Story last updated at 1/2/2013 - 2:48 pm
Prospectors staked many claims in the early days in the belief that finding gold would be a lucrative business. Once such gold deposit was located in 1886 in what is still known as Billy's Basin. Over the next 12 years, time and money were poured into the claims in the valley between Mt. Verstovia and the Sisters, the prominent mountains behind the town of Sitka.
The man who defied the hardships to open this basin was William "Billy" Millmore, a former Navy steward, who owned Sitka's Millmore Hotel. Soon after his arrival in Sitka, Millmore decided to try his hand at mining. In March 1886, he acquired by location or purchase, four lode claims near the head of the east fork of Indian River in a basin that came to bear his name. Others previously or subsequently staked claims in the area. One was E. Otis Smith, the editor of "The Alaskan," Sitka's newspaper.
At first Millmore did yearly assessment work and took friends and potential investors to see his gold strike on June 18, 1889, Millmore with William Gouverneur Morris (special agent of the Treasury Department in Alaska), F. Day of Casselton, Dakota, three French gentlemen and Judge Jewett for the seven- mile hike to visit Billy's Basin. Some had to turn back because they could not traverse the deep gorges and canyons on the side of Mt. Verstovia. This was before the current (shorter) trail along Indian River was built.
Millmore had stored a cache in the basin, but the bears had investigated, eaten all the flour, and unrolled his pack. The ingenious prospector found enough to cook a meal. Sitting around a campfire, he regaled the men with a story about how he fought a bear that contested his mining claim.
These trips helped Millmore promote his claims, and in 1892 he sold a half-interest to Lieutenant-Commander John S. Newell, commander of the Navy ship "Pinta" that often visited Sitka. Newell in turn sold half his interest to the Reverend A.E. Austin of the Sitka Industrial Training School that eventually became Sheldon Jackson College.
With Newell's infusion of money, work on the claims began in earnest. A crew of men cleared a wagon road to the fork of the Indian River and a pack trail from there to the basin. He then shipped to Sitka a string of burros and began to pack ore from the New Archangel claim to the docks for shipment to San Francisco. This pack train was used for at least three seasons, reportedly making one round trip to the mine each day.
Millmore formed the Millmore Gold Mining Company under the laws of California so he could sell shares. At the New Archangel and Thetis claims, not far apart, the company hired crews to build several cabins, a warehouse, and a power house. Plans began for a four stamp mill to process ore instead of sending it to San Francisco.
A noted American geologist, George F. Becker, with the U.S. Geological Survey was sent to southern Alaska to investigate the precious metal industries. In his 1885 book about his reconnaissance, he tells of his visit to the Thetis. He reported the claims showed about 2.5 feet of quartz carrying calcite and galena. Mill tests, he was told, yielded $7 in gold and $1 in silver.
Despite these promising numbers, money remained a problem for the company. In October 1896, Millmore bonded four of his claims to a California outfit for $20,000. To consummate the deal, a mining engineer examination was required. Two months later a German mining engineer named Herman Stahalsmith arrived. He reported that the ore bodies were not large enough to be worth developing. He felt the location was too remote, and the heavy snows of winter made development expensive. This was a reminder that in spring 1892, the company had to cease operations due to heavy snowfalls and tremendous snow slides. In April about 40 feet of snow covered the basin!
The bond was cancelled. With no money in sight, Millmore sold his interest in the company on June 19,1897 to E. Otis Smith for an undisclosed amount. Smith, who had other claims in the basin, organized a new company, Sitka Mining Company, under the laws of California. The company entered into a contract with H.V. Bruner to furnish labor and materials to erect a Josha Hendy four-stamp mill and sawmill.
The claims were actively mined in 1897, with 14 miners working for $2.50 per day from March to mid-July. Millmore's burros were gone so two mules were hired, a warehouse in Sitka rented, merchandise charged at two stores. When no one was paid at the end of the season, the operations closed. The company must have paid the debts because the property was never attached nor sold.
In December 1897, the coastal steamer brought 1,000 feet of six-inch iron water pipe, two Pelton wheels, dual two-stamp Hendy mills, a complete sawmill, a large quantity of tools, and 10 tons of supplies. Bruner waited for the ground to freeze before moving the heavy machinery. Even with that, he had trouble because the snow was soft and the horse kept slipping. Toward the end of February 1898, the heavy stamps and mortars were finally on site.
In the spring, after the snow melted, Peter Callsen and his crew began construction on the mill building. Again, the company did not pay, and so he filed a laborer's lien. The court records (at the Federal Archives in Anchorage) reveal that the lien forced attachment, and the court ordered the sale of the property. However, there is no indication that the property was actually sold.
Millmore regained the property, but the mill was never completed by him nor another company. In 1901, a Pelton wheel was moved to the Lucky Chance mine high on the hill above Silver Bay. Millmore continued, at least through 1902, to do annual assessment work required to hold the property.
The United States Geological Survey report of 1904, says that the mine could still be reached by a good trail, and the sawmill was intact. A geologist found little underground work. Perhaps he didn't go into Billy's Basin where the mines were reported to have been.
In the 1930s, the Sheldon Jackson School salvaged the sawmill. Les Yaw told me that at that time there were parts of the stamp mill at the same site, rusting in the underbrush beside two collapsed log cabins and a collapsed frame building.
In 1990, my son John Roppel and I hiked up the Indian River trail following directions given us by Bob DeArmond who explored around Sitka as a youth.
I wrote this in my journal for August 12 after leaving the main trail: "Bushwacked: John with machete through mostly devils club and lots of blown-down timber. 45 minutes from main trail, we found first water pipe in creek. More bushwacking to find stamp mill parts in creek, pieces of metal strewn everywhere and then John shouted 'Jackpot!' We saw the foundations and metal shoes into which the stamps would fit. He whacked the brush away so we could take photographs. No way to hold stamps in place on top of the timbers confirmed mill was never finished. Could find no stamps nor second Pelton wheel. A flat on the left side where there were stumps, and we wondered if that could lead to the mine. Too brushy to look for cabin remains. Found complicated water systems, lots of six-inch pipe. We traced it up the creek to where the intake has been with X's to hold the pipe over depressions. Lots of wheels that carry belting to run stuff. We waded up the streambed, through towering canyon walls but saw no evidence of mine. Whole adventure took longer than expected. It was late so we turned back before the cirque opened into Billy's Basin."
It was exciting to find all these remainders of an early mine!