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John McArthur and Joseph Cooper:
Exploring Alaska's Kenai River in 1896

Alaska Search Light

Juneau, Alaska
Saturday, August 29, 1896


    The Seattle P-I publishes the following letter from John McArthur to S.H. Lough of that city, describing a trip he made to the head waters of Kenai River, Alaska. It tells of much hardship and danger, and gives an excellent description of the country explored. "No man should come to Alaska," says Mr. McArthur, "unless he can afford to lose a season's work and $200 or $300. This is a quartz and hydraulic mining country, and a poor man expecting immediate returns from a placer claim had better keep away. There is gold in this country, plenty of it, but it takes an experienced miner, one who is familiar with the country, to do any prospecting here." Mr. McArthur's letter follows:

    You will remember that I left Seattle on Easter Sunday on the steamer Lakme bound for the gold fields of Alaska. A short time after my arrival at this point I learned from J.M. Cooper, who is an old resident of Alaska, that he was making up a party to prospect the headwaters of the Kenai River, and the country lying between the river and Prince William Sound. The exploration was to be a secret one and great care was taken to select the right kind of men. Mr. Cooper had explored this country some fourteen years before in search of the Russian mines. The party being made up, it was decided to go in several divisions. One party was to go up Turnagain Arm to the big gravel banks known to exist on the head of Resurrection Creek, and cross over to the lakes at the head of the Kenai River. Another party was to assemble at Kusselloff (Kasilof) and explore that river. The main party was to go up the Kenai River, to the lakes and explore that section of country.

    Mr. Cooper led the party up the Kenai River, and it fell to my lot to accompany this party. There were nearly 300 men encamped at this point awaiting transportation to Turnagain Arm, and great care was required to get the party off without causing a stampede to the Kenai River. Everything being favorable, the start was made on May 7. Early on that morning two heavily laden dory boats left Coal Point (Homer) bound up Cook Inlet. We camped that night near Anchor Point. The next day we made camp on a sand spit near Lida River (Stariski). Here Mr. Cooper joined the party. We were detained at this point two days by strong head winds. At this point a portage was made of the boats, provisions and camp equipage into the Lida River. We proceeded down the river in our boats but found the surf breaking so high at the mouth of the river that we could not get out into the inlet. A second attempt was made later in the day, Cooper's boat in the lead and followed closely by the other we crossed out over the bar. That night we camped near the Russian village of Nenilchik (Ninilchik), and next day made the Kusselloff River. For some reason not yet explained we did not meet the party that was to assemble here. Before reaching this point both boats were in a storm, and one of them was swamped and came near going to Davy Jones' locker, with all hands on board.

    We left Kusselloff at midnight and arrived off the mouth of Kenai River before daylight. We approached very cautiously, excpecting to proceed up the river unannounced, but we found to our surprise that a party of ten men was building a scow to take up the river. This party was known as the 'Michigan party.' We also learned that four men were camped further up the river. After a short stay here we proceeded up the river and found it closed by an ice jam. Here we went into camp and called it 'Camp Ice Gorge,' and waited for the ice to break up. While waiting here several other parties began to arrive. An attempt was made by our party to make a portage over the ice gorge, but it was soon abandoned, as it was considered dangerous. Here one of the Michigan party went out hunting and was lost in the swamps for three days. An accidental discharge of a rifle in the Cooper camp caused a commotion, but no one was hurt. In the meantime Mr. Cooper had secured the service s of two Indian guides and their skin boat to carry him ahead and lead the way. On May 19 a small opening was made in the ice and a start was made at 2 a.m., Cooper and his two Indians in a skin boat leading, followed by the Cooper boats and several other parties.

    Having reached the head of tide water, we commenced the toil of towing the boats up the river. The first day we were in high spirits over the prospect of getting into the country first, and reaching the goal, Cooper Creek, a small stream that empties into the river that connects the upper and lower lakes. Mr. Cooper had found coarse gold on this stream fourteen years previously. After three days hard toil we arrived at the rapids in the river. Here a portage was made, all the heavy stuff was taken out o f the boats, a sled was made in thirty two minutes, and soon the portage was over. The boat was taken to the opposite side of the river and pulled up over the falls. Farther up the river the second rapids was encountered, but we got over safely. The next day we entered Skilloch (Skilak) lake, but found it full of floating ice, with a strong wind driving it toward the mouth of the river. As we entered the lake we saw smoke from a camp fire about eight miles beyond. A rifle shot was fired in that direction, and it being answered by another we knew that we had caught up with Cooper. Resting here for two days on account of strong wind and floating ice, we saw another party enter the lake, and we concluded to move on. After great toil and much difficulty we reached the vicinity of the Russian mines on the middle Kenai River.

    The next day we examined Cooper Creek and found that only two locations had been made on that creek. Coarse gold was found lying on the slate bed-rock, and it could be seen with the naked eye through the water. A visit was made to the old Russian mines in this vicinity, and after a short time we proceeded up the river and entered the upper lake now called 'Lake Long.' This is a beautiful mountain lake thirty-five miles long and from a half to two and one-half miles wide. It is surrounded on all sides by high snow-capped mountains. The lower, or Schilloch (Skilak) Lake, is also a beautiful sheet of water, and resembles somewhat the famous Lake Tahoe, of California. It is about twenty-four miles long and varies in width from four to six miles. There are many islands in this lake. One is a group called the Gull Islands, from the number of gulls that go there every spring from Cook Inlet to hatch their young. All prospectors visit these islands in sear ch of eggs. I circumnavigated Lake Long four times and made visits to nearly every stream that empties into it. From the south end of the lake it is only about thirty miles to Resurrection Bay on Prince William Sound. Two of our party crossed over the portage in a day and a half, carrying a heavy pack. This is the easiest and nearest way into this country, but at present it is scarcely traveled and is almost unknown.

    Our party remained on this lake about one month, and while here many prospectors arrived, some from Six Mile Creek and Resurrection Creek. But parties coming over this way could carry only sufficient provisions to last them the trip over and back, and in consequence could not do any prospecting. To do prospecting in this part of the country it is absolutely necessary to have a boat. On June 1 the party made the first discovery of a quartz ledge in this section of country. While sailing along the east si de of the lake float quartz was seen on the shore. The party landed and soon discovered a well-defined ledge or fissure vein ten feet wide. This was located and is called the Mammoth Lode. On June 4 a meeting of the miners took place at what is now called Lake City to organize a mining district. J. M. Cooper was elected chairman and G. J. Botcher, of Seattle, was elected recorder. This is known as the Lake mining district, and comprises Skilloch Lake, Lake Long, the river (Kenai) connecting the two lak es, and all the streams emptying into the lakes and river. On the following day another quartz ledge was discovered by B. Galloway, of Walnut Creek, Alameda County, Cal. This ledge is on Vickery creek and is twenty feet wide. The rock resembles very much that of the famous Treadwell mine on Douglas Island. This property is recorded as the Golden Treasure. On Vickery Creek James Stetson and B. Galloway have placer claims, and were working on one of them. I saw a pan of dirt washed that had 15 cents' worth of gold in it.

    During our stay and prospecting in this vicinity, the following is a result of our work: Located five placer claims on Cooper Creek; two placer claims on Falls Creek; two placer claims on Vickery Creek; 160 acres of hydraulic mining ground on McArthur Creek; Golden Treasure lode on Vickery Creek; Mammoth lode near Lake City. Some of our party will do work on this property this summer and winter there. It is the intention to take in provisions and tools early in the spring on the ice.

    This is not what I would call a placer, or a poor man's diggings, and no man should come to Alaska unless he can afford to lose a season's work and between $200 and $300. It takes a whole summer to get the run of things. This is a quartz and hydraulic mining country, and a poor man expecting immediate returns from a placer claim would better keep away. This warning cannot be too often repeated. I am fully aware of the many sad disappointments that await the large majority of people who madly rushed to T urnagain Arm this spring, thinking to pick up nuggets by the bushel. There is gold in this country, plenty of it, but it takes an experienced miner, one who is familiar with the country, to do any prospecting here. Everything is so different from the ways of prospecting and mining in the states of the Pacific coast. I have no hesitation in saying that on the Kenai Peninsula will be found some of the largest hydraulic and quartz mining beds in the country. To the experienced prospector of means who under stands hydraulic gravel mining and quartz mining this offers a good opportunity. But the inexperienced man with small means had better stay at home.

    Cooper having business which called him to this point about July 1, we decided to return the way we came up. One June 20 we broke camp at Lake City on Lake Long, and that evening had reached the Russian village on Sklink River. On the way down we stopped at the mouth of Copper Creek and found the following doggerel written on the back of a cigarette card:

In God we trusted,
In Alaska we busted.
Let her rattle:
Will try it again in old Seattle.

    Promptly at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, June 22, we started down the Kenai River. At the upper rapids we let the boat down by the rope, stern first. We reached the head of tide water at 1 p.m., a distance of about sixty miles. The next day we reached Fort Kenai on Cook Inlet. Our next stop was at the Russian village of Nenilchik, which contains about thirty families. There is a small Greek church there. The inhabitants are mostly engaged in salmon fishing in the summer season. From Nenilchik we proceeded to Anchor Point. Here the Boston and Alaska Mining Company is working a hydraulic claim of several hundred acres, the only one on Cook Inlet. It has completed over five miles of ditch and and employs about seventy-five men. The manager had just arrived on the steamer Gen. Canby, bringing a large amount of supplies, lumber and merchandise. Mr. Clark, an experienced hydraulic mining engineer from California, is in charge of the work. Mr. Lacy a deputy United States min eral surveyor, is in charge of that br anch of the work. We spent the Fourth of July at the company's headquarters and were very kindly treated. Old glory was run up on the company's flag staff and floated proudly all day. In the evening a display of fireworks took place. Mr. Thornton informed us that the company intends to open another large hydraulic claim further up the inlet this summer.

    The steamer Gen. Canby had a very rough passage over from Kodiak. She sprang a leak and the pumps broke down, and all hands had to turn in and bail the water out with buckets until the pumps were repaired. She brought the news that the United States marshal had seized the schooner Lizzie B. at Kodiak and confiscated over 4,000 bottles of whiskey. The Gen. Canby was going to Coal Point to get a supply of coal and Mr. Thornton invited us to take passage on her. Our boat and gear? were hoisted on deck, and after a pleasant run of a few hours down the inlet we arrived at this place, after an absence of two months.

    Don't get the idea that this trip was a summer outing. It was one of toil and hardship. Danger beset us at every footstep. Many who tried to follow in the path of the Cooper party fell by the wayside and gave up in despair.

    Coal Point on Kachemak Bay has one of the finest harbors on the whole coast. There are thousands of acres of fine coal at this place awaiting capital to develop the mines. When I left here last May this was a tented city of several hundred men, but at present it contains only some frame buildings and log houses. The bark Theobahl(?) of San Francisco is here waiting for a crew to take her back, the sailors having deserted her and gone to the mines. The steam schooner Perry, of Puget Sound, now running in Alaska waters, is taking coal. The schooner Bob, of Seattle, arrived here with a party of prospectors who have been prospecting up along the coast. She stopped at the mouth of Copper river and left six men there who will prospect this summer.

    After remaining here a short time I will start out again on another trip to an unexplored country.

Alaska-Yukon Pioneer Biographies