Denali National Park

Denali National Park
Denali National Park (Stacy Gold/National Geographic/Getty)

Many generations of native Athabascans wandered over this region before Caucasians began to discover and explore it. Nomadic bands hunted lowland hills of Denali's northern reaches spring through tall for caribou, sheep, and moose. They preserved berries for winter, netted fish, and gathered edible plants. As snows began to fall, they migrated to lower elevations, closer to the river valleys for better protection from winter's severe weather. Much of the Alaska Range formed a mighty barrier between interior Athabascans and Cook Inlet Athabascans to the south.

Mining Era

Nearly everyone has heard of the Bonanza Strike near Dawson City, and the rush to make a fortune. However, most people are unaware of the booms and busts that occurred within the current boundaries of Denali National Park and Preserve in a place now known simply as Kantishna.

The year was 1903, early summer. The main brunt of the gold rush in the Yukon was over; hundreds of prospectors were out of work. Coincidentally, Yukon District Judge James Wickersham and four others took the summer as an opportunity to explore the region around the great mountain, Denali, with the intention of being the first to summit. Unsuccessful in that realm, they were successful in discovering gold near that area. Their claims captured the attention of the unemployed prospectors in Fairbanks.

Two men figured prominently with the Kantishna Hills mining history, Joseph Dalton and Joseph Quigley. In 1904, Dalton's party successfully prospected the Toklat River Basin. A year later, Joe Quigley and his partner, Jack Horn, found gold in paying quantities in Glacier Creek. After staking the creeks, they carried the news back to Fairbanks. Within weeks, thousands of gold seekers found their way up the Tanana, Kantishna, and Bearpaw Rivers; mining towns sprang up overnight including Eureka, a summer mining camp centrally located near active pay streaks.

Within six months the easy pickings were gone and the rush was over. Miners left in droves, leaving behind less than 50 inhabitants to continue placer mining. Some ventured into hard-rock mining: silver, lead, zinc, and antimony. However, transportation problems plagued the success of this mining district; there were no roads to get equipment in and out of the mines.

Three events reopened mining thirty years later: President Franklin Roosevelt raised the price of gold to $15/ounce, the park road was completed, and the post-depression era produced cheap labor. Central to this second boom was the development of the Banjo Mine on Quigley Ridge. This mine was the first commercial-scale lode gold milling operation, eventually becoming the fourth largest lode mine in the Yukon Basin. This golden era came to an end with the coming of World War II.

Mining activity increased in the 1970s; there was no longer a gold standard and prices soared. Environmental awareness soared, too. In 1976, the Mining in Parks Act passed, essentially terminating any further mineral entry and location; valid claims had a four-year moratorium placed on them for surface disturbance. When the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) passed and the Mt. McKinley National Park boundaries expanded by four million acres, the Kantishna mining district became completely enveloped by the newly designated Denali National Park and Preserve. By the mid-1980s, the Kantishna gold mining district ranked 27th in the state for overall production of gold; nearly 100,000 ounces had been extracted from these hills.

There is very little that remains at the sites of the old towns that flourished nearly 100 years ago. Today, activity in the Kantishna Mining District has shifted to a new direction, tourism. Only the town of Eureka, now called Kantishna, is left to remind us of those golden years not so long ago.

The Park's Creation

The park was originally established to protect its large mammals, not because of majestic Mount McKinley. Charles Sheldon conceived the plan to conserve the region as a national park. Naturalist, hunter, and conservationist, Sheldon first traveled here in 1906 and again in 1907 with a packer and guide named Harry Karstens. (Karstens later made the first ascent of Mt. McKinley's south peak and would serve as the park's first superintendent.) Sheldon devoted much of his 1907 travels to studying boundaries for the proposed national park that would include territories suitable for a game refuge. When Sheldon returned to the East in 1908, the Game Committee of the Boone and Crockett Club, of which he was chairman, launched the campaign to establish a national park. Largely due to these efforts, Mt. McKinley National Park was established in 1917. Its populations of Dall sheep and other wildlife were now legislatively protected. However, Mt. McKinley itself was not wholly included within the boundaries.

Sheldon wanted to call the park Denali, but his suggestion would not be followed until 1980. That year the boundary was expanded to include both the Denali caribou herd's wintering and calving grounds and the entire Mt. McKinley massif. More than tripled in size, the park became Denali National Park and Preserve. It was also designated an International Biosphere Reserve significant for its potential for subarctic ecosystems research. Predator-prey relationships exist in balance here as they may have existed elsewhere before human intrusions. Denali National Park and Preserve remains a subarctic wilderness of wildlife and glaciated mountains.


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