Coal Village faded, but coal interest still burns

Posted: Friday, August 21, 2009

PORT GRAHAM - A field near Port Graham hides the marks of a sizable coal town that was established in the 1850s. All the remnants of the town disappeared - except for the stone outline of a dock. At the height of operation, Coal Village was the third-largest Russian town in Alaska, exceeded only by Kodiak and Sitka.

Russian history recorded 20 houses, a church, a warehouse, a sawmill, a blacksmith shop, stables, a small foundry and mining structures.

"It's all overgrown now," said Port Graham Chief Patrick Norman. "Elders still have stories. They used the Native people as workers."

While written history gets some of the details wrong - the coal mine is listed as being in English Bay and some accounts claim Russian convicts worked the mine. But one detail that seems fairly certain is that thousands of tons of coal were mined over a 12-year period, supplying ships until Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867.

Today, the Abandoned Mine Program with the Department of Natural Resources only briefly mentions Coal Village, a site that was apparently forgotten by all but the local population. According to archives provided by Joe Wehrman, program manager of Alaska's abandoned mines, "Port Graham was first mined by the Russian American Company in 1855. This company used the coal for their steamer until 1867. The lignite was used locally and for steamers until the early 1920s. One or two thousand tons were used annually."

Wehrman said his department has a lot to keep track of, given that the state has 7,300 potential or actual mine sites listed - mostly abandoned placer mines. This coal mine at Port Graham was the only one the Russians ever pursued.

Geologists in territorial times, likely for the Bureau of Mining, made a recommendation for "further consideration of this site."

"But without going through historical archived boxes I cannot tell for certain if that ever happened," Wehrman said. "I would expect that, had there been any remaining safety issues, the Port Graham folks would have been talking about it to someone who would have contacted us by now."

Wehrman said he looked back through the AML Program's completed project list and didn't see anything. "I also looked back at the historical data sets in the national Abandoned Mine Land Inventory System (AMLIS) that the USDI Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement maintains and didn't find anything there either," he said.

Most people know the story of how Homer was established as a coal mining town at the end of the Spit in the late 1890s. Coal on the beaches is a constant reminder of the resource's presence wedged in the bluffs and on submerged shelves lining the shore. A lesser-known detail is that Cook Inlet has large coal deposits that periodically have different groups taking an interest. However, the majority of those asking about claims don't come back, said the head of the state's coal program, Russell Kirkham.

Simeon Kvasnikoff, an elder living in Port Graham who remembers much of the oral traditions of the area, recounts combing the site of the old Coal Village for artifacts.

"The Russians put the Natives to work building a dock there for hauling the coal out," Kvasnikoff said. "They had to haul it with a wheelbarrow to build the dock."

Kvasnikoff said that, at one time, a store and a church were built over there.

"I've been looking around and I couldn't find anything," he explained. "My mother and father were the first ones to live over there after the Russians left. They lived in a store the Russians left."

His mother and father went to live at the old Coal Village in 1919-1920, after they had married in Seldovia. The village is described as being about three to four miles from Port Graham and about that distance from Nanwalek.

"My mother told me she used to find gold coins on streams that Russians dropped," Kvasnikoff said. "When they bought the sea otter furs, they paid the Natives in gold coins."

The beach near the site of the dock is bare of rocks now, exposing a sandy shore. Kvasnikoff said rocks used from the beach were hauled by wheelbarrow to build a rampway for the coal haul.

Like the project at Coal Village, few of Alaska's coal prospects lasted very long. The one most often talked about historically was at Sutton. It was established by Evan Jones, who spent his life working in coal mines.

He also opened a mine in Homer during World War II. He died in Homer on March 27, 1950.

Evan envisioned building a dock below the bluff on the beach and shipping the coal to Fort Richardson by barge.

"But he was never able to establish a market for coal in Homer because people could pick it off the beach after it had fallen from the ocean bluff deposits," according to a historical record at the Alaska Bureau of Land Management.

For all the endeavors dreamed up, most of Alaska's coal remains safely in the ground or below the tides.

Only the Usibelli Mine is currently being operated, and it has run since 1943.

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