Stephen Reid Capps Jr.


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Photo Credit: Fred Moffit Collection, USGS

Stephen Reid Capps Jr. was an outstanding pioneer American geologist who spent much of his 40 year geological career with the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska. His scientific contributions were much more diverse than just geologic mapping and mineral resource surveys. He was one of the first to describe and map multiple episodes of Pleistocene glaciation in Alaska's diverse mountain ranges. At the time of his death, he was one of the pre-eminent experts on the geology of heavy mineral placer deposits in contemporaneous United States, including Alaska, and among the nation's first experts on what we now refer to as 'Strategic and Critical Minerals'.

Early Years and Education

Stephen Reid Capps Jr. was born on October 15th, 1881 in Jacksonville, Illinois to Stephen Reid Capps Sr. and Rhoda Smith Tomlin Capps. He was the eighth child and sixth son of a large family of Anglo-Saxon stock, whose ancestors arrived in North America prior the American Revolution. His father's side of the family was from Virginia. His mother's side of the family was from New Jersey. Several of Capp's relatives would fight on opposite sides of the deadliest conflict in US history, the 1861-1865 American Civil War.

Steve Capps (which is what he liked to be called) received his K1-12 education in local Illinois schools and worked during the summers in woolen mills. After spending three years at Illinois College, Steve transferred to the University of Chicago. At the time, the University of Chicago was one of the nation's pre-eminent geology schools. Capp's professors included Professor Chamberlain, author of the scientific classic 'Principles of the Multiple Working Hypothesis', and Professor Iddings, who co-authored the formula for CIPW Norms in igneous petrology. Capps would say in later years that he was lucky to be mentored by some of the finest geological minds of the early 20th Century. Capps earned a Bachelors of Science degree in Geology in 1903. For a time after graduation, he taught high school geology and geography courses and continued course work at the University of Chicago. He combined his teaching with summer field work in Wyoming, Colorado, and Ontario, Canada.

Capps became interested in Quaternary geology. For his PhD graduate research, he chose to study the effects of Pleistocene Glaciation on the gold placers of the Leadville District and in the Breckenridge area of the central Colorado Rockies. During his thesis work, he worked on and published a paper describing dinosaur bones that he excavated from the Morrison Formation of Colorado. Capps graduated with a Doctor of Philosophy in Geology cum laude from the University of Chicago in 1907.

Steve Capps married Isabelle Webster of Chicago in 1911. From that union, the couple had four children: Louise, Stephen R. Capps III, Mary, and Webster. All of the children would live to survive both parents.

Capp's Geological Career

While still in graduate school, he took a Civil Service examination and joined the U.S. Geological Survey in 1906 as a part time permanent employee. His first job was as an assistant to Myron Fuller, who was studying the underground aquifers of Indiana. Previously, Capps had worked separately on Ohio's water supplies with a different employer. His job title was "Assistant Hydrologist". His initial salary with the USGS was $1200/year — a decent living for a geological assistant at the time.

In 1908, Capps accepted an invitation from Alfred H. Brooks to participate in geological and mineral resource investigations of the Branch of Alaskan Geology of the U.S. Geological Survey. Brooks chose Capps mainly for his knowledge of glaciation and gold placer formation, but told him that he would have to integrate both bedrock and Quaternary geology during his investigations of Alaska's mineral districts. Brooks decided to assign Capps to Fred H. Moffit, who was considered at the time to be one of the savviest field geologist ever to work in Alaska. Moffit was famous for conducting field work under arduous frontier conditions and, along with John B. Mertie Jr., was an expert in horse geology. Some of Capps' first work assignments under Moffit were not directly related to geologic mapping but rather properly securing a diamond hitch or navigating a pack train in steep mountainous terrane.

Educated as a Quaternary geologist, Capps was interested in glacial landforms. His initial work assignments were in the rugged and glaciated Wrangell Mountains and in the equally rugged, glaciated Alaska Range and Talkeetna Mountains. Capps was a fast and competent learner and, after 2 years, was given management of his own field projects. In his first eight years at the USGS, Capps mapped thousands of square miles of then largely unchartered country including the Bonnifield District on the north flank of the central Alaska Range in 1910, the Nizina District in the Copper River region (with Fred Moffit) in 1910, the Yentna district on the southern flanks of the Alaska Range in 1911, the Ellamar Copper district in Prince William Sound (with B.L. Johnson) in 1912, the Willow Creek district near Wasilla in 1913, the Chisana-White River district on the North Flanks of the Wrangell Mountains in 1914, the Knik-Turnagin Arm area in 1915 (the year Anchorage was founded), the Kantishna district on the north flank of the Alaska Range in 1916,s and the Chulitna District near Talkeetna in 1917.

Despite spending much of his time fording rivers, climbing steep slopes, packing horses, chopping trees, making trails, and swatting mosquitoes, Capps managed to produce excellent geological and mineral resource reports for where ever he went. Like others in the USGS, he maintained an excellent relationship with Alaska's mining community. In 1910, he mapped a section of metamorphosed volcanic rocks in a canyon of the Totatlanika River south of Fairbanks and named the formation the Totatlanika Schist. Decades later, modern exploration geologists would use Capp's descriptions and mapping of this area in the search for volcanogenic massive sulfide deposits within the Totatlanika Schist.

In 1914, Capps recognized an unusually thick section of volcanic ash that blanketed parts of the northern slopes of the Wrangell Mountains near the Canadian border and parts of the Yukon-Tanana uplands; he published his findings a year later. The Capps Ash would later be renamed the White River Ash and be studied by numerous volcanologists and Quateranary geologists later in the 20th century.

Capps was always interested in the flora and fauna of the regions where he worked as a geologist. In 1916, he became especially intrigued with the unusual concentrations of big game animals and diverse geology of an area along the north flank of the Alaska Range east of the Kantishna district. Capps named various topographic features of this area, including Polychrome Pass, the Thorofare River and Sable Pass while completing his geological work. He, (and big game hunter Charles Sheldon and others), brought these findings of the fauna and geological features of the area to the attention of the U.S. National Park Service. Mount McKinley National Park was created by Congress in 1917. At the recommendation of Capps and many others, the Kantishna Mining district was excluded from the new National Park because of its value as a source for minerals.

In 1917, the United States declared war on the Central Powers in Europe and thus entered The Great War. Like so many of his generation, Capps wanted to contribute to the war effort. His supervisor, A.H. Brooks, had applied for and obtained a commission in the U.S. Army, and became Chief Geologist of the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Capps wanted to join Brooks in France, but was soundly rejected by the latter. Despite his respect for Brooks, Capps never completely reconciled this rejection — even in later years.

During the war years, Capps joined a team whose mission was to determine where minerals needed for war industries occurred in their natural state. Capps and other members of a small USGS team acquired large amounts of information not only from the United States but also from international sources. His group was able to prepare a comprehensive, albeit classified report that described the worldwide distribution of what we now call 'Strategic and Critical Minerals'. This information was later used during various post-war actions, including deliberations for the Treaty of Versailles.

After WWI ended, Capps resumed his work in Alaska. In 1919, he worked in the Nenana-Toklat area northeast of the Kantishna area. However, in 1920, he accepted an offer from a private company to search for petroleum in eastern Turkey. During that time, the USGS encouraged their employees to work in the private sector to expand their capabilities. He was given an extended leave of absence from the USGS and he worked in Turkey during 1920. He worked for the USGS for part of 1921, but again resumed work in the private petroleum sector in Albania, Palestine, and the newly formed Yugoslavian Federation during the latter half of 1921 and 1922-to-early 1923. After his work was completed in Palestine, he decided to return to the USGS, which rehired him--this time, until retirement.

In 1924, Alfred H. Brooks, the dean of Alaska's geologists, unexpectedly died. The USGS asked Capps to serve as Acting Chief Alaskan Geologist until a replacement for Brooks could be found. He did fulfill this assignment, but emphasized his desire to return to field research. He was not comfortable being an administrator.

After a brief tenure as the Acting Alaska Branch chief, Capps once again studied little chartered areas in the vast Territory of Alaska. He mapped portions of the Alaska Railroad corridor during 1924; the Upper Matanuska-Wishbone coal district also during 1924; the Toklat-Tonzona area, western Alaska Range in 1926; the Swentna-Kuskokwim area in 1927; on Mount Spurr in 1928; the Chacachatna-Stony River area in 1929; the Lake Clark-Mulchatna River area in 1930; the Chulitna-Bull River area in 1931; again along the Alaska Railroad corridor and on Middleton Island (Prince William Sound) in 1932; along the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian chain in 1933; the Kashwitna River (Talkeetna Mountains) in 1934; the Valdez Creek district (with Ralph Tuck) in 1935; on Kodiak Island in 1936; and in the Susitna Valley during 1937.

There was no other individual of the day that had the breadth of field experience and knowledge of South Central and Southwestern Alaska geology than Steve Capps. During the latter part of his Alaskan career, Capps keyed on the need to acquire mineral resource data that could lead to mineral developments and, ultimately, increased freight hauls for the Alaska Railroad. He continued to work on placers in glaciated areas, and enjoyed his professional association with another outstanding placer geologist, Ralph Tuck. According to Fred Moffit:

" Steve's frequent studies of Alaska's glaciers made him the leading Survey (USGS) authority on the general subject of living glaciers".

The 1932 work in the Aleutians was for the U.S. Navy, which specifically requested the services of Steve Capps. By then, the military began to appreciate the strategic significance of the Aleutian chain mainly because of the rise of the Japanese Empire. Here is an excerpted correspondence forwarded to the Secretary of the Navy from the commanding officer of the expedition in 1933:

"Dr. Capps joined the expedition in Seattle on April 19th, 1932 and departed from the same port on August 10th, 1932. He was the source of invaluable advice and information derived from years of operating experiences. The successful accomplishment of the mission assigned, often in areas completely isolated and devoid of all forms of recreation and amusement, is attributable to his pleasing personality, ready wit, high moral character, and inexhaustible supply of great Alaska stories. He was loved and respected by every officer and personnel on the expedition. We are proud to have been associated with such an estimable character."

In 1936, the wide recognition for his glacial studies earned Capps an invitation to deliver a series of Grant Memorial Lectures at Northwestern University, at the time, the premier school that studied glaciation. Later in 1936, Capps gave a second series of lectures on Alaskan Geology and Mineral Resources at the Rice Institute of Harvard University, at the invitation of Col C. W. Bagley of that institution.

The year 1937 marked a turning point for Steve Capps. The Geological Branch of the USGS requested that Capps be transferred out of the Branch of Alaskan Geology and take over important work in the western States. Capps had just completed what he himself considered one of his most important works, Geology of the Southern Alaska Range, USGS Bulletin 862. In addition, the manuscript: Geology of the Alaska Railroad Region, had been submitted for Survey publication. With completion of these landmark investigations, Steve felt, somewhat reluctantly, that he could leave the Branch of Alaskan Geology after nearly 30 years of studying Alaska's geology and mineral resources.

Steve's first assignment in his post-Alaska career was the study of gold placers in Idaho. Under a memorandum of understanding reached between the USGS and the State of Idaho, he would submit many of his final placer geology manuscripts to the Idaho Bureau of Mines and Geology for publication. Capp's intimate knowledge about the processes that formed gold placers in Alaska gave him a good grasp on how placer gold formed in the Dixie district of Idaho. He followed up in 1938 with a study of placer deposits of the Secesh basin also in Idaho. His field assistant was Ralph Roberts, who would later become well known for his framework geologic mapping in the CarIin trend of northern Nevada. In 1939, Steve followed up with a structural geology study and photo-geologic map of the Meadows and Riggins Quadrangles in Idaho and Montana. In 1940, he resumed work in the Leadville placer district of Colorado, where he had completed his PhD dissertation more than 35 years prior. Unlike his Alaskan adventures, Steve was accompanied by his wife Isabelle in the mountains of Idaho and Colorado. Their children had grown up, which allowed Isabelle to spend time with Steve in the field. Both being amateur botanists, Steve and Isabelle acquired voluminous collections of alpine plant specimens from both areas.

By 1940, it was clear to the Roosevelt Administration that war was near with the Axis Powers. The U.S. Government began a worldwide search for mineral deposits from which materials vital to the war effort could be obtained. The USGS and the U.S. Bureau of Mines began a search for strategic and critical minerals. Drawing on his past experience in this field during WWI, the USGS asked Steve Capps to search for potential manganese resources in South America. From November, 1940 to April, 1941, Capps traveled to many of the known manganese-bearing regions in South America and acquired enough geological data to confirm the presence of large amounts of high grade manganese ores in the Minas Geraes and Matto Grosso districts of Brazil. Both regions subsequently produced manganese for the war effort. Later during 1941, Capps resumed work on heavy mineral placer deposits in the Arkansas River valley of Colorado, which would be his last field work.

From February 1942 to November 1944, Steve Capps worked as Assistant Chief Geologist of the USGS, under the condition that a replacement be found as soon as was possible. Again, Capps indicated to his superiors in the Department of the Interior that he did not enjoy administrative work, but he did the job and he did it well.

In December, 1944, Capps was re-assigned to technical work and worked on then confidential Military Geology work, which included aerial photographic interpretation of landforms. During 1945-1946, Capps was placed in charge of planning the Survey's share of work on reclamation projects in the Missouri, Columbia and Colorado River Basins and in the Central Valley of California.

From 1947 until his untimely death in 1949, Capps worked on two classified projects for the Department of the Army, but also began a study on the Physiographic Regions of Alaska. This latter investigation would eventually be finished two decades later by the late Clyde Wahrhaftig.


Capps was honored by many organizations throughout his career. In 1938, the National Geographic Society awarded him a life-time membership for his exploration and geological research in Alaska. In 1942, the College Division of the University of Chicago system awarded him their distinguished alumni award for his many scientific and civic achievements.

Steve Capps had a wonderful talent for making friends. His keen sense of humor, his ability to pick out a factoid of interest wherever he chanced to go, and his ability to remember such facts and tell them in a way that made sense were at the core of his many accomplishments. He loved to play golf, but admitted that he was not very good at it. He liked cabinet work and did his own repairs on his home in Washington D.C. and at his summer cabin in Maine. Steve Capps could work out ingenious mechanical solutions, which proved valuable during his years of Alaskan field work. These natural qualifications, combined with the extradinoary diversity of his geological career in Alaska and elsewhere, marked him as an exceptional man among his peers.

Stephen Reid Capps Jr. has been honored with the naming of 10,790 foot Mount Capps in Denali National Park; by Capps Creek, a tributary of the Chichantna River south of Beluga Lake; and by Capps Glacier in the Tordrillo Mountains 26 miles northwest of Tyonek.

Capps and other USGS standouts on river boat

Some standouts of the U.S. Geological Survey on board the Alaska Steamship Company vessel Yukon en route from Seattle to Seward, June 2nd, 1935. From Left to right,Frederica de Laguna, (later to be a world famous north-country anthropologist/archeologist), Fred H. Moffit, Stephen R. Capps, Gerald Fitzgerald, and John B. Mertie Jr. Capps completed field work on Kodiak Island during 1935. Photo
Credit: J.B. Mertie Jr. collection, #2076

Written by Tom Bundtzen, October 25, 2013


The writer benefited from a biography of Stephen Capps written by Phillip Smith and Fred Moffit in 1950. Other information about Steve Capps and his accomplishments were derived from the author's files. Published sources compiled by the writer follow:

Capps, S. R., 1904, Pleistocene geology of the Sawatch Range near Leadville, Colorado: Journal of Geology, Volume 12, pages 698-706.

Capps, S.R., 1907, The girdles and hind limbs of Holosaurus abruptus (Marsh): Journal of Geology, Volume 15, pages 350-356.

Capps, S.R., 1909, Pleistocene geology of the Leadville Quadrangle, Colorado: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 386, 99 pages.

Capps, S.R., 1910, Glaciation on the north flanks of the Wrangell Mountains: Journal of Geology, Volume 18, pages 33-57.

Capps, S.R., 1911, Mineral resources of the Bonnifield Region: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 480, pages 218-235.

Capps, S.R., and Moffit, F. H., 1911, Geology and mineral resources of the Nizina District, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 448, pages 111 pages.

Capps, S.R., 1912, The Bonnifield Region, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 501, 64 pages.

Capps, S.R., 1912, Gold placers of the Yentna district, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 520, pages 74-200.

Capps, S.R., 1912, Glaciation of the Alaska Range: Journal of Geology, Volume 20, pages 415-437.

Capps, S.R., 1914, Gold lodes and placers of the Willow Creek district: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 592, pages 245-272.

Capps, S.R., 1915, An ancient volcanic eruption in the Upper Yukon River Basin: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 95, pages 59-64.

Capps, S.R., and Johnson, B.L., 1915, The Ellamar district, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 605, 1255 pages.

Capps, S.R., 1915, The Willow Creek District, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 607, 86 pages.

Capps, S.R., 1915, An estimate of the age of the Last Major Glaciation in Alaska: Washington Academy of Sciences Journal. Volume 5, pages 108-115.

Capps, S.R., 1915, Two glacial stages in Alaska: Journal of Geology, Volume 23, pages 748-756.

Capps, S.R., 1915, An unusual exposure of a great thrust fault on Nizina River, Alaska: Washington Academy of Sciences Journal. Volume 5, page 252.

Capps, S.R., 1916, The Chisana-White River district: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 630, 130 pages.

Capps, S.R., 1916, The Turnigan-Knik Region, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 642, pages 147-194.

Capps, S.R., 1917, Mount McKinley — A New National Park: Travel Magazine, Volume 29, pages 7-12.

Capps, S.R., 1917, Mount McKinley National Park: 4th National Parks Conference Proceedings, pages 226-242.

Capps, S.R., 1919, The Kantishna Region, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 687, 116 pages.

Capps, S.R., 1919, Mineral resources of the western Talkeetna Mountains: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 692, pages 187-205.

Capps, S.R., 1922, The Cold Bay district, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 739, pages 77-116.

Capps, S.R., and Brooks, A.H., 1924, The Alaska Mineral Industry in 1922: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 755, pages 3-49.

Capps, S.R., 1924, Geology and mineral resources of the area traversed by the Alaska Railroad: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 755, pages 73-150.

Capps, S.R., 1925, An early Tertiary placer deposit in the Yentna District: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 773, pages 53-71.

Capps, S.R., and Short, M.N., 1926, A ruby-silver prospect in Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 783, pages 89-95.

Capps, S.R., 1927, Geology of the Upper Matanuska Valley: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 791, 92 pages.

Capps, S.R., 1927, The Toklat-Tonzona area: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 792, pages 73-110.

Capps, S.R., 1929, The Skwentna Region, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 797, pages 67-98.

Capps, S.R., 1929, The Mount Spurr Region, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 810: pages 141-172.

Capps, S.R., 1930, The Chakachamna-Stony Region, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 813: pages 97-123.

Capps, S.R., 1931, The Lake Clark-Mulchatna Region, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 824: pages 125-154.

Capps, S.R., 1931: Glaciation in Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 170.

Capps, S.R., 1932, The eastern portion of Mount McKinley National Park: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 836, pages 219-300.

Capps, S.R., 1933, Mineral investigations in the Alaska Railroad belt during 1931: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 844, pages 119-135.

Capps, S.R., 1933, An air reconnaissance of Middleton Island, Alaska: Journal of Geology, Volume 41, pages 728-736.

Capps, S.R., 1934, Notes on the geology of the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 857, pages 141-153.

Capps, S.R., and Tuck, Ralph, 1935, The Southern Alaska Range: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 862, 101 pages.

Capps, S.R., 1935, The Willow Creek-Kaswitna Area, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 864-B, pages 95-113.

Capps, S.R., 1937, Kodiak and vicinity, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 868-B, pages 93-134.

Capps, S.R., 1937, Kodiak and adjacent Islands, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 880-C, pages 111-184.

Capps, S.R., and Roberts, Ralph, 1939, The Dixie placer district, Idaho: Idaho Bureau of Mines and Geology Pamphlet 48, 45 pages.

Capps, S.R., 1940, Geology of the Alaska Railroad Region: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 907, 201 pages.

Capps, S.R., 1940, Gold Placers of the Secesh Basin Idaho: Idaho Bureau of Mines and Geology Pamphlet 52, 42 pages.

Capps, S.R., 1941, Observations of rate of creep in Idaho: American Journal of Science: Volume 239, pages 25-32.

Capps, S.R., 1941, Faulting in western Idaho and its relation to high bench placer deposits: Idaho Bureau of Mines and Geology Pamphlet 56, 20 pages.

Laguna, Frederica de, 1935, Travels among the Dena: Exploring Alaska's Yukon Valley: University of Washington Press, 57 pages.

Moffit, F.H., and Smith, P.S., 1950, Memorial to Stephen Reid Capps: Proceedings of the Geological Society of America, Pages 127-138.

Orth, Donald J., 1967, Dictionary of Alaska Place Names: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 567, 1,084 Pages.

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