AN UNUSUAL AND DIFFICULT JOURNEY
SEPTEMBER & OCTOBER 2019
In the City Hall lobby in Homer, Alaska, is a small section of one wall dedicated to local history. In a small frame on that wall is an orange-brown photocopy of a document cover more than a century old. It is titled “Constitution and By-Laws of the Kings County Mining Company of New York.” The story behind that document and its connection to Homer and the central Kenai Peninsula requires a step back in time and all the way across North America.
Two things are important to understand from the beginning: First, the Kings County Mining Company originally had no intention of going to the Kenai. Its advertised goal was the Klondike, in Canada’s Yukon Territory, where gold had been discovered in 1896. Second, shortly after the company launched its expedition in mid-February 1898, many people believed it had ended in tragedy.
|Henry Walter Rozell,company treasurer.|
But not everything was what the way it seemed. Changing plans and overcoming obstacles were going to be the norm on this expedition.
Only about a week after the three-masted bark, the Agate, had set sail from Pier 4 in New York’s East River, this headline appeared in The New York Times:
“THE AGATE’S OWNERS WORRIED.
Uncertainty as to Whether Wreckage
Reported Off Barnegat Is that of the Bark.”
Barnegat is a sheltered bay off the New Jersey coast. Floating
debris had been spotted nearby, and early reports pointed to the Agate. The well-financed dreams of the members of the Brooklyn-based mining company appeared to have been crushed.
Fortunately it was a false alarm. Shortly thereafter, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle produced a headline announcing that company officials had determined the Agate was safe after all; the wreckage, said the newspaper, had come from some other unlucky vessel.
A few weeks later, in early April, came a definitive sighting of the Agate near Rio de Janeiro, off the coast of Brazil, still on course to sail around Cape Horn and then northward to San Francisco.
Back in New York, members of the mining company sighed with relief.
Reports vary, but the Kings County Mining Company had approximately 60 shareholders, all holding a financial stake of five $100 shares, for a total company investment of $30,000 (about $828,000 in today’s money). They also had a 50-year charter and plenty of optimism.
In fact, the day before they had set sail, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle had characterized the company as “made up of good businessmen, all determined before they return to amass good-sized fortunes.”
To help them realize their golden goal, the Agate was carrying nearly all of the company’s gear—small steam-powered launch boats, mining implements, tents, and about two years’ worth of provisions—plus about 30 members of the company, in addition to a captain and crew. According to their stated plan, once the ship reached San Francisco, they would telegraph notice of their arrival back to New York, and the remaining members of the expedition would journey by transcontinental railroad to unite the full company.
But the Spanish-American War, which also launched in 1898, complicated matters.
The Spanish gunboat Temerario was prowling the east coast of South America. Fearing that the American vessel might be captured, the United States consul in Montevideo, present-day capital of Uruguay, halted the Agate’s voyage there and caused a considerable delay.
In fact, due also in part to the heavy weather they experienced later while traveling around the Horn, the Agate did not arrive in San Francisco until late August. By the time mining company members back in Brooklyn had clambered aboard a West Shore Railroad locomotive and begun their journey westward, they were well behind schedule, and the season was growing late.
August became September and crept toward October. Members of the Kings County Mining Company reconsidered their plans. Deciding they were too close to winter to reach the Yukon gold fields, they aimed instead for the Kenai Peninsula and set their sights on the burgeoning mining town of Sunrise.
Gold had been discovered in the Hope and Sunrise area by at least the early 1890s. When word got out, miners had surged in. In the spring of 1896, according to the Hope & Sunrise Historical Society, 3,000 gold seekers sailed into Cook Inlet. By the summer of 1898, there were an estimated 8,000, and, for a few weeks, Sunrise City, along Sixmile Creek, with 800 residents, was the largest town in Alaska.
The members of the Kings County Mining Company, cruising into the inlet in late autumn, hoped to add to the population and get rich.
But even in this they were unlucky.
According to Alaska’s No. 1 Guide, a biography of Andrew Berg by Catherine Cassidy and Gary Titus, the captain of the Agate, “apparently intimidated by the prospect of
navigating Cook Inlet … convinced
the group that Sunrise was easily reached overland from Kachemak Bay.” Therefore,
on Oct. 16, he deposited the entire company and its “mountain of supplies” on the
base of what is now called the Homer Spit.
|Herman Stelter, who was a member of the Kings County Mining Company expedition in1898, poses with a fine crop of vegetables in front of his Kenai River canyon home. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service)|
In 1898, coal miners were living and working in Coal Bay, on the inside of the Spit, but little else resembling civilization was evident. Today’s city of Homer simply did not exist, nor did roads or bridges or accommodations of any sort. The members of the mining company—including some women and possibly some children—were on their own.
Slowly they began heading generally north, according to Cassidy and Titus, “cutting a trail and ferrying their belongings with packboards and handmade wheelbarrows. Besides a large quantity of foodstuffs, such as casks of flour and bacon, they had all of their mining equipment, including pans, picks, shovels and sledges.”
By early November, they had reached a coal-mining operation at McNeil Canyon (now about Mile 12 of East End Road). There, on Nov. 10, they amended their company constitution and bylaws, naming new officers and a new board of trustees, and trudged onward.
They walked the beach to the head of Kachemak Bay, then traveled up the west side of the Fox River drainage and over to Tustumena Lake. Around the eastern end of the lake, they ascended the Birch Creek drainage to reach the benchlands between Tustumena and Skilak lakes. After crossing the Killey River, they made their way to the south shore of Skilak Lake and decided they could go no further.
It was winter. They hastily built cabins along a stream now known as King County Creek, and they hunkered down.
In the next spring, they gave up.
According to Cassidy and Titus, they dissolved their company charter and built boats to carry them downstream to Kenai. Most of them found their way back to the East Coast, no fortunes in their pockets, in fact no mining done at all. And for years afterward, trappers using the miners’ cross-country trail “found caches of equipment and food which the hapless group had abandoned along the way.”
But there is a coda to this tale of disappointment.
Enter Hjalmar Anderson, who along with his wife Jessie, homesteaded Caribou Island on Skilak Lake in 1924. According to mid-1970s documentation from longtime early Homer resident Yule Kilcher, Anderson discovered the last cabin still standing along King County Creek in the 1920s and found inside part of a diary and the mining company’s 1898 constitution and bylaws.
Anderson rescued the legal document, reported Kilcher, but left the remains of the diary because it had been “used as fire kindling by Army Officers during World War I who were using the cabin as quarters.” Anderson bequeathed the document to Kilcher, and in 1976 Kilcher donated it to Homer’s Pratt Museum.
Kilcher also told the museum that at least three members of the mining company had remained in Alaska, although the exact number is difficult to pin down. According to Cassidy and Titus, it was two: Carl Petterson, who settled in Kenai and married Matrona Demidoff; and Herman Stelter, who was documented living and mining in the Kenai River canyon in the 1910s. The phrase “Stelter’s Ranch” can still be seen on old topographic maps of the area.
In her History of Mining on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, Mary J. Barry suggests there may have been at least one more man who stayed, although she names no one else. Likely, though, it was Thomas P. Weatherell, who in November 1898 had been tabbed as the mining company’s new vice-president.
Kilcher said that one of the men who stayed had moved to Talkeetna. In a history of Talkeetna, author Coleen Mielke describes Weatherell, born in either 1869 or 1871, as “a bachelor from New York” who was the Talkeetna postmaster from 1918 to 1927.
As for the Agate, it was sold and added to the West Coast salmon-fishing fleet, according to a news brief in the March 1900 issue of the San Francisco Call.
And 53 members of the dissolved mining company, finding themselves without gold and most of their investment, filed lawsuits that in 1903 ended up before the New York Supreme Court. The court demanded that former company treasurer, Henry W. Rozell, provide all financial records pertaining to company assets and expenses, including the sale of the Agate.
|A hundred years after the Kings County Mining Company expedition of 1898, only a few cabin logs remained as evidence along what is now called King County Creek, near Skilak Lake.|