Diary records Juneau pioneer in his own words

Posted: Sunday, June 21, 1998

Richard Harris told his version of the 1880 discovery of gold in a ``Diary of Richard T. Harris and Joe Juneau,'' written at least two years after the fact.

The diary began with Harris' description of the contract between Sitka mining engineer George Pilz and ``old and experienced miners'' Joseph Juneau and himself to prospect for gold along the coast of the mainland of Southeast Alaska.

Harris, Juneau and ``three native Indians'' left Sitka on July 19 in a canoe with provisions for three months and headed north past Peril Strait. Attempting to cross Chatham Strait to ``Hootz-noo, an Indian village on the southwest side of Admiralty Island,'' Harris wrote, they were ``compelled to turn back as the sea was running high.'' They finally made the crossing near Prince Frederick Sound on July 26.

Prospecting as they traveled, the men found ``plenty of float ice the year round'' in Holkham Bay (the Natives called it Sum Dum).

By Friday the 13th of August, Harris wrote he and Juneau ``run over to the Auk Indian Village'' where ``an Indian had some rock.'' Harris and Juneau, however, found no gold in the ``Auk Bay'' area. ``It was iron and copper,'' Harris noted.

After a quick trip north beyond Point Retreat, they headed south to Gastineau Channel and panned the waters of Salmon and Gold creeks.

It was in Gold Creek on Aug. 17, Harris wrote, they discovered ``the best prospect we had found on the trip.''

Climbing about 1 miles up the creek above what is now called Snow Slide Gulch, they ``carried out about 100 pounds of the quartz'' Aug. 17th.

``Well satisfied there must be gold deposits (good) on the head waters of the creek,'' Harris wrote, they ``concluded to return to Sitka, as our provisions were running low.'' The plan was to ``get another outfit and return to prospect the head waters of the creek.'' They also wanted to report to their employer, Pilz.

Leaving Aug. 18, Harris wrote they took a southerly course around Admiralty Island, prospecting and shooting a deer swimming out to sea in Prince Frederick Sound. After 51 days, they arrived in Sitka on Sept. 8.

Resting eight days, Harris wrote they headed back to Juneau ``in a good canoe which I named the Alaska Chief of Gold Creek.'' After the steamer Favorite towed the canoe almost to Hoonah, they continued ``with a fair west wind'' into Lynn Canal, past Shelter Island and the Auk Indian Village, camping on the north end of Douglas Island Sept. 23, crossing the Auke bar the next day.

``Compelled to remain in camp (at Salmon Creek) as there was a strong head wind blowing from the southeast for few days,'' Harris wrote they rested four days at Gold Creek, assaulting the devil's club on Oct. 3 with one Indian packing their supplies.

``We could not follow the creek as the brush was too compact,'' Harris wrote. ``Our only show was to climb the mountain,'' where they ``obtained a beautiful view of what is now called Silver Bow Basin and Quartz Gulch.'' Harris said he named the basin after the Silver Bow Mines in Montana.

Hammering at an outcropping that had large pieces of quartz ``all spangled over with gold,'' Harris wrote: ``Juneau and myself could hardly believe our eyes. We knew it was gold but so much and not fine particles - streaks running through the rock and little lumps as large as peas and beans.''

After staking and measuring placer mines, Harris wrote out a code of local laws on Oct. 4, prospected the area until Oct. 18, hauled 1,000 pounds of gold-bearing quartz rock three miles over the mountain to the beach, then laid out a town site which he named ``Harrisburgh after the capital of Pennsylvania'' at the mouth of Gold Creek.

After killing ``several mountain sheep'' (others said they were goats) at a ``nice-looking creek we named Sheep Creek'' Oct. 24, they loaded up quartz rock, their records and laws and launched their canoe on Nov. 7, arriving in Sitka on Nov. 17.

Since the ``quartz was streaked all over with lumps of gold,'' Harris wrote, ``it created quite a sensation in Sitka. The people were almost wild with delight . . . every man in the town had the gold fever to get off to the new diggings.''

The rush was on. By Nov. 24, the officers of the ``U.S. Ship Jamestown'' gave Harris and Juneau a steam launch so they could be the first to get back to their find.

``We had quite a lively time to see who would get to diggings first,'' Harris wrote, ``but as I piloted the steam launch, we got to the mines ahead of the Steamer Favorite two days.''

After a ``lively time of staking off town lots and placer claims,'' Harris wrote on Dec. 2 they went into Silver Bow Basin to show Pilz his quartz locations. The snow, Harris noted, was two feet deep. Apparently satisfied, Pilz gave Harris ``one dollar per day more than my agreement called for.'' For his prospecting time, Harris earned $3 and Juneau, $2 per day.

In the Dec. 3 and 4 entry, the last one in the diary, Harris describes the flurry of building activity in Juneau. Pilz, he wrote, ``put up the first house in the town, as it was brought from Sitka already framed, on the steamer Favorite.''

In that entry, Harris also credits the ``native Indians of Alaska'' who ``behaved friendly and assisted us all the(y) possibly could.'' Harris added, ``I cannot give them too much praise . . . they were very anxious for us to find gold.''

That is the end of Harris' diary. The rest of the story comes from letters, court records and historical documents.

From 1880 to 1886, Harris mined his original discovery on Quartz Gulch, taking at least $75,000 from the site, according to historian R.N. DeArmond, author of ``The Founding of Juneau.''

Sued in 1885 by N.A. Fuller for mining overlapping claims, Harris lost all his property to satisfy the $7,000 judgment against him, except his house and property on Telephone Hill.

A biography introducing a ``Guide to the Family Papers of Richard Tighe Harris'' prepared by Dennis Francis Walle in 1981, describes Harris' later years. In his 50s, he met and married a Hoonah girl named Kitty and fathered four children. His son, William, and daughter, Mary Kelchine, died in infancy. Two other sons survived. Kitty died in 1893 at the age of 26.

In letters he wrote his surviving sons, William John and Richard Jr. at the Indian school in Chemawa, Ore., Harris discussed his desire to prospect the latest gold rush at Cape Nome ``to make something for the boys and himself before he dies,'' and wrote ``remembrance of the boys and their mother is his only comfort.'' Almost 70, ``with no gray hairs,'' he mourned ``the way he was robbed in the early days,'' and explained he is ``a new man, morally and physically, since he gave up the `accursed drink.' ''

Harris' son Richard returned to Juneau in 1904 to help his aging father, working his way up as a cabin boy on the steamer Faralone, $4 in his pocket when he arrived.

Not long after, Harris, suffering from yellow jaundice and eye trouble, was sent to a home operated by the Masonic Order in Portland, Ore. He died there Oct. 11, 1907, at the age of 73, one day short of 27 years after his discovery.

He is buried along the walkway through Evergreen Cemetery in Juneau, along with Joe Juneau, who died in Dawson in 1899. Cowee, who died in 1888, is buried nearby, along Glacier Highway across from Harborview School.

A sculpted memorial to Harris, Juneau and Cowee is located at the South Franklin Street entrance to the Marine View Building. At the south end of the Federal Building near Gold Creek is a memorial to Harris and Juneau for their role in founding Juneau, described as the ``first white settlement established in Alaska under American possession.''

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