In an earlier post, I mentioned a night spent at Hatcher Pass and an hour spent at Independence Mine State Historical Park. Hatcher Pass is one of our favorite places in Alaska, and we're not alone. Summer or winter, it is an outdoor recreation destination. And for those who are more interested in history than hiking, the old mine area is fascinating.
To get a little more information, I talked with Ranger Kymberly Miller. She is responsible for the Hatcher Pass area.
Q. What draws people to the Hatcher Pass area, especially in the summer?
A. I think it's the only place you can get up quickly into the high country outside of Anchorage. Within an hour out of Anchorage, you get up to 3,500 feet. And you can drive all the way up on a paved road.
It's just a beautiful area. The road runs along the Little Su River in the lower part of the canyon. You turn at the Gold Mint Trail and head up quickly. There are ground squirrels and marmots everywhere. There are tundra plants everywhere; they are blooming all over the place in July.
There are wonderful hikes up here. There are some easy hikes right out of Independence Mine, like the one up to Gold Cord Lake, it takes like half an hour. Plus you can walk all around on the paved trails up at Independence. We have three miles of trails there; for people can have their older folks, maybe with walkers, or younger children with strollers or people who have trouble walking on uneven trails these are excellent.
If you have older family members visiting from the Lower 48, this is a nice place to bring them. People who lived through the 1939-40 era will really love all the artifacts from that time period, that’s when the mine was really in operation. It’s a great nostalgic-type thing.
Q. Why is Independence Mine such an attraction?
A. The mine area is the only part of Hatcher Pass that is actually a state park. The rest is a management area.
From 1939 to 1942 they pulled $5 million worth of gold out. Figure that was at about $30 an ounce in 1939; it’s a huge difference now. When World War II came, they basically shut the mine down. All factory use had to be for the war effort, and gold was not for the war.
The water tunnel goes completely through the entire mountain; it goes for an entire mile. It was an amazing feat of mining engineering at the time. It was built in 1941. Up until they built the water tunnel, they took all the ore down by cable cars. Once they built the water tunnel, they would drop the ore through chutes.
All the old stuff you see around there is original, from that era.
There were many small mines in the Hatcher Pass area. The company bought up something like 17 to 32 different claims to open up the mine as you see it right now. Eventually, one man owned the whole claim to Independence Mine, and he still does. We manage the surface area and the buildings. We go down a couple hundred feet or so. Starkey Wilson, from Texas, gave it to the state in 1984. We started historical restoration in 1989.
A couple years ago, I was at the desk in uniform and a gentleman came up and asked if we gave tours. I told him about our tour and he said he was interested. We talked a bit and he said his name was Starkey Wilson. I was stunned. I said, "Mr. Wilson, you’re the person who gave us this land?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Mr. Wilson, we can do a special tour for you and your family."
Over the years, the state has put a lot of money into Independence to stabilize the buildings, replace roofs and replace and stabilize foundations. Starkey Wilson stood out in front of the building and said, "I love what you’ve done with the place." The reason he gave it to the state was because he didn’t want to see it lost completely. He was a very generous man who gave it to the state.
In my opinion, it is one of the jewels of the state parks in Alaska. I have a mountaineering background myself, and this was the only park I applied to work in. It is just a wonderful place. As a small mountain range, it’s a wonderful training range for climbers, for those training for climbing Denali.
Q. As you mentioned, the state has restored many of the buildings. What was the reason for that?
A. It's been a long time coming. It was all put in the works back from 1989 on and it was planned to be done in different phases as the Legislature would approve funding for it. We haven’t gotten to phase three yet. The last five years the focus was on the stabilization of all the buildings.
The bunkhouses are three stories high. To stabilize them, we had to pick them up, move them, build a new foundation and move them back on the new foundation without the buildings collapsing. That was quite a project. To save those buildings, we had to put new foundations in and we had to put new roofs on them.
Q. What is included in phase three?
A. DOT will pave the road all the way over to Willow; it should be done in two to three years. When that gets done, we'll also have a new parking lot at Summit Lake with restrooms up there. There will also be some other upgrades to the Fishhook parking lot area.
And we'll have some continued restoration up at Independence Mine. One thing we completed last summer was rebuilding all the windows for the buildings from scratch. We had to rebuild 180 of them from scratch.
Q. Are there more changes coming to the mine area in the future?
A. Now that we've stabilized the buildings, we can start to do more work on the interiors. Our goal is to have people walk through and to have it look like it did in 1939. We've got more cosmetic things to work on. Of course, that all takes money.
I think if the trestle area falls down completely, we will lose a lot of character of the mine. We’re trying to get funding to rebuild the whole trestle area. We’re starting to get a little worried about it.
Q. How can people get inside the buildings?
A. The park is run almost entirely with volunteer staff. We train the volunteers to give tours of Independence Mine. There are tours inside the buildings twice on weekdays and three times daily on weekends.
You can walk around and see everything from the outside on your own, but the tour takes you inside four or five buildings. You'll get stories about the people who worked there and how the gold mining operation worked.
For instance, the current Visitor Center was the home of Walter Stoll, the mine manager. He had a lot of foresight for living in 1939. His thinking was to give his workers the best housing and food. The mess hall served five meals a day, all you could eat. Freight came up from Seattle to Anchorage and Anchorage to the mine on wagons. There were fresh pastries available 24 hours a day. Coffee, tea and pastries were always available. He treated his men well.
Over the years, we've interviewed 75 old miners, to the man they tell us that their time at the mine was the absolute best time of their lives. They worked eight-hour shifts with only two days off a year -- July 4 and Christmas day. Every single one said it was the best time of their lives. They had as much food as they could eat, warm housing and a job that they were paid to do.
On the tours, you can see where the men lived and how they lived. One thing that always catches attention are the showers. The showers were built for men, but the people must have been a lot smaller back then. I'm 5-foot-6 and probably about 140 pounds, and the showers are tight for me. On the tour, I've had some men look at that thing and say, "I wouldn't be able to fit in there sideways."
You have a little insight on the Hatcher Pass area from someone who really knows. Now be sure to put it on your itinerary, whether you're still coming up this year, next summer or sometime in the future.
How to get there: Hatcher Pass and Independence Mine are easily accessible from both Palmer and Wasilla. From the Glenn Highway, take the Palmer-Fishhook Road, which eventually turns into the Hatcher Pass Road (or Fishhook-Willow Road). From the Parks Highway in Wasilla, take Wasilla-Fishhook Road, which eventually turns into Hatcher Pass Road. You can also reach the area from Willow, follow Fishhook-Willow Road. Be warned that road is gravel, bumpy and steep in sections.