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Peterson Trail: a lengthy journey

Discover the history behind Peterson Trail and the family that lends its name.

Posted: December 11, 2011 - 12:00am  |  Updated: December 11, 2011 - 12:12am
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Marie and John Peterson are seen in their home in this photo taken around 1916, pulled from the Alaska State Historical Archives.
Marie and John Peterson are seen in their home in this photo taken around 1916, pulled from the Alaska State Historical Archives.

Many of us have driven the 23 miles out the road to the Jensen-Olson Arboretum. This garden is free for viewing by the public from Wednesday through Sunday, year around. What many may not know is the arboretum, house, and properties were once the headquarters of John Peterson’s homestead and mining company. Yes, the same guy whose name is on the creek, lake and trail across the road. To me the following story is an interesting piece of Southeast Alaska history.

On Oct. 7, 1861, in Tonning, Germany, Johannes Gerhard Petersen was born to Daniel Petersen and Catherine Margaretha Tuft. While in Germany he learned the trade of tinsmith. Then in 1881 he moved to New York via Castle Garden Immigration Depot (Castle Garden was the Immigration center in New York Harbor until Ellis Island took over in 1892). Like many of the pioneers who came through our immigration stations his name got changed. His new name was John G. Peterson. For those of Swedish and Norwegian extraction it might be noted that his Norwegian roots via the “sen” in his last name ended there when it was changed to “son,” generally thought of as Swedish.

He worked as a tinsmith in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis until on Dec. 12, 1882 he joined the U.S. Army. During the five years he stayed with the Army, 5th Calvary, Troop “A,” he was promoted to corporal, won a spot on the rifle team as a sharpshooter, and continued his work as a tinsmith. He received an honorable discharge on Dec. 12, 1887 and moved to Juneau, arriving in early 1888. On Nov. 21, 1888 he received his U.S. Citizenship from the District of Alaska. According to R. N. DeArmond in “Some Names around Juneau,” Peterson purchased and ran a small tin, stove, and hardware shop, which he eventually sold in 1901, in order to devote all his time to mining.

Peterson returned to Germany in 1893 to marry Marie Jensen of Schleswig-Holstein, at that time part of Denmark, and returned to Juneau with her. Two daughters were soon born: Irma Marie on Sept. 27, 1894, and Margaret Wilhelmine in Aug. 1897.

John Peterson, who had prospected during his spare time, made significant discoveries of gold in a valley he called Prairie Basin, approximately 24 miles north of Juneau. He staked numerous lode claims in 1898 and 1899. A placer claim was staked on a creek that now bears his name. By 1901 sufficient gold values in the mines allowed Peterson and his family to devote all their time to developing the mines and establishing a homestead at Pearl Harbor about four miles from the basin. John and Marie Peterson were the first white settlers in Pearl Harbor. Among the claims owned by Peterson were the Cannonball, You and I, Hidden Treasure, Prairie Lode, Pearl Lode, Pilgrim, Blue Jay, Horse Shoe, Pearl, and Jesse (Jessie).

In 1903 John purchased a three-stamp prospecting mill and a Wolfy concentrating table and had it shipped to Pearl Harbor. It occurred to me to wonder why he had it shipped directly to his place on Pearl Harbor instead of Juneau. I had heard of a “Government Road” and assumed that it was the possible beginning of what later became Glacier Highway. But, that was a wrong assumption. After exhaustive searches of old maps, mostly from USGS, I figured out the “Government Road” was a road/trail that went up the Mendenhall valley from the Knudson Ranch (Located on Gastineau Channel between Jordon Creek and Duck Creek), cut across the river, where the back loop bridge is now located, turned up Montana Creek, followed it across to Windfall Lake, around the west side of the lake, and connected with the Eagle Mine Tramway at Herbert River. They then followed the Tramway to Eagle Landing which is approximately where SAGA is located now. There were two trails that started in Auke Bay. Both close to Waydelich Creek. I think one of them is the U.S. Forest Service trail now called Auk Nu. Both trails connected to a trail that went to Peterson Lake. However, the map that I found with these trails on it was printed in 1909 and John Peterson may not have been able to use those trails because they may not have been developed until after 1903. In order to get his three-stamp prospecting mill to his mine site, John had to clear a trail from his house on Pearl Harbor to the mine. By 1910, the trail had become a road and the road became a planked horse tramway. Parts of that tramway can be viewed today if you walk the Peterson trail.

John’s mine did quite well for the next 3 years. But in 1913 John fell ill.

He and his wife made several trips down south seeking medical aid to no avail. In 1916, while John continued to be ill, his home at Pearl Harbor burned.

It was a terrible loss as it was uninsured and they lost everything.

His daughters (Irma and Margaret), who were 22 and 19 at that time, built a new house, unaided, in six weeks. Two months later, John Peterson passed away. During the three years previous to John’s death, his wife and daughters were confronted with the need of performing, unaided, every detail connected with extraction of gold and seeing to unpaid obligations, which might later cause them to lose control of the mine as they mount higher and higher.

The young ladies decided they would not lose control of the mine to which their father had pinned his faith, risked his fortune and ultimately given his life.

To be continued Dec. 18.: The Peterson girls prove capable.

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