Girdwood settles on Crow Creek

Aunt Phil's Trunk

As news of gold spread through America in the mid-1890s, hundreds of people flooded onto Seattle docks seeking transportation northward. Among the 100 passengers who packed onto the Cook Inlet-bound steamship Utopia was a man whose name would become synonymous with an Alaska ski resort.

James E. Girdwood traveled to Kachemak Bay in early May 1896, where he hopped aboard the small steamer L.J. Perry, run by "Cap" Austin E. Lathrop. Girdwood made his way through the ice-filled Cook Inlet to settle for a short time in the areas known as Sunrise City and Hope.

Girdwood, the son of a Dublin linen merchant, studied the region and eventually staked placer ground on Crow Creek, across Turnagain Arm from Sunrise. He built his cabin at Glacier City, a small distribution settlement on a trading and transportation route over the Chugach Range. He then rolled up his sleeves and dove into prospecting for gold.

The linen salesman was used to hard work. After arriving in New York City in 1882 with only $400 in his pocket, the then 20-year-old managed to control over half of the Irish linen market in the United States within 14 years. Girdwood came north with the money from the sale of his business and put it into his mining venture on Crow Creek.

By 1900, Girdwood had staked four claims called the Annex, Omega, Alpha and Little Gussie. His Crow Creek Alaska Hydraulic Gold Mining Co. was operating some of the largest hydraulic plants in the Turnagain Arm region by June 1904.

The mining claims paid off in subsequent years, yielding bullion income exceeding $106,000 a year (more than $3.2 million in today's dollars). And Girdwood proved so popular with his fellow miners, they gave him the honorary title of "colonel" and renamed Glacier City after him.

With his gold-mining operation doing well, the linen-man-turned-prospector shifted his attention to another metallic element found in abundance in Alaska.

Girdwood staked copper claims on Latouche Island, a 12-mile- by 3-mile-long island at the western enrance to Prince William Sound. On Jan. 4, 1907, he formed the Latouche Copper Mining Co. in New York and became a close friend of Daniel and Isaac Guggenheim. He sold his copper claims to the Ladysmith Corp. in 1921, which later sold them to Kennecott Copper Co.

Girdwood's gold mining company operated high in the Crow Creek Valley for many years. It built several cabins, had a five-ton derrick and brought in a large giant to undertake the mammoth task of removing boulders from the streambeds. About 50,000 yards of gravel were removed in 1905 in order to get those flakes and nuggets known as placer gold.

Eventually the operation became too demanding, and the practice of dumping tailings into the creek started raising legal problems. A court injunction finally closed the operation.

A short-lived effort to raise money to revive the mine in the early 1920s failed, and Girdwood returned to the East Coast. He died in 1928 at his home in New Jersey.

The Crow Creek Mining Co., then under the ownership of Paul Denkert of Seattle, hired Arne Erickson to supervise the hydraulic placer gold mine in 1922. Then John E. Homgren, who bought the operation in 1925, hired Erickson to work the mine with him until 1933 when Ericson became sole owner. The Erickson family later reported about $40,000 worth of gold was the average production until World War II closed down mining operations.

Today the mine, owned by the Toohey family since 1969, produces some gold and is a destination spot for Alaskans and tourists alike to see its unique blend of historical buildings, antiques, old mining equipment and exploration opportunities. Folks can pan for gold on the property, as well.

This column features tidbits found among the writings of the late Alaska historian, Phyllis Downing Carlson. Her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, has turned many of Carlson's stories – as well as stories from her own research – into a series of books titled "Aunt Phil's Trunk." Volumes One through Five, which won the 2016 gold medal for best nonfiction series from Literary Classics International and voted Best of Anchorage 2020, are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at and