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Thomas Plenderleith Aitken

(1871 - 1953)

photo of Thomas Aitken

Thomas P. Aitken, December 6, 1941
Photo from Breckon Collection, Ellensburg Public Library

Thomas P. Aitken was one of the most outstanding mine entrepreneurs that ever operated in the North Country. Aitken was responsible for one mine success story after another throughout the central Yukon River region in both Canada and Alaska. He developed both placer and lode precious metal deposits throughout his long career.

Thomas P. Aitken was born on December 11th, 1871 in the Chapel of Monance in Fife, Argyllshire County, Scotland, and immigrated to the United States in 1894. His immigration papers listed his occupation as 'blacksmith', and stated a willingness to do hard work. In 1895, T. P. Aitken joined his brothers David L. and William H. Aitken in Victor, Colorado. The industrious brothers are said to have found a fortune in 'telluride' gold near Victor, Colorado. Tom Aitken would travel north with money in his pocket.

In the spring of 1897, Aitken heard the call of the Yukon and boarded the steamer Leah in Seattle and disembarked at Dyea. Tom placer mined in the Klondike district from 1897-1902, and was sometimes associated with his three brothers: David L., William H., and James Aitken, and with Hamilton. The 1901 Yukon-Alaska Directory, the definitive source document of the day, lists Thomas P. Aitken as a mine operator near Dawson, but gives little other information about his activities.

In 1903, Aitken traveled to the newly discovered Fairbanks district, where he staked and purchased rich ground on Cleary Creek. This relatively small stream basin would eventually account for more than two million ounces of placer gold, or about 30 percent of total historical Fairbanks placer gold output. At Cleary Creek, Tom Aitken met Frank G. Manley, who owned some of the richest claims on Cleary Creek. Aitken leased ground from Manley on Cleary Creek during both 1905 and 1906. This arrangement began a long association between Manley and Tom Aitken. Brother William H. Aitken would work with Tom under the Aitken & Aitken partnership intermittently for years.

In 1907, with substantial profits accumulated from Cleary Creek, Aitken moved into the newly discovered Hot Springs district, and formed another business partnership with Manley to mine ground on Glen Gulch. At that time Manley had to return to Texas to face a spurious legal charge, which kept him out of Alaska for a critical time. At one time, Manley owed Tom Aitken more than $220,000. The debt was settled amicably.

In the summer of 1910, Tom Aitken, Henry Riley, and Frank Manley traveled via the steamboat Edna to the new gold rush town of Iditarod. The Iditarod camp was discovered on Christmas Day 1908 by prospectors John Beaton and William Dikeman, who both staked many claims in the spring of 1909. However, Flat Creek heads into Chicken Mountain, which is underlain by granitic rocks. Because the major gold camps like Nome, Fairbanks, Wiseman, Juneau, and the Klondike did not contain a known gold-granite association, many prospectors of the day did not believe that Upper Flat Creek contained placer gold. When Tom Aitken arrived in the Iditarod district, he found that placer gold ground in the stream basins immediately flanking Chicken Mountain had just been discovered. Aitken and Riley acquired, through purchase and staking, a large group of claims known as the Marietta Association at the head of Flat Creek. Employing an average of 100 men, Aitken and Riley ran one of the largest 'non-float' mechanized placer gold mines in the Alaska Territory. In 1911, their mine was the largest producer of gold in the Iditarod district. Aitken and Riley (and Frank Manley) became Flat's most prominent citizens.

Aitken-Riley Marietta Association mine plant, Iditarod district, circa 1911

Aitken-Riley Marietta Association mine plant, Iditarod district, circa 1911.
Photo from the University of Alaska Polar Archives.

In July of 1911, rumors that 'outside' capital was coming to the Iditarod district materialized when representatives of the Guggenheim syndicate, headed by W.F. Copeland and A.E. Austin, arrived in Flat. After discussions and meetings, Aitken, sold his share of the Marietta Association to the Guggenheims for a reported $1.5 million, and agreed to be their agent. By the end of the summer, Aitken had acquired most of lower Flat Creek for the Guggenheims. In the spring of 1912, the Yukon Gold Company, operator of the Guggenheim gold mining operations in the Klondike district of Canada, brought in a 6 cubic foot bucket line stacker dredge to mine the Flat Creek ground. The dredge was first positioned on the Marietta Association where it mined some of the richest ground ever mined by a gold dredge in Alaska.

In a well-publicized event, Tom Aitken married Chicago socialite, artist and silent movie actress Beryl C. Boughton in New York on April 3rd, 1912. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer read "Tom Aitken Will Take Bride to Alaska and Live in Seattle", and the New York Herald headlined "Romance of the Goldfields Revealed by Wedding Here". But Boughton would not travel to either Seattle or Alaska that summer. The marriage was short lived, and their 1914 divorce was bitter and messy. Boughton would later star with Fred Keenan in the 1915 silent screen western, The Long Chance. After a period of remorse, Aitken resumed his North Country mining career in earnest.

photo of Thomas Aitken wedding announcement

New York Herald article on April 4, 1912 about the wedding of Tom Aitken and Beryl Bouton.

During his years in Flat, the Iditarod Pioneer seemed to follow Aitken's every move. Aitken and partner Sid Ensor left Flat by dog team on December 12, 1913, and traveled first to the Innoko, Ruby and Hot Springs camps en-route to his winter home in Fairbanks. It was on this overland trip that Aitken saw the need for a unified transportation network in the area. His Ruby interview, published in the Iditarod Pioneer on January 10, 1914, stated:

"With an expenditure of, say, $1,000 on this trail, it would be the best in Alaska. It is the logical mail route, covering as it does so many small camps between here and Iditarod."
Aitken traveled to Juneau during 1914-1915 and lobbied the Territorial Legislature to upgrade the Ruby-Ophir-Iditarod overland transportation route. As a result of the effort triggered by Aitken, the Territory committed funds to construct road networks in all three mining districts and improved winter dog team trail maintenance. Parts of this trail system continue to provide access for placer miners, and are part of the National Iditarod Historic Trail.

Commencing in 1915, Aitken returned to the lode mining that he learned at Victor, Colorado. Aro Aho has provided the best account of Aitken's Yukon activities. The Silver King silver-lead vein on Galena Hill in the Mayo district of Yukon, Canada was first found in 1911 by Harry McWhorter and his two partners. In 1914, McWhorter bought out his partners, and contacted Tom Aitken in Fairbanks, who agreed to finance the project at a larger scale. By the spring of 1915, McWhorter mined 1,180 tons of ore, and shipped the ore to the Selby smelter. In September 1916, Aitken exercised his option, and bought the Silver King mine for $75,000. With a large crew, Aitken mined 1,386 tons of high-grade silver ore during the winter of 1916-1917, which yielded good profits. Aitken became so absorbed in operating the Silver King mine that he once overlooked required claim assessment filing. This provided an 'old timer' prospector, who had been watching records in the Dawson mine recorder's office, to rush up to Silver King and stake it-convinced that Aitken would not have time to record his assessment work before the filing deadline. Upon discovering the gravity of the situation, Tom secured a local champion dog team and set off for the recording office in Dawson to keep his Silver King claims from lapsing. The dog team was so fast that Aitken got to Dawson, 200 miles away, in record time and managed to record the assessment work with just hours left before his claims would have lapsed.

In 1917, Tom optioned the Silver King mine to his Alaskan partners J.E. Ives, Frank Manley, and J.L. McGinn for $500,000. However, the 'Big 4' partnership failed, and was abandoned in 1918 without knowing that just 500 feet further down the drift was one of the biggest and richest silver deposits that would ever be found in the Keno Hill area. The Silver King title reverted back to Aitken, who leased the property to Sandy McPherson and partners in 1928 and, according to unpublished documents of Aro Aho, eventually sold the property in 1929. Subsequently, new development headings would again spell success for the Silver King mine.

Aitken's on-the-ground activities in the Mayo Mining district lasted only a few years, but his successful development of moderate tonnages of high-grade silver-lead ores at the Silver King mine caught the attention of larger mining firms. In 1919, Simon Guggenheim, President of American Smelting and Refining Company, sent engineer R.H. Humphrey North to examine the Keno Hill district. Treadwell-Yukon Company, under the leadership of Alaska Mining Hall of Famer Livingston Wernecke, began the first systematic development of the district. Eventually, United Keno Hill Mines Ltd. consolidated the district, and became Canada's largest primary silver producer for 40 years. Ore was mined there nearly continuously until 1989.

Tom Aitken's financial success in the Mayo District led him to invest in Alaskan lode precious metal properties. In 1918, Aitken agreed to lease a number of lode silver-gold claims in the Kantishna district from the Joe and Fanny Quigley. From 1919-1924, some 1,435 tons of high-grade silver ore were mined underground from six deposits on Quigley Ridge. However, high transportation costs, lower silver prices, and lease disagreements with the Quigleys, forced Aitken to abandon the Kantishna silver project in 1924. However, Aitken and partner Jack Price did acquire the Mount Eielson lead-zinc-silver deposits east of Wonder Lake, and later sold them to the Guggenhem Syndicate for a substantial profit.

In 1919, Tom Aitken looked at the recently (1918) discovered Perseverance, a high-grade silver-lead vein deposit near the head of Bishop Creek, about 20 miles south of Galena. Aitken operated the Perseverance mine under lease during 1920-1922, and produced a total of 225 tons of ore at an average grade of 75 percent lead and 104-ounce/ton silver. Transportation costs forced the termination of the project.

Also In 1919, high-grade gold mineralization, found in the Nixon Fork district northeast of McGrath, caught the eye of Tom Aitken, who leased claims from the discoverer E. M. Whalen. Aitken would produce the first ore from the district. His mine crew extracted about 370 tons of high-grade ore that averaged 5-ounce/ton gold. In September 1920, the Treadwell-Yukon Mining Company examined the new lode gold district developed by Aitken. Treadwell-Yukon offered a lucrative lease-option to Aitken, which he accepted. The Nixon Fork gold mine has intermittently produced high-grade gold ores since the 1920s, including recent production periods that took place from 1996-2000 and 2006-2008. Aitken would later option, on behalf of the Guggenheim Syndicate, properties in the Broad Pass area, near the present day Golden Zone copper-gold mine.

In general, Tom Aitken did better at placer mining then at lode mining, as illustrated at Candle Creek near McGrath. When Aitken first looked at the Candle Creek placer prospect in 1914, he recognized that the placer deposit was underlain by a monzonite body similar to that exposed at Chicken Mountain in the Iditarod district. He established a partnership with E. McKinnon, purchased the claims from discoverer Louis Blackburn, and installed an open-cut scraper plant at the head of Candle Creek. The Aitken-McKinnon partnership mined the upper claims from 1915-1917, and produced more than $125,000 in gold, from shallow, easy-to-mine ground. Aitken then decided to develop the property at a larger scale. In late 1917, he formed the Kuskokwim Dredging Company (KDC), and purchased a 3 cubic foot bucket line stacker dredge that had formerly operated on the Seward Peninsula. The dredge was in production by 1918, and operated through 1926. In 1922, the KDC dredge produced nearly 24,000 ounces of placer gold, worth $500,000, from about 225,000 cubic yards of pay gravel, and became the largest gold producer in southwest Alaska.

photo of the KDC Aitken dredge, as it appeared in 1949.

The KDC 'Aitken' dredge as it appeared in 1949.
Photo from Odin Strandberg, Sr.

In 1920, difficult times struck Tom Aitken. In February 1920, Fairbanks resident Harry A. Monroe, one of Aitken's best friends and right hand man in numerous mine-related developments, committed suicide in a San Francisco hotel room. Aitken was devastated. In later years, one of his brothers, James Aitken, would be killed in a mine-related accident in the McCarthy district. What helped Aitken get through these difficult times was the comfort and stability provided by his second wife, British immigrant Emile Aitken. Educated at Oxford University in England, and later at Berlin University in Germany, Emile immigrated to the United States shortly before World War I. The late Margaret Mespelt, a long time McGrath area pioneer, and Odin Strandberg Sr., a well-known placer mining pioneer, recalled that Emile helped Tom Aitken with the management of the KDC dredge operations. Frequently adorned in stylish European clothing, especially Scottish and German style hats, Emile was known in McGrath as 'The Scottish Lassie'.

In 1923, the payroll for Aitken's KDC dredge operation, which amounted to $31,000, was stolen from the U.S. Mail dog team driven by mail carrier William Duffy. The theft took place while the mail was en-route from Iditarod to McGrath. The Federal criminal investigation and trial that followed became known as the 'Black Bear Case', as described by Alaska's first elected member of the U.S. House of Representative, Ralph J. Rivers - then a young assistant postmaster at Iditarod. At first, no one knew who the perpetrators of the crime were. Eventually Nellie Beatty (Bates), a.k.a. 'The Black Bear', a well known and popular Iditarod prostitute, banker, personnel advisor, and mining claim owner, along with an elderly roadhouse owner by the name of Schermeyer, were charged with the crime. The first trial was held in Fairbanks during 1927, with Tom Aitken making several courtroom appearances, both to give testimony and to just listen. Aitken returned to a Fairbanks courtroom in 1928 to provide further testimony at a second trial. Neither Schermeyer's or Beatty's guilt was ever really doubted, as Schermeyer completely confessed to the crime and implicated both himself and Nellie with detailed testimony about how the couple planned and carried out the malfeasance. But a three year statute of limitation on mail theft, a good defense lawyer (Tom Marquam), and the popularity of the female Iditarod pioneer resulted in a hung jury. Nellie Beatty was acquitted of all charges in the second trial held during 1928. Schermeyer, who had pleaded guilty as a co-conspirator to the crime, served a one year-suspended sentence before his death later in 1929. Beatty later married William Duffy, the original mail carrier in charge of the 1923 payroll that was stolen.

photo of Nellie Beatty and William Duffy.

July 4, 1932, featuring Nellie Beatty and William Duffy in the lower right hand corner of the photograph.
Photo from the John Miscovich collection.

As reported in a 1924 issue of the Farthest North Collegian, stripping activities conducted by KDC on Candle Creek discovered the complete skeleton of a Pleistocene mammoth. Aitken donated the important paleontological find to the Geology Department at the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines in Fairbanks. Ernest Patty stated at the time that the Candle Creek find was the most complete mammoth skeleton ever found in Alaska.

In 1927, Aitken sold the KDC (Candle placer property) to Union Construction Company, who in turn leased the property to David Strandberg. Taking advantage of improved heavy equipment technologies, Strandberg and Sons developed the deposit with more modern dragline/bulldozer machinery, and later rebuilt Aitken's KDC dredge in the late 1940s.

In May 1924, Societus Metallicorum, the mining society just organized at the School of Mines in Fairbanks, invited Thomas Aitken to give a talk on gold dredging in Alaska. At the conclusion of Tom's presentation, Charles Bunnell, President of the College and also President of the Mining Society, awarded Aitken the first honorary member of Societas Metallicorum, and gave him a membership pin. Aitken would be a frequent guest speaker at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce during his winter stays in Washington State.

Tom Aitken's last Alaska mining venture was on Livengood Creek north of Farbanks, where he conducted a large churn drilling program in 1927. Aitken had hoped to prove up sufficient ground for a placer gold dredging operation, but returned the property to the original owners in 1928 or 1929.

T. P. Aitken was an outstanding discoverer of mines and, through resourcefulness and efficiency, built a multi-million dollar fortune by the mid-1920s. But Aitken's investment management skills did not match his mining prowess. He and an important financial partner, Sam Applebaum, lost much, although not all, of their wealth in the Great Stock Market Crash of October 1929.

In 1925, Tom Aitken had announced that he was retiring from the Alaska-Yukon mining business. That was premature, but in 1930, when he announced his retirement again, it stuck. Subsequently, the Fairbanks Daily News Miner reported:

"Tom Aitken is the miner who has developed more properties... than any man who has ever come north."
Aitken worked in an environment dominated by large corporations i.e. the Yukon Gold Company, the Guggenheims and Kennecott Copper Corporation, the Yukon-Treadwell hardrock gold mines in southeast Alaska, and the emerging dominance of the USSR&M Company in the interior placer gold fields. Although he would sometimes represent these firms, he usually operated independently at a much smaller scale, which set him apart from the corporate mining arena. Aitken provided hope to the citizens of Interior Alaska, who did not always know what the future held for them. Aitken's mining successes translated directly into jobs for towns like Fairbanks and McGrath, which may explain why the mine entrepreneur was so frequently quoted in the newspapers of the day.

During the 1930s, Aitken managed to retain enough funds to retire comfortably in rural Washington. Anticipating irrigation water from the Grand Coulee Dam project, the Aitkens bought a farm and produced potatoes and raised chickens. Both Tom and Emile were popular and involved in various civic organizations in Kittitas County, Washington, where most of their farming efforts were concentrated.

Miners associated with Aitken noted that he worked hard, and that he expected them to work hard; they also noticed, as might be expected from his Scottish origin, Aitken was tight with the dollar. But as the late Yukon historian Aaro Aho wrote:

"Aitken was never stingy with food. His miners always ate well."

In later life, Tom Aitken was perhaps not as tight with his money as when he acquired his hard-earned assets. Charles F. Herbert, another important Alaskan mining man and former Commissioner of Natural Resources under Governor William Egan, remembers Tom Aitken during the 1930's as

"...a short but broad-shouldered man who was considered quite wealthy but not miserly. He grubstaked many prospectors during his time in Fairbanks and would not hesitate to tip a beer or two with miners, prospectors, and citizens in any one of the numerous pubs of the day."
Herbert consulted with Aitken during his thesis research on gold dredging at the Alaska School of Agriculture Mines in Fairbanks. The late Odin Strandberg, Sr. remembered Tom Aitken during an interview in 2002, and described him as
"...an outstanding mining man who operated in a highly professional manner. He was a real success story in the early 20th Century Alaska mining business."
Odin visited the Aitkens at their Washington State farm in 1941. There is a persistent but unsubstantiated report that T.P. Aitken, a strong Anglophile, donated money to build fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force during the early years of World War II.

Thomas P. Aitken never forgot his North Country mining roots. He was a life member of Pioneers of Alaska Igloo #4 (roll Call #886), and continued to keep in touch with friends and relatives in Alaska until his death. Alaskans would often visit both Tom and Emile either at their farm near Ellensburg, Washington or were hosted by the Aitkens at the Mayflower Hotel in Seattle. Thomas Plenderleith Aitken died of viral pneumonia in Soap Lake, Grant County, Washington on March 18, 1953, at the age of 81.

Mayflower Hotel

Historic Mayflower Hotel in Seattle, where
Tom and Emile Aitken entertained Alaskan pioneers
Photo: Thomas K. Bundtzen, 2013

By Thomas K. Bundtzen and Connie Bradbury, 2002; revised 2009
Contributing Materials: Karen Erickson (University of Alaska, Fairbanks Archives), Jane Gaffin (Yukon historian), John Miscovich, the late Margaret Mespelt,Odin Strandberg, Sr., and C.F. Herbert.

SOURCES

Aho, A.E., 2006, Hills of Silver-The Yukon's Mighty Keno Hill Mine: (published account of A.E. Aho (deceased in 1977) from unpublished records in Yukon Archives) Harbour Publishing Company, British Columbia, Canada, 335 pages.

Bundtzen, Thomas K., 1978, A History of Mining in the Kantishna Hills: The Alaska Journal, vol. 8, no. 2, p. 150-161.

Bundtzen, T.K., Miller, M.L., Laird, G.M., and Bull, K.F., 1992, Geology and Mineral resources of the Iditarod Mining district, Southwest Alaska: Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys Professional Report 92, 48 pages.

Editor, 1911, Future of Iditarod Menaced: The Iditarod Pioneer, July 8, 1911, p. 1.

Editor, 1911, Suit for $48,000 Brought Against Manley and Aitken: Iditarod Pioneer, August 12, 1911, p. 1.

Editor, 1912, Iditarod Miner Weds: Seattle-Post Intelligencer, April 4, 1912, p.1.

Editor, 1913, More Money is Needed for Roads: The Iditarod Pioneer, May 24, 1913, p.4.

MacDonald, L. E.T., and Bleiler, L. R. 1990, Gold and Galena, a History of the Mayo District: Mayo Historical Society, Freisen Printers, 502 pages.

Mertie, J.B. Jr., 1937, The Kaiyuh Hills, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 868-D, p. 145-178.

Morgan, D.A., 1924, Bones: Farthest North Collegian: June, 1924, p.15-16.

Rivers, Ralph J., 1976, The Black Bear Case: The Alaska Magazine, p, 12-14.

Shanley, J.S., 1924, Societus Metallicorum: Farthest North Collegian, June, 1924, p. 4-5.

Sims, V.C., 1965, But His Name wasn't Manley: Alaska Sportsman, May, 1965, p. 14-15; 58-61.

Yukon Archives, 1972, Aaro Aho Collection 82/161, "Keno Hill: an Era of Individualism in Yukon's Great Silver District".

Wells, F.G., 1933, Lode deposits of Eureka Creek and Vicinity, Kantishna district: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 849F, p. 335-379.

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