From boomtown to wilderness: exploring history in Tracy Arm

Posted: Friday, September 10, 2010

The year is 1895. Two miles beyond town, a 10-stamp mill crushes rock with a roar that's audible for miles. A 3,000-foot tram services the mill, its cables squealing against iron wheels. Each morning, a line of men tramp noisily along a corduroy road from the seaside town to the mine's deep tunnels. Others clamor up every mountain in sight, digging into the earth for gold and silver.

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Courtesy Of  Tim Lydon
Courtesy Of Tim Lydon

While this sounds like Juneau's early days, many would be surprised to learn it was a scene in Endicott Arm, where the town of Sumdum once stood. Endicott is now part of the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, a place known for its wildlife and opportunities, for solitude and adventure, but it's also rich in human history.

The first paying gold strikes in Alaska were in Windham Bay, just south of Endicott Arm, and at Powers Creek, at the base of Endicott's Sumdum Glacier. It was 1869 - just two years after Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. - and it signaled the beginning of the gold rushes that would draw thousands of miners northward, eventually settling in communities like Juneau and Skagway and flooding the Klondike trails into the Yukon.

Sumdum, like other mining-era towns, sprang up quickly. Its wooden buildings lined the shores of Sanford Cove, on the south shore of Endicott Arm, a few miles from Holkham Bay. The town included the first brewery in American Alaska (which I often wish was still pouring beer) and a post office that lasted until the 1940s. Although Sumdum survived more than 50 years, its heyday was around the turn of the century, when the Sumdum Chief Mine produced more than 24,000 ounces of gold.

The miners spread widely, staking scores of claims in Windham Bay, Holkham Bay, and northward into Tracy Arm and Port Snettisham. Rails, trails and roads laced mountains that today appear as pristine wilderness. Meanwhile, homesteaders built cabins, dug elaborate gardens, and raised goats and chickens along the beaches. Fox farmers eventually settled the islands in Holkham and Endicott.

But humans were making a good living in Holkham Bay long before the mines. The area was home to the Sumdum Tlingit, who had a permanent village near the mouth of Powers Creek and a fish camp in Sanford Cove. It must have been a land of abundance for the Sumdum people, with thousands of resident harbor seals and intertidal beaches full of shellfish. Late each summer, galaxies of berries covered the mountainsides and fish filled the streams. Salmon-fattened trees provided materials for longhouses and canoes.

Unfortunately, not much is known about the Sumdum people. With the opening of the mines, they either relocated to the new town or left the area. The last known person of Sumdum origin died in the 1940s. Even the meaning of the Sumdum name remains a mystery, although some believe "The People of the Sparkling Green Water" is a likely possibility.

Adze marks in trees are about the only remaining physical evidence of the Sumdum. But some years ago, a Forest Service archaeologist used a soil probe to show me the charcoal and crushed shells buried beneath Holkham Bay's beaches. In that moment, I realized humans had long been a fixture along the bay's shores, laughing, telling stories and cooking fish on the best beaches, just like we do today. It changed my understanding of wilderness.

Although scant physical evidence of the Sumdum people remains, we can still glimpse what their life was like in Holkham Bay. The State Museum in Juneau has Tlingit artifacts and a replica of the clan houses that once lined the shore. And the Huna Indian Association recently created a map of place names for Glacier Bay, a powerful tool showing that early Tlingit people traveled widely and had a profound knowledge of Southeast Alaska's ecology and resources.

Today, we value wilderness areas like Tracy Arm-Fords Terror for solitude and undeveloped nature. In the modern era, they provide invaluable opportunities to learn about our connectedness to the natural world. But we shouldn't forget that today's wilderness is yesterday's town, village, or fish camp. Similarly remarkable human histories underlie every one of the nineteen wilderness areas on the Tongass National Forest, itself named for a Tlingit clan. The same is true for protected areas across the globe.

The human history is one more reason to explore Tracy Arm-Fords Terror. While there's much to be said for the long days and calm weather of mid-summer, September is also a special time. Boat traffic slows to a trickle, and salmon fill the streams, attracting bears, wolves, seals, sea lions and a stunning array of birds. Breaks in the clouds reveal the first bright snows atop 7,000-foot Mount Sumdum. It's a great time to visit.

• Tim Lydon is a wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. He spends much of each summer in the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness.

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