and silver. Altogether Prince William Sound produced in 1908 over 500 short tons of copper, as against about 700 tons for the rest of Alaska; a striking evidence of the low unit cost of operation on the Sound, when one considers the low price of copper that year. When cheap fuel shall be available from the adjacent coal fields, large quantities of low-grade copper ore can be profitably treated by local smelters.
The known coal fields of Alaska, as given by Brooks, aggregate 1,238 square miles, of which 30.6 are anthracite, 54.7 semi-bituminous, 557.3 bituminous, and 861 lignite. The areas of the coal-bearing rocks aggregate 12,644 square miles.
The most important advance of late years was the systematic survey and development of the coal resources of this region.
The most valuable coal deposits in Alaska are those at and near Controller Bay, of which the Bering River veins are best known. The coal beds on the Matanuska River, Cook Inlet, are but slightly inferior. The Bering River fields cover an area aggregating 48.4 square miles, of which 26.6 are underlaid by anthracite and semi-anthracite. The opinion that these coals are suited for coke, steaming, etc. is fully justified by analyses which show that the Bering coal has a fuel ratio rising from 5.28 for the semi-bituminous to 8.77 for the semi-anthracite and 12.86 for the anthracite. The Matanuska coal values are slightly lower, ranging from 3.23 to 11.90. The best British Columbia coals range from 2.22 fuel ratio to 3.35. Comparisons with the best Eastern coals are decidedly favorable, the three standard coals being Pennsylvania anthracite, 22.33 fuel ratio, Loyalsock, semi-anthracite, 7.13, and Pocahontas, semi-bituminous, 4.46.
Of the areas of high-grade coal Brooks writes:
The Bering River field, lying about twenty-five miles from tide-water at Controller Bay, embraces 26.4 square miles underlaid by anthracite and 20.2 square miles underlaid by bituminous coal. Coal beds varying from 6 to 20 feet in thickness are exposed in this region, with some local swellings, giving a much higher maximum thickness. In quality the coals vary from an anthracite, with 84 per cent, of fixed carbon, to a semi-bituminous, with 74 per cent, of fixed carbon and include some varieties that will coke.
Cordova, Prince William Sound, and the Copper River Railroad, October, 1908.
(Chugach Mountains in the background.)
Although the Bering River coal beds have been located and partly opened, their development is practically suspended, as patents cannot be obtained for sufficient acreage to justify the expensive installations that are necessary for success. This is due to the withdrawal of these lands from entry, which however is only temporary. Meanwhile the disadvantages attendant on opening up of coal mines and marketing their output, have been in a large measure overcome by private energy and enterprise. Controller Bay did not offer proper shipping facilities, while heavy timber, dense vegetation, extended swamps, and excessive rainfall made all operations slow and costly. Conditions have now entirely changed, through the construction of the Katalla Railway, seven miles, narrow gauge, which connects with the Copper River system and its terminal facilities at Cordova.
Brooks says of the importance of the coal fields;
The value of the high-grade fuels of the Pacific seaboard (of Alaska) exceeds that of the gold deposits, and the exploitation of these coal fields is of the greatest importance to the entire western seaboard of the continent. These coals will furnish not only the high-grade steam coal needed for various industries, but also the coke for metallurgical enterprises.
The petroleum fields of this region extend from the Copper River delta eastward to Bering Glacier, an area of about 150 square miles. Operations since 1901 have proceeded in a desultory way and without any large flow of oil. A dozen or more wells have been drilled, of which about one-fourth have produced oil in moderate amounts. Difficulties as to title, heavy cost of installation, prospective competition of the Californian fields, and lack of transportation facilities are at present preventing extended operations. The local demands, however, are met by the output.
The inlet region is still in the stage of slow development rather than in that of productivity. Auriferous lode mining is gradually coming to the front, the Willow Creek Basin, of the lower Susitna, having added a five-stamp plant to the three-stamp mill that has successfully operated for several years. The gold output is as yet inconsiderable, scarcely reaching a quarter of a million in 1908, including the yields of the Sunrise, Valdez, and Yentna placers. The difficulty and expense of reaching Valdez Creek and the Yentna River preclude the successful working of any but their richest placers. None of the gold and copper lodes located on the Kenai Peninsula have yet reached the producing stage.
The Matanuska coal fields, though remote from sea transportation, are the most valuable mineral deposits of the inlet region; their area, quality, and availability are conclusively shown by late mining surveys. Two serious conditions are retarding their complete development inability to obtain patents for the coal lands, and the financial embarrassments of the Alaskan Central Railway Company, which has suspended construction and placed its affairs in the hands of a receiver. As Cook Inlet is closed at its head by ice for a portion of the winter, the full development of the Susitna, Yentna, Matanuska, and other mineral producing regions depends on railways, so that their great prosperity must be somewhat delayed. Brooks thus describes these veins.
The Matanuska coal field lies about twenty-five miles from Knik Arm, a northerly embayment of Cook Inlet (frozen in winter). The known commercially valuable coals of the Matanuska field vary in quality from a sub-bituminous to a semi-bituminous, with some anthracite. The coal beds vary from five to thirty-six feet in thickness, and the total area known to be underlaid aggregates 46.5 square miles.