SIMON WILLIAM WIBLE
Simon Wible, undated
Photo: Rolfe G. Buzzell
Simon William Wible was born, probably of German or Swiss extraction, in Pennsylvania on March 5, 1832. As a boy he moved with his family to Mendon, Adams County, Illinois. Mendon is only a few miles east of the great river of commerce, the Mississippi. Quincy, the seat of Adams County was at that time a bustling river port - just the kind of place to arouse youthful dreams of travel and adventure. When Simon was twenty years old he made his first westward trek, joining a wagon train bound for California. Simon returned to the east to lead two other trips. On his last, in 1858, the wagon train was attacked and broken up by Indians. Wible walked into Fort Laramie, Wyoming, where he soon attached himself to another westward-bound party.
In the next few years Wible mined gold in El Dorado, Amador, and Calaveras Counties in California. He learned the surveying craft, became interested in civil engineering, and began a career in water management. Wible formed the Blue Lake Water System in 1868 in San Francisco. He moved to Bakersfield, Kern County, in 1874 where he homesteaded about three miles west of the city at Wible Station. He constructed the Wible (1874), Pioneer (1874-1875), and the Kern Valley Water Company (1876-1877) canals. The Kern Valley Water Company's canal was the largest in the county. He also superintended the operations of Livermore and Chester and its successor, Livermore and Redington. In 1882, Wible became the manager of extensive holdings of cattle barons Miller and Lux.
Wible also became interested in horticulture and in 1890 (possibly as early as 1887) founded the Wible Orchard and Vineyard Company. In 1890 Wible was among a group of civic leaders who founded the Bank of Bakersfield; Wible was its first president and served in that capacity until his death. He was widely recognized as the leading citizen of Kern County.
In 1898, Wible, at age sixty seven, began to mine in Alaska in the Hope-Sunrise Turnagain Arm area. He mined in every season through 1910.
The Hope-Sunrise district was discovered as early as 1888 and boomed in the early 1890's, years before the Klondike gold rush. Early miners mined by hand, shoveling rich shallow gravel into long sluice boxes, but they were often handicapped by large boulders remnant of an earlier ice-age. By 1898, most of the shallow pay had been mined and the Kenai boom had largely played out. Wible and his long time foreman, Ben Pilcher, acquired land in Sixmile Creek in 1898 and installed the first hydraulic elevator used in the district. In 1899 Wible bought ground in Canyon Creek. He recognized an extensive system of alluvial gravels on a bench about 100 feet above Canyon Creek and over the next several years developed the bench with flumes, pipe lines, and ditches. Boulders that would have hindered hand miners were pushed over the canyon walls into Canyon Creek by the force of hydraulic giants; reportedly Wible had expended $50,000 on the development of his claims on Sixmile and Canyon Creeks. The ground was not rich, but Wible's efficient operation netted a profit. A good year for Wible was about 1,000 ounces of fine gold.
Wible's methods were widely copied in the Sunrise district and within a year or two, most larger operations used hydraulic technology in the form of giants and elevators. Technology introduced by Wible spread rapidly, and similar operations were run in the early years of the Nome district and at Flat.
Wible also assisted other miners. In about 1899, Wible met a young miner of Finnish descent, Chris Spillum. Chris and partners had restaked a potentially valuable placer deposit on the north side of Turnagain Arm in Crow Creek. Wible bought out one of Spillum's partners and assisted in planning the operation, which justified a large scale hydraulic plant: he designed the plant and superintended its construction. Wible, a short, stocky, handsome man with a high squeaky voice, enjoyed working with his men, who worked hardest when Wible was present. One day Simon walked off the job site, but was still close to the open pipe. "I wonder what that old cuss of a hypocrite would say now if he saw us loafing," said a distant voice on the pipe. Wible returned to the open end of the pipe and replied,
"Never mind that old cuss of a hypocrite now. Get busy and quit your loafing."Crow Creek developed into one of the two or three best mines in the Turnagain arm area, thanks partly to Wible's well-planned beginning.
Wible never married, but he adopted three girls after the accidental death of their parents and raised them in his home in Bakersfield. One of the girls became a doctor; the second a teacher, while the third girl stayed at home to keep house. Apparently Wible thought enough of Chris Spillum that he invited him to Bakersfield where Simon and Chris lived in a hotel but with constant visits to Simon's nice home. Simon and at least one of the girls thought that Spillum would be a good catch, but Spillum was already too set in his bachelor ways to agree on anything but friendship and returned to Alaska.
Simon Wible mining claim on Canyon Creek, July 1904. F.H. Moffitt photo no.110, U.S. Geological Survey
In 1910, Simon's vigorous health began to fade and wealthy miners from Spokane optioned the Canyon Creek property, running it with the help of Ben Pilcher, Simon's faithful employee. Wible died in San Francisco in 1911, still dreaming of his Alaska mines. Wible was a wealthy man, but he loved mining operations. He once said, "I don't have to go back to Alaska every summer, but the lure of gold is still too much for me." He provided his own epitaph, "There's something about gold digging. We keep at it until we're dead."
Written by Charles C. Hawley and Rolfe G. Buzzell
The Bakersfield Californian, various issues including 1964 May 5, 15-16
Barry, Mary J., 1997, A History of Mining on the Kenai Peninsula. Second edition. Anchorage: MJP Barry.
Bayou, Katherine, 1946-47, "First Up the Susitna," Pt. I of "Gold Seekers of Sunrise," Alaska Sportsman, Nov. 1946, 10-13, 40-42: "The Edge of Oblivion," Part II of "Gold Seekers of Sunrise, Alaska Sportsman, Dec. 1946, 18-19, 25
29: "The Crow Creek Miners," Pt. III of "Gold Seekers of Sunrise," Jan. 1947, 14-15, 19-23; "The Merry Old Soul [Simon Wible], Pt. IV. "Gold Seekers of Sunrise," Alaska Sportsman, Feb. 1947, 14-15, 33-36.
Boyd, William Harland, 1972, A California Middle Border, 93-94.
Buzzell, Rolfe G., ca 2000, Extensive annotated project notes on mining on the Kenai Peninsula and Simon Wible, Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources, History and Archaeology Section, Anchorage.
Buzzell, Rolfe G., Introduction, 1994, Memories of Old Sunrise, Gold Mining on Alaska's Turnagain Arm. Autobiography of Albert Weldon Morgan. Anchorage: Cook Inlet Historical Society.
Morgan, Wallace, 1914, History of Kern County, 323-324 Seward Weekly Gateway," various issues 1906-1910.