Independence Gold Mine

Published 10:02 am Monday, March 13, 2017

by James D. Howell

We make the morning drive from Anchorage, stop at the Ralph Meyers, in Palmer, for coffee and make the turn onto the Fishook Road. We enjoy the familiarity of the roadside and passing beauty of vistas from roadside pull-offs. The mountains have not moved, I know, but each trip is a reawakening of the spectacular sights from this road. Each day and time of day has its own special visual character.

We turn right at the Hatcher Pass Lodge, pass through an unguarded gate and park in a freshly upgraded parking area. A couple of other cars are here before us. Traffic is slow this time of year.

There’s a welcome center located in the old manager’s office, and a friendly docent to chat with about the mine and what parts are open for visiting. A few buildings are being restored and moved to new locations to better serve a visiting public. There are, however, historic photos that have recorded all the buildings in the mine complex. The photos also show a thriving workforce, their habitations and much about their social life. Good workers were paid a premium to live and work at the mine. Entertainment was periodically brought in.

An assayer’s office was a part of the mine also. Here, in the manager’s office a display of the equipment illustrates the process.

Placer gold was discovered in the Sutsitna and Matanuska rivers in the late 19th century. Hard rock deposits were discovered in these (Talkeetna) mountains. Gold is formed deep within the earth along fault lines of rock, in many cases rose quartz. The element precipitates from hot gases in cracks and crevices of the host.

Geological processes raise the deposits along with other rocks to form mountains. The mountains weather over time and the gold erodes along with the rock. Small flakes and larger nuggets of pure gold flow downhill with rivers and streams. It’s these small findings that lead miners to the larger mountain, seeking the larger vein that “must be” hidden inside. Hard rock is much more expensive to mine.

Independence is a consolidated entity, driven by the demands of the heavy expense of tunneling and boring. World War II saw a decrease in mining activity, and with few prospects for profits, the mine was closed. It’s now a part of the Alaska State Park system, and it hosts tourist traffic in summer and snow activities in the winter. Hatcher Pass Lodge is open year round, supplied by snowmobile in winter.

We set out on the central walkway for the tour. A few places on the property are forbidden for safety reasons. I’m free to roam across tailing piles and old equipment. A small family is trying their hand at gold panning close beside a small bridge. The initial tunneling started at the creek origin a little higher up the mountain. All the activity of the mine took place close beside and downhill from the tunnel.

I hike to the tunnel coverings. It’s deceiving to have only one opening; there are miles of tunnels inside the mountain beyond this entrance. I check out the long, elevated conveyor for raw ore. The ore was sorted and sent on to a milling machine that pulverized the larger rocks, fed the slurry onto another conveyor to a chemical and smelting process that yielded gold dust. The dust was melted into ingots.

I trace the journey of the rocks from where they leave the mountain tunnel to the final smelting. Most of the buildings are in a dilapidated shape. Heavy snow, alternate freezing and warming are crushing forces, far beyond what unmaintained buildings can withstand. The elevated structure is closed for safety reasons; I climb down the slope to lower workshops. Porches, for additional work areas, are the norm for most buildings.

I stand for a moment and look out over the valley toward Palmer, trying to imagine how all the activity looked and sounded in this remote small pocket among the mountain peaks. I just can’t get the feel. At its maximum, over 200 miners plus some of their families called this home. All the provisions and entertainments of life had to be brought up the mountain. I can’t get past the idea of winter isolation, the long nights and twilight days.

We return to our car, decide to stop at Hatcher Pass Lodge for a sandwich and refreshment. It’s a good call. The food is good and the view from the small dining area is wonderful. I sit for a moment or two on the outdoor seating platform. Sunshine lulls me into contentment.

It’s back to Anchorage via the Old Glenn Highway. It’s a good day.                    

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at