The Katalla and Controller Bay Alaska Project

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Coalfields of Katalla

One company that mined the Bering River coal
Alaska Pacific Coal Company Stock Certificate 1923

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In the year 1900, Alaska had been a possession of the United States for 33 years. The discovery of mineral riches in the form of gold had sparked a rush just 3 years prior. But, as any good businessman will tell you the sparkling dreams of instant wealth are the wishes of fools. Real wealth can only be found in sustainable industry. And, at the turn of the Twentieth Century coal was the fuel that drove industry. It was used to fire the steam engines used in ships and trains to transport people and goods around the world. It was used to heat homes. It was used to generate the new energy electricity. But, most of all it was used to turn ore into usable metals.

These facts were not wasted on dreamers in the vast new lands called Alaska. Hardened, reality minded, prospectors combed the mosquito ridden bogs, forests and frozen muskeg for the compressed veins of carbon. An article recording a prospecting journey, in 1902, made by Clarence Cunningham, included the following description of some hardships endured on the trail.

"Then they would come to the never-freezing sloughs, slush compounded of ice and snow and water that never had a coating of ice on top thick enough to bear the weight of a man. Through these the prospecting party waded. Those heavily laden with supplies were pulled up with ropes to dry land by the foremost to get through. At the end of the toilsome day they dragged to the campfire their exhausted bodies, hugged by garments sopped in icewater, and ate the rations prepared by their Indian cook. At last they slept under the broad sky and in the morning they dug themselves out from under a blanket of snow a foot thick....." The Alaska-Yukon Magazine

The men wandering the wilderness in search of mineral riches were a hardy breed.

This party would eventually stumble upon the Bering River coalfields in 1903. The black wealth literally stripped the mountainsides. And, it was good stuff. The samples analyzed showed it to be extremely high quality, low sulfur, smokeless, anthracite coal. This is the type preferred for use in all applications of industry and was especially valuable for use in steam engines. The new copper mines in the interior needed to transport their ore and then have it smelted. The steamships and warships plying the waters of Alaska and the Northern Pacific needed fuel. This would all require a steady supply of coal for years to come. Cunningham had struck a real gold mine and he knew it.

There was a rush to stake claims on the new fields and they were lead by the Cunningham group. Using the Hardrock Mining Act of 1872, they laid clam to acres upon acres of land. But, the government had other ideas. The President, concerned with the questionable practices of the coal mining industry, and its unregulated growth, used the Antiquities Act to temporarily set aside all coal claims in 1906, while a fairer way of leasing the land was developed. He also lobbied Congress to designate a large amount of the area a National Forest. He was supported by the leader of the newly founded US Forest Service, Gillford Pinchot. This action would set the stage for a very ugly controversy that would take years to resolve.

Taking advantage of the anti-business sentiment of the country during this time period, Pinchot in an illegal government land grab extended the boundaries of the national forest miles north to include large portions of the Bering River Coalfields. (This extension of national forest land boundaries required approval of Congress, which he did not have.) Not many in the capitol had enough political clout to stop this. The Secretary of the Interior, a gentleman named Richard Ballinger attempted to halt these illegal moves, and as a result, was branded a friend of the big corporations by Pinchot. He (Pinchot) started making allegations against Ballinger. He falsely accused the Interior Secretary of assisting mining companies in fraudulently filling illegal claims in the Katalla coalfields. He used his connections in the press to slander the innocent man. This mud slinging was so vicious and ruinous of his reputation that Ballinger eventually resigned as Interior Secretary. It is rumored that the experience of the confrontation with Pinchot helped hastened his death in 1922.

The delays caused by this controversy and a slow moving Congress eventually spelled the doom for the Bering River coalfields and the nearby towns, including Katalla. Some coal was mined between 1915 and 1923 but it was never well funded and thus never profitable. Progress had passed by what a few years before was heralded as the "new Pennsylvania".