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Orville G. Herning's Summer of 1898 in Alaska

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Behind the fire station, in downtown Wasilla, Alaska, sits an unassuming two story building that houses a sandwich shop. The 24' x 80' structure, which is the oldest building in Wasilla, was originally a general store owned and operated by Orville and Mattie Herning from 1917 until 1947 when Mr. Herning died. The store was then sold to Walter and Vivian Teeland, who operated it until they retired in 1972. It was then sold to the Julian Mead family. Today, the building is owned by the Wasilla-Knik Historical Society.

Orville Herning came to Alaska in 1898 as a prospector for the Klondike and Boston Gold Manufacturing Company. As a side interest, he opened a small trading post in Knik called the Knik Trading Company which existed from 1906 to 1917. Their customers were mainly gold miners from the Willow Creek Mining District (aka Hatcher Pass) and prospectors heading into the gold fields of interior Alaska.

In 1916, when Herning learned that the new railroad tracks were going to run 15 miles north of Knik, rather than through Knik as everyone anticipated, he closed his Knik trading post and built a store in the new Wasilla railroad construction camp at mile 15 of the Carle Wagon Road. It opened two weeks before the railroad tracks reached Wasilla. By today's landmarks, the store originally stood on the corner of Main Street and the Parks Highway and served as the main general store  for over 60 years.
Little has been written about Orville Herning, the unsung patriarch of Wasilla who saw promise in the Valley before the towns of Anchorage, Fairbanks, Seward, Wasilla or Palmer existed. This is the story of his first season in the Matanuska Valley.

Orville G. Herning 1898

A True Story
By Coleen Mielke 2016

In the spring of 1898, the Klondike & Boston Gold Mining Company of Massachusetts hired two expedition teams to search for gold in Alaska. The first team was headed by Col. E. J. Meagher. The second team was lead by Orville G. Herning, a thirty year old Connecticut salesman. Herning and his team left Boston, by train, on March 23, 1898 and arrived in Seattle five days later with reservations to sail to Alaska on the S. S. Whitelaw the first week of April.

The morning of their scheduled departure, the team was told that the Whitelaw had burned to her waters edge in the Alaskan town of Skagway and other transportation would have to be found. This was not going to be an easy task, since all vessels destined for Alaska were loaded to capacity with gold rush stampeders. It took the team twelve days to find room aboard the S. S. Dirigo which sailed from Seattle's Yesler Wharf on April 12, 1898.
Two days north of Seattle, the Dirigo wound its way through the protected waters of Alaska's Inside Passage. They bypassed the small fishing village of Wrangell and made a short stop at the mining town of Juneau before sailing north on the 2,000’ deep (but narrow) Lynn Canal. At the northern extremes of the Canal, the ship swung wide around a small island known as Eldred Rock, where the 150’ Steamer, Clara Nevada, had exploded nine weeks earlier, killing all aboard. Once safely around the uncharted rock island, the Dirigo steamed to the northern reaches of Chilkoot Inlet, then veered east into Taiya Inlet and docked at Skagway, the largest town in Alaska, with a population of 10,000. This stop allowed the men to inspect the remains of the burned out S. S. Whitelaw as well as the partially submerged Mercury, a bark that fell victim to Skagway winds four days earlier. The men also inspected  Dyea, population 5,000, to see the infamous Chilkoot Pass where thousands of men, and a few hardy women, were climbing the torturous thirty three mile Pass with dreams of striking it rich in Canada's Yukon Territory.

From Skagway, the Dirigo backtracked south on Lynn Canal and into the Icy Straits where she experienced mechanical problems and anchored for repairs near the Tlingit village of Hoonah, on the north shore of Chichagof Island. The chief engineer diagnosed the ships mechanical problem as a faulty condenser and the ship would be forced to limp 40 miles back to Juneau to order the new part which took eight days to arrive from Seattle; during that time, the men enjoyed a working tour of the Treadwell Quartz Mine on Douglas Island.
With repairs completed, the Dirigo was preparing to leave Juneau when she accidentally rammed a coal transport called the Czarina. The collision cut a large hole in Czarina’s side and she had to be beached at Douglas Island to avoid sinking.
Finally out of Juneau, the men sailed passed Glacier Bay and Brady Glacier before entering open ocean for the first time in their journey. The next scheduled stop was the Port of Valdez on Prince William Sound. Six miles from the port, the Dirigo ran aground at low tide, leaving her bow high and dry and her stern in sixteen feet of water; there she lay stranded until the next high tide released her and she sailed into Valdez for the night.  The following morning the ship departed in a blinding snowstorm and sailed through Prince William Sound where a foot of dense white snow floated on the waters surface. The S. S. Dirigo, originally built as a two-mast schooner, was converted to steam power in late 1897. At 843 tons, she had one fourth the tonnage of most steamships traveling between Seattle and Alaska. As she entered the Gulf of Alaska, the storm intensified and the ships smaller size reacted accordingly, violently rolling her from gunnel to gunnel for the next two days. The waves were so relentless that a young Massachusetts man named Burrows (from the Revere Expedition Party) died, reportedly of seasickness, and was buried at sea, as the ship entered Cook Inlet.
Herning’s proposed destination was an outpost called Tyonek near the head of Cook Inlet. It was primarily an Athabascan Indian village and an Alaska Commercial Company trading post which was the major supply source for anyone entering South central Alaska. The trip from Seattle to Tyonek had taken twenty days, fifteen days longer than expected. Freight was lightered ashore from the Dirigo and left in great stacks on the muddy Tyonek Beach. Herning’s team went to work moving their supplies to a location above the high tide line and building a series of tents for cooking, sleeping, and storage. Once situated, their first major goal was to locate Willow Creek in the extreme southwest corner of the Talkeetna Mountains, 110 unmapped miles from Tyonek, a task that would have to wait for two weeks while the rivers cleared of ice.

Miners continued to arrive at Tyonek every day; before long, 300 novice prospectors populated the beach and expectations were high. Tall tales of secret gold strikes were the talk of the day and boodlers, selling imaginary claims and “priceless” treasure maps, were abundant. The beach resembled a shipyard with hundreds of first time boat builders scratching their heads in confusion.

The most economical way for Herning’s team to obtain a boat was to build one, but that option didn't seem practical. Not only was lumber scarce, but the men had heard wild stories about newly constructed boats disintegrating in the rough Cook Inlet waters. Instead of building, Herning decided to purchase a boat from a Tyonek merchant for $75. The merchant assured the men that the boat was originally built for seal hunting and was very strong. Anxious to try out their boat, they took it out for a quick trial run on a sunny afternoon.  The craft handled nicely as the team rowed out into the deep waters of Cook Inlet. Without warning, the sunny weather turned into a late afternoon gale force wind that the inexperienced boaters were not prepared for. Rowing for their lives, it took the men an hour to reach shore while the waves brutally battered their boat. Safely back on land, they were convinced they had made a good purchase and that a lesser boat would have cost them their lives.
Two prospectors died that first week at Tyonek. One (unnamed) man died from natural causes. The second young man, from the Patterson Expedition Party of Kansas, became gravely ill after eating desiccated cabbage. With no medical help available, the men on the beach did what they could to make the dying man comfortable. One of Herning’s men played his violin while the rest of the men sang “In the Sweet By and By”. The young mans death was a sobering experience to everyone on the beach, even the most hard-bitten old timers.

In late May, the rivers were ice free and it was time to locate Willow Creek. The men chose the most practical route which began with a two part sloop ride to Knik Station. Part one took the men from Tyonek to Fire Island (30 miles) at the head of Cook Inlet where they spent the night on the beach and waited for the next high tide; part two of the journey took the men from Fire Island to Knik Station, forty additional miles.

Knik Station was barely a spot on the map in 1898; it had a small Alaska Commercial Co. store, thirty six Athabascan residents and 3 non-native residents. Here, Herning’s team learned about a system of ancient Athabascan walking trails that laced through south central Alaska. Historically, the trails were used by seasonal, nomadic, hunting parties and were narrow and hard to find. Herning hired two Athabascan’s (at the going rate of $6 per trip) to lead his men over the trail from Knik Station to Willow Creek. The team and their guides left Knik, reaching the foothills of Bald Mt. by the end of the third day; the fourth days progress was not as good. After ten hours of climbing their way over and around the snowy remnants of last winters avalanches, the Native guides seemed to be lost. In an effort to summon help, they set a dry spruce tree on fire and shot their rifles into the air but received no reply, so the team set up camp for the night and dried their clothing.

By the next morning, the guides had regained their sense of direction and lead the team to a group of miners who were actively mining gold at Grubstake Gulch, off of Willow Creek. Their names were, L. H. Herndon, Billy Morris, Brainard, E’Van and Capt. Andrews. Herning’s team spent two days prospecting with Capt. Andrews to “learn the ropes”.
Within a week, Herning’s team located fifteen full placer claims on Willow Creek and built a sluice box that produced a good sample of gold, a piece of silver, and one ruby. On June 11, 1898, Herning, and his men, Edward C. Kirkpatrick, George H. Brown, Fred M. Young, William H. Thorne, George F. Butler, George F. Burrows, Michael Dinneen, H. P. Daniels and Daniel Coleman, joined the Grubstake Gulch miners and formed the Willow Creek Mining District, L. H. Herndon was elected as Recorder. The end of this historic meeting was punctuated with a strong earthquake that shook the gold dust off the Recorders table.

After two weeks at Willow Creek, Herning and two of his men left on a supply run to their main camp at the mouth of the Susitna River. Travel on foot was slow; the men were plagued with clouds of voracious mosquitoes that emerged from the wetlands along the creeks edge; without the aid of netting or repellent, the insects were unbearable. With every breath, the men inhaled mosquitoes; their only relief was a nightly smudge fire or the hope of a strong breeze.
At the end of the third day on the trail, the men could smell heavy smoke. Thinking it might be a forest fire; they found refuge on a sandbar in the middle of a small side stream and waited. Within thirty minutes, they could hear the roar of the approaching fire and buried their blankets and supplies in the wet sand as they crouched in the shallow water. The flames raced down the banks on both sides of the stream and surrounded the men who slapped frantically at the sparks that ignited their clothing. Once the fire consumed all of the dry vegetation, in the immediate area, the danger seemed to be over. The men were elated to discover their damages were limited to wet blankets, holes in their clothing and singed hair. To celebrate their survival (and the fires consumption of the mosquitoes) the men said a prayer of thanks, shared a drink of Jamaica Ginger and retired for the night.

The next morning, as soon as the men traveled outside of the burned area, the mosquitoes returned with a vengeance. So intolerable were the biting bugs that Herning decided to build a raft and float the Susitna River for relief.  It didn't take long to fall the trees then build and launch the raft. On the second bend in the river, the hastily built raft struck the bank and fell apart, dumping the trio into the swift cold water. The men struggled their way to shore and decided it would be safer to continue on dry land and battle the mosquitoes.
Travel along the river was slow and food was short. The three men made plans to buy food at the Alaska Commercial Co. store at Susitna Station, rather than head directly for their distant camp. Unfortunately, they weren't sure exactly where the Station was; they only knew that it was on an island roughly 30 miles from the mouth of the Susitna River. Tired and hungry, but fearing another broken raft disaster, the men continued down river, on foot, for two more days with no sign of the Station. They passed dozens of small islands and with each one, they let out signal whoops but received no reply.  On the sixth day, they ate the last of their food…one piece of bacon for each man.

In hungry desperation, the men decided to try their luck with another raft. It took two hours to fasten three 24’ spruce trees together. Herning wrote their names on the tree stumps as well as the log ends of the raft. If their attempt failed and no one lived to tell their story, the names written on the trees would record their fate.  The plan was for one man to stand on the bow of the raft with a long pole and keep it from hitting the banks; a second man would stand on the stern with a 16’ oar and propel the raft; the third man would stand on the side midsection to help steer. The trio pushed the raft out into the swift current of the Susitna River; before long, the men estimated they were traveling about 10 miles per hour. Hour after hour, they floated, until they came to a section of the river where the current overpowered their control of the raft. The raft began to steer itself and was  picking up speed; they were totally at the mercy of the river. A group of Athabascan Indians, from a village two miles down river, heard the men scream and came to their rescue. Paddling birch bark canoes, at a high rate of speed, the valiant Natives caught up with the raft, threw the men a towline, and began the heroic struggle of pulling the raft to shore against the fast current.  Overjoyed with their escape from certain death, Herning eagerly paid the rescuers to take his men to the Station, a distance of two more miles.

The three men were a sorry sight when they arrived at Susitna Station; one had no shoes and his pants and shirt were nearly gone; the other two men only had the soles of their shoes left and their pants were worn off to the knees. The A. C. Co. agent, James Cleghorn, fed the men a welcome banquet of pork and beans, corned beef, bread, butter, cheese, canned peaches, canned apricots, crackers and tea with cream and sugar. After dinner, Herning hired the Natives to transport the trio to the mouth of the Susitna River, a thirty mile, three hour canoe trip for $6.

In mid July, Herning decided to make his first unguided, solo trip to Willow Creek. He packed 65 pounds of provisions and left Knik, by boat, at 8:30 PM, to take advantage of the tides; he arrived at Cottonwood at 10:30 PM to camp for the night. The next morning, he left at 10:30 AM on a horse he borrowed from a packer named Lee and arrived at Big Lake at 5:45 PM, where he made camp, cared for the horse and slept, in the rain, under a tarp. Herning left Big Lake at 8:30 AM and traveled due north to the Little Susitna River, arriving there at 1:00 PM. After a brief rest and a fried ptarmigan dinner, he continued on to the base of Bald Mt., where he spotted some caribou but wasn't close enough to shoot one.  The next day, he reached the Summit of Bald Mt. at 1:00 PM and arranged to have Lee’s horse taken back to Knik by a prospector that was going that way. From the Summit of Bald Mt., it took him 3½ hours to snowshoe over to his mine. Herning’s team spent a total of 80 days working the ground at Willow Creek that first summer which produced 39 ounces of gold…not bad considering most of their time was spent  staking claims, building cabins, hauling supplies, building dams, and whip sawing enough lumber to build a dozen sluice boxes measuring 12’ long x 16’ wide x 6” deep and learning the "mining game".
In mid-August, the men broke camp and headed for Knik Station. When they reached the Little Susitna River, they set up camp and were cooking dinner when their dog ran into camp with an angry brown bear sow nipping at its heels. The men scrambled for their revolvers as the cook began screaming and banging cooking pots together. The startled bear stopped within ten feet of the campfire and stood upright, eyeing the men. The tense face-off lasted for several seconds before the bear retreated into the brush, leaving her two cubs crying in a distant tree. Assuming the bear would return, the men stood guard all night but they did not see her again.
In late August, with the mining season winding down, Herning’s team wanted to build two food caches south of Knik Station for future use. The first cache was built at Goose Bay on the west side of Knik Arm. The second food cache was built at Crescent Bay, on the east side of Knik Arm, directly across from Goose Bay. Herning predicted major growth for Crescent Bay. With its plentiful fresh water, wood, game, and deep bay, he predicted it would someday be “the Skagway of Cook Inlet”.

With the food caches completed, the men headed for their main supply camp at the mouth of the Susitna River. In route, they stopped, on the beach, just west of the Little Susitna River to inspect an abandoned Alaska Commercial Co. store building precariously perched in shallow water at high tide. The 1898 Lake George flood had washed the building from its original Knik River foundation and floated it, intact, including merchandise, down the Knik Arm to the Cook Inlet mud flats; the building and its contents would soon be devoured by scavengers and the Cook Inlet tides.
Non-stop “get rich” schemes were flourishing on the other side of Cook Inlet as well.  The “prospecting game” was thriving in the nearby towns of Hope and Sunrise.  A man named Mr. Weible of California built a $50,000 gold plant on Six Mile Creek (near  Sunrise) and another plant, built by  James Buzzard was built at Hope City; both men claimed success in finding gold. Capt. Dunn, of New York, built a stamp mill at his gold quartz mine near Homer and had discovered large veins of coal that he transported back to Homer on an eight mile stretch of rails. Men were also boring for oil near Mt. Iliamna after they found an above ground oil spring that produced three gallons of oil per day.

Many of the prospectors that landed at Cook Inlet in 1898 stayed and mined the Willow Creek District for years. Many Wasilla street names, businesses and subdivisions are named after gold mines in the Willow Creek Mining District, such as Hatcher Pass, Independence, Lucky Shot, Gold Bullion, Grubstake Gulch, War Baby, Gold Cord, and Gold Mint just to name a few. A 1950’s USGS report suggests that over 500,000 ounces of gold were removed from the Willow Creek Mining District before World War II.

In the fall of 1898, when mining activity stopped for the season, Herning decided to go back to Seattle to mail a progress report and a sample of gold to his employer. His voyage to Seattle, aboard the S. S. Dora, took only five days from Tyonek and cost $65, vastly different from his voyage to Alaska on the S. S. Dirigo five months earlier.
The Cook Inlet Gold Rush that brought Orville Herning to Alaska in 1898 changed his life forever. From the beginning, he was a very civic minded man. He was the only source of medical aid (and veterinary care) for early Knik residents as well as Athabascan villagers. He helped build the first school at Knik in 1912. He and J. N. Johnston drew the first detailed map (1898) of the area between Hope and Mt. McKinley, showing all rivers, trails, boat routes and gold fields. Before law formally arrived at Knik, he was part of an informal court that dealt with local scofflaws and, when necessary, he was the unofficial coroner. Herning worked tirelessly to bring a school to early Wasilla; he wrote a series of letters to the Governor of Alaska which resulted in funding the first Wasilla school in 1917; he drew plans for the building, donated fire wood, gas lamps, and built school desks. As a member of the School Board, he was instrumental in hiring Wasilla’s first teacher, Miss Ora Dee Clark. Herning acted as the unofficial bank of Wasilla for thirty years. He cashed checks, collected debts, carried lines of credit and held money and valuables for people in his safe. He was well respected and hard working; he never forgot a good deed nor a scoundrel and was scrupulously honest. He is the unsung patriarch of the Wasilla we see today and the quintessential Alaskan pioneer.

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