Rhinehart M. "Rhiny" Berg

(1911 - 1998)

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photo of Rhinehart Berg

Rhinehart M. Berg
Photo: Earl Beistline Collection

In his prime, Rhiny Berg was a powerful man. His strength and stamina, at the time not unusual in Alaska, would now be legendary. Throughout his eighty six years, he retained an almost childlike innocence, a belief in the inherent goodness of man. Through his prospecting ventures, Rhiny attained great wealth which he mostly gave away. He was a well and gently spoken man. At Candle, Alaska, where he spent his last years, his idea was to divide the mining property into workable units that he could disburse so that many could share the wealth that he believed the earth could yield.

Rhiny was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 17, 1911. He was raised on a farm in upstate New York. Rhiny never married, but 'adopted' as his own the family of his niece Wally, her husband Bill Brooks, and their children Brad, Ben, Erica, Joanna, and Christina. As a boy, he was inspired by stories about the north, and later wrote:

"I had read a bit. . .(about Alaska and the Klondike) in the writings of Jack London, Rex Beach, and Robert Service. That trio of writers could fire any youngster up, which it sure did me."
At the age of twenty one, in the spring of 1932, Rhiny put his dreams to the test. He sailed out of Seattle and landed in Cordova, then a copper and fishing town. Within days, Berg had employment with old-timers Link Waln and Olaf Lovseth. Rhiny's hotel manager said:
"I think that they would be glad to have you with them when they go up to the Bremner this summer."
Rhiny could hardly have had a better apprenticeship than with Link and Olaf: boating, hunting, prospecting for placer and hard rock gold, cabin building, and mining with a portable outfit. When Link and Olaf returned to Cordova in the fall, Rhiny wintered over at Spruce Lake. His reputation as a willing worker was already established, and Rhiny found a job for the 1933 season at the Chititu placer mine operated by Charlie Kramer. Kramer mined hydraulically, as described by Rhiny:
"A six inch giant pushed the gravel into the sluice boxes with iron rails (riffles) to the end where the tailings were stacked with another six inch giant."
The gold mine was in the Wrangell copper country where Rhiny, fascinated by the products of the sluice box, received a lesson in mineralogy.
"The mixture of azurite, malachite, native copper nuggets, silver, and various gold nuggets. . .made quite a sight to see."

When Chitutu closed for the season in 1933, Rhiny went to work at the Nabesna hardrock gold mine in the most basic job of an underground mucker. He shoveled the blasted hardrock gold ore into waiting ore carts for seven months before returning to Chititu for the 1934 season. In the fall of 1934, Rhiny signed on at the nearby Kennecott copper mines, which were always short of underground miners. Rhiny remembered Kennecott as a lively camp and he enjoyed his stay there. After one more summer season at Chititu, Rhiny decided to add trapping to his considerable bush skills. There were abandoned miners cabins to stay in, so Rhiny wrote his friends in Cordova to send him a trapping outfit that he would pay for the following spring.

In 1937, Rhiny left his Wrangell Mountains trapline for the Fairbanks district, where he had heard that the Hi-Yu hard rock gold mine was hiring. He stayed at Hi-Yu for two years, and he almost stayed there permanently and fatally. One day Rhiny was 87 feet up above tunnel level, driving a vertical raise with an Ingersoll-Rand stoper (an air-driven drill used for driving up holes). He hopped over onto a slippery plank deck and fell to the tunnel below. Rhiny hit a timber about 10 feet above the tunnel level. The collision may have saved his life, as it broke his fall and turned him over so he landed on his hands and side. Rhiny was black and blue all over, and unable to speak for eight days. On the eighth day, his doctor at St. Josephs Hospital pronounced him able to work. Rhiny wrote,

"Nothing had broken on me so I went back to work and finished the job. Then I quit, looked up Sig Wien and he gave me a fine flight to Nome."

photo of Rhiny at HiYu Mine

Rhiny visiting the HiYu Mine in the Fairbanks district, circa 1994. Rhiny was seriously injured in an underground accident there in 1937.
Photo from the Earl Beistline collection.

At Nome, Rhiny initially worked for the USSR&M Company driving points in the thaw field in front of Dredge No. 3. Being in Nome reminded him of some of his boyhood adventure reading. He was told that a little cabin on the beach was where Rex Beach lived when he wrote The Spoilers, Beach's colorful account of gold rush greed and graft in Nome. At about this time, Berg decided it was time to record his interesting life, so he bought a professional quality 16mm camera, which he used to record his life and adventures.

After Rhiny finished working the 1941 dredging season at Nome, he tried coal mining at the Jonesville Mine east of Palmer, Alaska. Berg moved to Jonesville a few days before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7. In March 1942, the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor, only 700 miles from Rhiny's home in Palmer. Rhiny decided that the life and the freedom he enjoyed so much should be paid for.

"Physically I didn't have a single thing wrong with me, so I should use the good shape I was in fighting the enemy. I left [Jonesville] on the next train."
The next day, Rhiny went to Ft. Richardson and talked to Captain Orville Hager,who was looking for men exactly like Berg: strong, resourceful, and able to live off the land. Hager wanted miners, prospectors, trappers, and others familiar with Alaska's diverse geography. The next day Rhiny officially became an Alaska Scout. With his fellow Scouts, Rhiny moved into a remote cabin on the shores of Cook Inlet, where he learned military skills to supplement his outdoor skills.

Rhiny's first military assignment took him to Kodiak via the motor yacht Cavanaugh, where he transferred to the submarine USN Triton, then the nation's largest submarine. After that, the Scouts, sometimes fighting their way, went ashore on several Aleutian islands including Attu, Amchitka, and Kiska. Their diverse means of transportation included rafts, a minisubmarine, Mosquito torpedo boats, and two-engine flying boats called PBYs. The Scouts prepared the way for later invasions. It was dangerous work, which Rhiny took as a matter of course. He later recalled that he had made most of Alaska Scout's Aleutian landings.

Rhiny on duty in the Aleutians

Rhiny Berg as an Alaska Scout during the World War II Aleutian Island Campaign, circa 1943.
Photo from the Earl Beistline collection.

After the Aleutian campaign, the Scouts explored northern and interior Alaska, preparing for a war that never came. The men traveled by dog team as far north as the Brooks Range. When Rhiny left the Scouts at the end of the war, the Army let him take the pick of the dogs to keep as his personal team. He chose eight dogs, and promptly took them trapping on familiar ground in the Wrangell Mountains, where he stayed for two seasons. By the time he finally left the area, he had built four cabins, dog pens, caches, and trails.

"But I was thinking of the hills up the Kobuk River."
On his last run of the trap line, he segregated wolverine pelts, which he knew would be prized by the northern Eskimo, for his trip to the Brooks Range.

In March 1947, Rhiny left the Wrangell Mountains for the Brooks Range. A few days later, he was in Rodmans Hotel in Kotzebue. He met Jack Bullock and his wife Edith, co-owners of Kotzebue Tug and Barge, who advised him to talk to pilot Archie Ferguson. Jack thought that Archie would take Rhiny out. Jack said:

"He will ask you if you will take him in as a partner."
Rhiny replied:
That's all right if he puts some money into it."
Archie jumped at the opportunity. He found a landing spot about fifteen miles out of Shungnak where he unloaded Rhiny and his outfit, including snowshoes, a Trapper Nelson™ pack board, and a favorite Winchester 30-06 rifle.

Rhiny planned to gradually move to a pick up point near Kobuk, and began to prospect on his way, using a Geiger counter, a pick and a shovel. In early April, he crossed the Shungnak River, and set up camp on a barren hill that he called Pardners. Rhiny knew copper minerals from his years at Chitutu and Kennecott. He noticed azurite and spots of chalcopyrite on the hill, and at another location about two miles to the east. He started shoveling, and the deeper he got, the better the ore looked. Soon Rhiny was staking claims. When it came time to go out in the fall, Ferguson asked what he was doing and Rhiny told him:

"Picking, picking, and more picking, shoveling down the same with shoveling and now [home] for trapping."

Rhiny returned to the Brooks Range the next spring (1948) for more prospecting. He rented a Caterpillar D4 tractor from Jim Robbins, a famous inventor of tunneling machines, who had mined for placer gold at Kobuk. He also hired Joe Sun from Shungnak as a helper. Soon he saw the need for more supplies and equipment, and rented a bigger dozer from the Bullocks to build an airfield. Archie Ferguson was skeptical about Rhiny's new plans:

". . .you are just killing yourself on that pile of rock. I don't want to be in on it. I will write you a check for $1.00. . ."
- a check that Rhiny kept. By the end of the 1949 season, Rhiny and Joe had constructed an airfield long enough to land equipment. Rhiny arranged for a diamond drill to be brought the next season. He found a new pilot for support in Tony Bernhardt who had a Cessna based at Kobuk.

Each winter, Rhiny returned to his Wrangell Mountains trap lines and his friends at Chitina, but he was now sure that he was onto something big in the Brooks Range. Although neither Rhiny nor Joe Sun had operated a diamond drill, they soon mastered its operation. They also kept prospecting with the D4 tractor, finding more mineralization, sometimes hardrock and sometimes placer. One day at a depth of four feet, the men struck massive black, brown, and green rocks similar to those that they had observed on Pardners Hill. Rhiny took pieces back to camp to check with the Geiger Counter - which went off scale, indicating a high uranium content. For confirmation, Rhiny mailed samples to Max White of the U.S. Geological Survey, who was traveling throughout Alaska looking for uranium, then vitally sought by the government. White followed up with a visit. He found the yellowish-green uranium mineral autunite mixed with a rich zinc ore called sphalerite.

Occasionally, trapping in the Wrangell Mountains also proved exciting. Rhiny was traveling with Albert Commack, a Brooks Range Eskimo who had wanted to visit the Copper River Country. The men surprised a grizzly bear and were charged without any warning. Rhiny fired from the hip killing the bear with one shot, while Albert was trying to remove a jammed bullet from his rifle. Rhiny had plenty of bear adventures in both the Brooks and the Copper River country. Afterwards, every time Rhiny and Albert met, Albert would say:

". . .that bear wanted to get us!"

Rhiny sold his claims to Kennecott Copper Corporation for more than $3 million. The claim group became known as the Bornite copper prospect. Berg repaid his backers, including substantial amounts to Jack and Edith Bullock and Chuck Herbert, but never rested on his laurels.

Rhiny's Bornite discovery played a significant role in the search for mineral deposits, and in the future of the 49th State, then a Territory. Ironically, although uranium initially generated the most interest in Rhiny's new find, the Bornite prospect proved more valuable in copper, zinc, and cobalt.

Modern ore deposit research has focused on the geological origins of the Bornite prospect, now often called the Ruby Creek deposit (Runnells, 1963, 1969; Hitzman, 1983, 1986), but Berg's discovery also had political importance. During the arguments for and against Alaska Statehood, which dominated the Alaska political scene of the 1950s, critics of Statehood argued that Alaska lacked the resources for self sufficiency, and would become a Federal welfare state. The rich copper discovery at Bornite in the Brooks Range, and the nearly synchronous discovery of oil and gas at the Swanson River field on the Kenai Peninsula, helped persuade key decision makers in Washington D.C. that Alaska's natural resource endowment could supply jobs and revenues for a future state.

Although the Bornite property has yet to produce a pound of copper, the camp which Rhiny started served as an exploration base for the discovery of a number of important copper-zinc-precious metal deposits in the Brooks Range Schist Belt. The Bornite staging area also provided logistical access for mineral exploration much further to the west in the Delong Mountains, which led to the 1975 discovery of the giant Red Dog zinc-lead-silver deposit, currently the world's largest zinc mine.

After leaving Bornite, Rhiny formed the Arctic Circle Exploration Company, prospected near Nome, and bought the Candle mining camp from Jack Bullock. At Candle, on the Seward Peninsula nearly due south of Kotzebue, Rhiny hired four Eskimos to rebuild the old placer camp, a four-year job. When Rhiny left the Kobuk, he gave his house, warehouse, boats and everything else to his friends Joe Sun and Albert Commack. It was only one showing of Rhiny's generosity. Earlier, he had built a house for an older Eskimo woman who had been attacked and badly injured by a rabid sled dog. Rhiny greatly respected Eskimo culture, and knew of the great Eskimo prophet Maunelik and many other Eskimo legends of the north.

Rhiny and his partner, Thor Wetlesen, kept the Candle camp open for nearly thirty years, beginning during the early years of Statehood. In general, Rhiny and Wetlesen backed exploration at the Independence hard rock prospect and leased ground to serious placer miners. During the 1980s and 1990s, companies that leased ground from the Rhiny Berg-Thor Wetlesen partnership included Au Mining Company, Pardners Mining, and GHD Resources, companies which operated on Candle, Mud, and Independence Creeks, and Clara Creek in the Kiwalik River basin - sometimes employing as many as 25 men each. Virtually owning the mineral rights of an entire placer mining district enabled Rhiny and his partner Wetlesen to provide long term leases of large, low to moderate grade placer gold deposits to substantial placer gold mining firms. During the early 1990s, Rhiny and Thor operated independently as Tundra Exploration for most of the short summer seasons on Mud, Mina, and Candle Creeks in a sometimes successful (sometimes not) attempt to develop high grade placer gold reserves from those stream basins (Bundtzen and others, 1994).

photo of dredge at Candle

Candle Creek Mining Company Dredge, Candle, Alaska 1991
Photo from the Tom Bundtzen collection

The Candle camp at the end of the main airfield was always open to a tired Cessna 206 pilot (Hawley) on his way across the Arctic. The camp was an oasis of good food and intelligent conversation. Rhiny and Wetlesen kept the Candle Camp in excellent shape well into the 1990s.

Mining camp at Candle

The mining camp of Rhiny Berg and Thor Wetlesen at Candle, Alaska, circa 1992.
Photo from the Tom Bundtzen collection.

Alaska's long Western-Interior winters were beginning to take effect even on a tough guy like Rhiny Berg. For most of the last 15 years of his life, Rhiny spent the summers at Candle camp and the winters with his niece, Wally Brooks, and her family in Gulph Mills, Pennsylvania, or Steve Wetlesen in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania or alternatively traveling in the Lower 48 States.

Berg's memorial gathering

Friends and mining colleagues gather during 1998
Rhinehart Berg Memorial Service at Candle, Alaska
Photo Credit: Rhiny Berg Family Collection

Rhiny Berg was unique; he lived a life-style even then almost obsolete. Those who knew him loved and admired him. At the age of 86, Rhinehart M. Rhiny Berg died of pneumonia on February 9, 1998, at Providence Medical Center in Anchorage, Alaska.

By Charles C. Hawley and Thomas K. Bundtzen, October 30, 2006

Rhiny in 1997

Rhiny Berg, December, 1997
Photo from the Earl Beistline collection


Rhinehart Berg, 1998, Rhinehart Berg: A Twentieth Century Pioneer (C. C. and Jenny Hawley, editors): The Alaska Miner, v. 26, nos. 3, 4, and 5.

Earl Beistline, 1998, Remarks at a Memorial Service for Rhiny held at Candle on June 5, 1998.

Wally Brooks, 1998, Remarks at the Memorial Service

T.K. Bundtzen, R.C. Swainbank, A. H. Clough, M.W. Henning, and E.W. Hansen, 1994, Alaska's Mineral Industry, 1993: Alaska Division of Geological and geophysical Surveys Special report 48, 84 pages.

M.W. Hitzman, 1983, Geology of the Cosmos Hills and its relationship to the Ruby Creek (Bornite) copper–cobalt deposit: Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Stanford University, 266 pages.

M.W. Hitzman, 1986, Geology of the Ruby Creek copper deposit, southwestern Brooks Range, Economic Geology, vol. 81, p. 1644–1674.

Runnells, D.D., 1963, The copper deposits of Ruby Creek, Cosmos Hills, Alaska: Unpublished Ph. D. Dissertation, Harvard University, 275 pages.

Runnells, D.D., 1969, The mineralogy and sulfur isotopes of the Ruby Creek copper prospect, Bornite, Alaska: Economic Geology, vol. 64, p. 75–90.

Unauthored Obituary of Rhinehart M. Berg, Alaska Miner, vol. 26, no. 2, p. 24.

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