Alvin Harriton Agoff

(1931 - 2005)

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Alvin Agoff

Alvin Agoff at Prince Creek, circ 1985.
Photo Credit: Marti Miller

Alvin Agoff probably wouldn't know what to make of hearing that he had been inducted into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame Foundation (AMHF). He regularly attended AMHF inductee ceremonies from 1997 through 2004, until his passing in March, 2005. Family members said that the induction ceremonies always gave him great pleasure in life. We naturally assume that he would be delighted to be in the company of so many old friends that were inducted before him.

Agoff Family Beginnings

Alvin was born December 3, 1931 in Akiak, a small village in remote Southwest Alaska. His father, Amarahan Gregor Agozorov, immigrated from Imperial Russia through Canada to Alaska, surviving a shipwreck along the way. Somewhere along this journey his name was changed to the more prosaic (and infinitely easier to pronounce) Harry Agoff. He traveled throughout Alaska from Juneau to Kennicott, finding work as a miner, prospector and dog musher. In 1917 he joined the hordes of gold seekers in Alaska still trickling in to the site of the last large gold stampede in North America, the Iditarod Gold Rush. Harry decided to walk the Iditarod trail from Anchorage to Flat. When questioned, Harry said:

"It was winter. The ground was nice and firm and in those days, there was a roadhouse every twenty miles, so a man never had to sleep out in the weather."

Nineteen year old Harry arrived in Flat on Christmas Day, 1917 - just in time to join the was 'Tough Man' boxing match taking place in the rugged frontier town of about 2,000 and to beat all of his competwith relative easeitors. Harry was handsome, physically strong and somewhat of a polyglot. His family remembers him speaking at least four languages with relative ease. Harry easily found work in Flat on any of the three dredges working there at the time. He also prospected for others, and carried mail with dog teams on the Iditarod Trail.

Alvin's mother, Evelyn Ragnhilde Hoverson, rode up the Iditarod River in the sternwheeler North Star to become the schoolmistress of the Otter Territorial School in Flat in 1926. Evelyn was a second generation Norwegian-American and one of twelve siblings. She trained to be a teacher in North Dakota. She was an intelligent young woman with a gift for teaching and mentoring young people that threaded throughout her life.

Evelyn's kindness to others and her talent for lasting friendships proved to be a civilizing influence on her dark and handsome Harry Agoff, and they were soon married. Throughout their marriage, Sergay in 1928, then Evelyn would continue to take teaching jobs in Flat and surrounding areas when there was a need. Besides reading, writing and arithmetic, she taught generations of children to play the piano. Her grandchildren remember fondly her delicious Norwegian potato pancakes (lefse) and helping her starch and iron Harry's work jeans into armored stiffness.

Harry and Evelyn had three children. First came Sergay in 1928, then Alvin in 1931, and finally sister Ruth, who was born in 1935.

birthday boys

From left to Right, Harry Agoff (aka Amarahan Gregor Agozorov), and sons Sergay and Alvin, circa 1932.
Photo Credit: Agoff family album.

Alvin and cronies on Flat Creek

Harry Agoff, Debo Sagoff, and other colleagues at sluice box on Upper Flat Creek probably on the Omega Fraction, circa 1923.
Photo Credit: Agoff family album.

Alvin and his brother Sergay spent their first winter in the Yupik village of Crooked Creek, being nurse-maided by the Parent girls while Evelyn taught school there.

Agoff Family Gold Mining Established

In the early 1920s, Harry and his Russian partner Alexei Tarsagaravev (Debo Sagoff) and others leased mining claims in the Iditarod district. The Annual Report for the Territorial Department of Mines for 1923 reported the partnership of Finnegan, (Harry) Agoff, and Scott ground-sluicing the Omega Fraction on Flat Creek, downstream from the residual placer gold deposits being worked on the flanks of Chicken Mountain by AMHF Inductee David Strandberg.

Harry and Debo Sagoff leased promising claims on Prince Creek - a remote site connected to Flat Town by the road system, but just barely. Prince Creek was the last placer deposit developed in the district. The Agoff Family had to pioneer their own trail from Prince Creek to Chicken Creek and the community of Flat, which were 3 and 16 miles away respectively.

Harry Agoff and Debo Sagoff mined throughout the 1930s and until 1942, when War needs shut down the gold sector. Mining resumed after the war. According to the Biennial Reports of the Territorial Department of Mines, covering 1948, 1950, 1952, and 1954, Harry Agoff was operating a non-float placer gold mine on Prince Creek in his name only—but with crews ranging in number from 4-8.

A Wilderness Lifestyle for the Agoff Family

Transportation was a big string of freight dogs in the winter and by foot in the summer or as soon as the snow was too fragile and honeycombed to support the dogsled. The dogs were a wonderful advantage in the winter and were great favorites of the Agoff. However, the disadvantage to dogs was that they needed to be fueled all year long. One of the big chores was providing dog food. The Agoffs did this by harvesting bears or mushing to Crooked Creek to trade for Kuskokwim dried dogfish strips. In later years their friend Bob Vanderpool would air-drop their fish strips to them as flying became more popular.

Evelyn and kids

Evelyn Agoff with (l-r) children Alvin, Ruth and Sergay, circa 1936.
Photo Credit: Agoff family album.

The family home was a one room log cabin at the head of Prince Creek, chinked with mud and moss and roofed with sod. The family used kerosene lamps for light and chopped wood for heat. As with most mining families, any money made mining went right back in to the ope Prospecting was couldn't lift it ration to beef it up next season so at times the family lived pretty lean.

Evelyn had a big garden at the fertile head of Prince Creek (her strawberries were deservedly famous), and grew as much food as she was able. The children learned to live off the land from an early age. All three children were taught to hunt from the time they could pick up a .22 rifle. Grouse and rabbit were usually the first game they brought to the table. Salmon fishing was not a great bet in the Flat area, but whitefish, grayling, pike, char and other smaller fish lined the creeks in abundance.

Unlike other mining families the Agoff family had the privilege to live in Flat all year round. They lived with the land and by the seasons. As a consequence young Alvin and his siblings became highly competent outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen. When other miner's children were sent outside for schooling, the Agoff children remained in the Alaska Bush, and forged strong bonds of friendship with the Native families in surrounding villages.

Agoff Prince Creek Mine Matures

Prince Creek Mining Company had originally begun as a partnership between Harry Agoff and Debo Sagoff.The two men started out hand mining. It was hard and brutal work, which built the Agoff reputation for brute strength. Iditarod district gold miners would walk over from the mechanized operations at Chicken Creek when they thought they had a found a rock "so big Harry Agoff couldn't lift it." Once Harry lifted a rock so heavy it sheared the handles off the wheelbarrow.

Prospecting was done by digging deep prospect holes in the spring so the mushy permafrost wouldn't thaw and collapse inwards. When the holes got too deep to fling dirt out of easily with a shovel, a bucket windlass would speed up the work.

In early years, Agoff and Sagoff mined by using wooden boxes and willow pole riffles to catch the gold. They hand dug ditches to funnel water to a splash dam and when the water cut loose; they had to be ready to shovel in the pay dirt as fast as possible. They hauled away the tailings by wheel barrow, again working as fast as possible. Plugged up sluice boxes don't catch any gold. One of the earliest chores all Agoff children did in the cut was to unplug the boxes by shoveling and roll out rocks so they could be smashed with sledge hammers and moved.

The young Agoff boys Alvin and Sergay remembered walking over to Chicken Creek and gazing admiringly at the shiny yellow Caterpillar tractors. Alvin especially remembered the great day that John Fullerton, home from college for the summer, graciously set the little boys up on the big bulldozer and taught them the fundamentals of running it. Soon enough, their own family operation took up the boys' time. Their winters were devoted to schooling (up to 9th grade), trapping to supplement the family income, and cutting wood. As the boys got older, they cut wood for the dredges during winter months.

In 1950, the Agoff family's hard work paid off and they were able to purchase a 1935 RD-50 bulldozer (one of the first bulldozers in Alaska) from the Miscovich family to mechanize their operation. The family decided to move their camp. They picked a dry, breezy site close to Bonanza Creek with plenty of room for expansion. The three Agoff men, Harry, Alvin, and Sergay, and Debo Sagoff built the roomy two story log cabin that remains the family home to this day. They constructed a shop and blacksmith shed so they would be able to fully service their new equipment. With their new bulldozer, they pulled up trapping cabins they had built along the creek for guest cabins.

The Prince Creek mine increased in size as better ground was uncovered with the aid of mechanization. This enabled the purchase of more bulldozers and Alvin's favorite piece of equipment, the dragline. The beautiful new-to-them Lima™ was the last piece of heavy equipment to come up the Iditarod River before barge service ended. Their workhorse Bucyrus Erie dragline was purchased from Pat Savage at Chicken Creek. The last Biennial Report of the Territorial Commissioner of Mines for the biennium ending 1958 lists Prince Creek Mining Company operating a non-float mechanized mine on Prince Creek with brothers Sergey and Alvin Agoff as owner/operators. The first State of Alaska canvas of Alaska's miners in 1960 shows the Agoff brothers Alvin and Sergay mining on Prince Creek with six employees. By that time, Harry Agoff, the patriarch, had passed the reins of the operation on to his sons.

Alvin and Sergay researched and taught themselves all the new skills necessary to maintain and operate their mine-related equipment. The bookshelves at Prince Creek are filled with manuals and textbooks of a variety of heavy equipment and tools. They became master mechanics and skilled welders. They continued to improve their home, they learned to work with electricity, plumbing and radio communications. In 1960, Sergay met and married his German bride Elisabeth Von Loessel, and started his family of what would eventually be five children - Edith, Max, Edward, Lena and Nick.

Alvin and his brother Sergay have been described as the miner's miners by Andrew Miscovich. As Flat's population dwindled, the aging population of old timers were not able to care for themselves. Alvin and Sergay cut and hauled wood for those who could no longer get their own. They cleaned chimneys, built coffins and dug graves. It was Sergay's job to thoughtfully write the words to be delivered on the sunlit slopes of Cottonwood cemetery in Flat, while Alvin made the crosses for the old miners' final resting place.

For a while, Prince Creek functioned as a de facto Russian retirement home, much like Ninilchik on the Kenai Peninsula did for Russian Americans a Century before. Three squares a day, a guest cabin and a little nozzling job helped keep body and soul together and helped these old timers age with dignity. When they decided to leave Flat and move in to one of the state's Pioneer Homes, it was Alvin who was deputized to fly out and inspect the homes and determine their suitability for Flat's childless, pioneer population. They trusted him to look out for their best interests.

One of the Agoff brother'Kathy embraced life s significant contributions to mining in Alaska was pioneering a cat trail to Crooked Creek. After barge services ceased to Iditarod, they decided to haul fuel from the Kuskokwim via their old dog trail to this village. The Kuskokwim barges would offload fuel in the summer, and the guys would take their cats and wanigans over ice roads in the spring. The April 29th, 1964 edition of the Crooked Creek News describes the fuel hauls:

"The Agoff brothers, Alvin and Sergay, are hauling oil from Crooked Creek to Flat by cat train this week. They have made two trips and expect to make at least one more. They have over six hundred barrels to haul, for besides their own they are hauling for others in their neighborhood. It is always a fine day when these two young fellows come for their oil and pay us a visit."

Another edition of the Crooked Creek News mentions the brothers helping out the village by moving a few houses around with their Caterpillar tractors when they came through. This trail was a key transportation corridor for supplies for the more recent, large Donlin Creek project prior to airport construction.

Family Life for Alvin Agoff

In 1967 Alvin met the love of his life. His childhood best friend, Alfred Miller, brought along a vivacious, Irish Catholic girl on a boating trip up the Iditarod which ended up in the Prince Creek living room. Kathleen Coyle was one of the most lively women Alvin had ever met. She had a taste for adventure and had left Florida and moved to the Athabaskan village of Tanana to nurse in the hospital there. Kathy embraced life whole heartedly. It is said that she was one of the first persons to water ski on the Yukon River.

Kathy was intrigued with the shy, handsome miner, and accepted his invitation to go on a bear hunt later that fall. Mail planes of letters flew back and forth as they planned their hunt and easily segued into planning their marriage. Twenty eight years of marriage later, when Kathleen finally shot her first bear, she said "Well honey, shall I go home to Florida now?" After their marriage, Kathy's nursing training came in handy in a region without hospitals or clinics. She birthed babies, gave shots, treated horrific injuries and closed eyes after signing death certificates.

couple posing with grizzly hide

Alvin and Kathy Agoff, circa early 1970s in front of bear hide.
Photo Credit: Agoff family album.

Alvin,Max, Cady, and Christy

Alvin Agoff with Max, Cady, and Christy, examining a cleanup on Prince Creek, circa 1980
Photo Credit: Agoff family album.

Alvin and Kathy were married in the winter of 1969 (so as not to interrupt mining season), and on the way home from their honeymoon, received the horrific news that brother Sergay had tragically died in a car accident near his winter home in Oregon. Alvin was devastated. Sergay, besides being his brother and mining partner, was his best friend. With the help of the old-timers and his family, Alvin adjusted to the loss of his brother. Alvin continued the Agoff family tradition of mining on Prince Creek throughout the 1970s-to-1990s. His crew sizes were reduced, but more direct family members became involved. Sister Ruth and her husband Willard Green mined with Alvin and Sergey during much of the 1960s.

Prince Creek was one of five streams that radially drain Chicken Mountain, a granitic-cored mountain massif roughly in the geographic center of the Iditarod Mining district. Gold-bearing mineralization hosted in the Chicken Mountain igneous intrusion is the lode source for nearly all of the placer gold that has been developed and mined in the Iditarod district. Throughout his life, Alvin Agoff was keenly interested in identifying the lode sources of gold in Prince Creek basin and readily discussed information that he collected with a combined Federal (U.S. Geological Survey) and State of Alaska (Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys) geological investigation of the Iditarod district headed up by Marti Miller and Tom Bundtzen. During the 1980s, Alvin showed the geological team geological exposures worth sampling, including important fossil localities and hardrock mineralization that he uncovered during mining.

Alvin loved his nieces and nephews as his own and welcomed them at Prince Creek always. Kathy and Alvin enjoyed children and were a profound influence in the lives of many young people. They welcomed a house full of children even before their two (Cady and Christy) came along. Kathy and Alvin were well known for their generosity. Alvin saw "no sense in holding on to something that someone else could get some use out of." Gifts of houses, homesteads and mining claims enabled quite a few young families to get a foothold in the Alaskan Bush.

Alvin got a reputation for helping young men turn their lives around. Alvin's integrity and strong sense of ethics blazed a clear trail for young people to follow in some uncertain decades. Alvin never met a shovel, ax or sledgehammer he didn't like. His favorite building material (after logs) was hammered out steel drums. Alvin created sheds, sluice box wings and even a boat to float down the Iditarod with these handy recycled diesel barrels. He preferred to work with his hands and inexhaustible strength to get the job done. Alvin did not cut corners. Growing up "typically Alaskan, wresting a living from the creeks and hills" made him very conscious of waste. There were no bent nails thrown away at Prince Creek. You hammered them out and used them again.

Alvin was a woodsman from his head to his toes and believed in conservation. He conducted emphatic correspondence with the Fish and Game decrying decisions which he felt led to poor game management and wanton waste. If he hunted an animal he used every bit of meat and then boiled the bones for soup. Alvin had no patience for trophy hunters, thrill killers and desk jockeys, who never set foot in the environment they claimed to be protecting. Towards the end of his life it was frustrating to see so many unfair, one-size-fits-all decisions being made in Washington D.C. which profoundly affected the lives of many rural Alaskan residents.

In Remembrance

The unexpected premature effects of aging ended Alvin Agoff's wilderness lifestyle in the Iditarod district. He passed away on March 26th, 2005 at the age of 74. He was buried in Cottonwood Cemetery in Flat.

Alvin was a vivid storyteller with a photographic memory and a gift for mimicry. Alvin spent some winters in the communities of Palmer and Tanana and was fortunate to spend every mining season but one at his beloved Prince Creek near Flat. Alvin's life-long friendships bridged the gap between the Native and Mining communities. He established roads and trails that are still in use by the mining community of today. He gave young people a fresh start and helped them establish a work ethic. His generosity gave many promising families a foothold in the Alaskan wilderness and enabled then to start their own successful enterprises which enriched the state in many ways. Alvin's generosity of spirit stayed with him to the end of his life when he opened his heart and home and helped his daughter Cady take in and raise his best friend's granddaughter, Misty May. Misty May and Christy's daughter Alyssa had the great privilege of a childhood running free at Prince Creek. Alvin's legacy lives on. Today Prince Creek Mining Company (Alvin's, nephew, daughter and granddaughter) is the last heritage family mining operation in the Iditarod district.

This biography celebrates Alvin H. Agoff for his very significant contributions to placer mining in the Iditarod area. But in a larger sense, the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame Foundation is also honoring the entire Agoff family for more than 100 years of contributions to the many unique cultural aspects of a classic frontier mining camp, the Iditarod Mining District.

By Cady Agoff and Tom Bundtzen
Reviewed by Paul S. Glavinovich

Agoff crew 2018

The Prince Creek Mining Crew in 2018. From left to right, Max Agoff, Misty May, Cady Agoff, Auna Reed-Lewis (Misty May's Sister), and Dan Cremer. Prince Creek Mining Company is the last heritage mining operation in the Iditarod district.


Bundtzen, T.K., Miller, M.L., Bull, K.F., and Laird, G.M., 1992, Geologic map and text for the Iditarod B-4 and eastern B-5 quadrangles, Iditarod Mining District, Alaska: Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys Professional Report 97, 48 pages, one sheet at 1:63,360 scale.

Holdsworth, P.R., 1953, Report of the Mine Inspector to the Governor of Alaska for the Biennium Ended December 31st, 1952: Alaska Territorial Department of Mines, page 48.

Holdsworth, P.R., 1955, Report of the Mine Inspector to the Governor of Alaska for the Biennium Ended December 31st, 1954: Alaska Territorial Department of Mines, page 76.

Holdsworth, P.R., 1959, Report of the Mine Inspector to the Governor of Alaska for the Biennium Ended December 31st, 1958: Alaska Territorial Department of Mines, page 64.

Saarela, L.H., 1951, Report of the Mine Inspector to the Governor of Alaska for the Biennium Ended December 31st, 1950: Alaska Territorial Department of Mines, page 40.

Stewart, B.D., 1924, Annual Report of the Mine Inspector to the Governor of Alaska: Alaska Territorial Department of Mines, page 44.

Stewart, B.D., 1949, Report of the Mine Inspector to the Governor of Alaska for the Biennium Ended December 31st, 1948: Alaska Territorial Department of Mines, page 36.

Unamed author, 1964, Agoff Brothers Construct Trail: The Crooked Creek News.

Unamed author, 2005, Obituary of Alvin Harriton Agoff, The Palmer Frontiersman, March 30, 2005.

Williams, Jim, 1960, Report of the Division of Mines and Minerals for the Year 1959, State of Alaska, Department of Natural Resources, page 65.

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