Orville G. Herning

(1868 - 1947)

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Photo of Orville Herning

Orville Herning, undated
Photo from Coleen Mielke.

Prospectors began searching for Alaska's mineral wealth at Alaska purchase in 1867, and even before. The pace of development increased in Southeast and along the Yukon in the 1870s. Good prospects at Willow Creek in the Forty-Mile in 1886 and at Circle in the 1890s resulted in minor stampedes. These minor rushes became a torrent after the discovery of gold in the Klondike in 1896, the focal point of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush. All across America, entrepreneurs, usually without too much knowledge of minerals, created prospecting syndicates, raised funds, and headed north and west to strike it rich. One of these entrepreneurs was Orville G. Herning. Like most others, Herning did not obtain great wealth from the mines, but proved to be a competent mine operator and later, a successful businessman and civic leader.

Herning was born in Eyota, Minnesota on July 30, 1868. He lived in Liard, Minnesota and also in Naugatuk, Connecticut - the later location is where he met Martha Amelia "Mattie" Rogers, whom he married on October 10, 1894. The Hernings had two sons; short-lived Elmer who was born on October 18, 1895 and died on August 14, 1906; and George Stanley, born on December 6, 1904 and died in 1987. George Stanley mined the New Bullion on Craigie Creek, also in the Hatcher Pass district.

In 1898, Orville G. Herning was instrumental in forming an east-coast-based mining exploration venture to prospect the north. In the spring of 1898, the Klondike & Boston Gold Mining Company of Massachusetts, with E. C. Davis Company as its official broker, hired two expedition teams to search for gold in the Cook Inlet area of Alaska. The first team was headed by Colonel E. J. Meagher; his men were Fred Falconer, I. Fonda, E. R. Chapman, W. J. Hayes, J. H. Bates, H. L. Grover, Frank Churchill, Charles Wolcott and M. Cameron. The second team was headed by Orville Herning; his men were Edward Kirkpatrick, Fred M. Young, William H. Thorne, George F. Butler, Michael Dineen, H. P. Daniels, Daniel Coleman, George H. Brown and George F. Burrows. Herning was a thirty-year-old Connecticut-based salesman. He and his team left Boston, by train, on March 23, 1898 and arrived in Seattle five days later. The men had reservations aboard the S. S. Whitelaw, scheduled to sail for Alaska on April 1st.

The morning of their departure, Herning was told that the Whitelaw would not be sailing; she had burned in the Alaskan town of Skagway. It wasn't going to be easy to find passage aboard another northbound ship since all vessels destined for Alaska were loaded to capacity with gold rush stampeders. It took the men twelve days to find room aboard the S. S. Dirigo which sailed from Seattle's Yesler Wharf on April 12, 1898.

Two days north of Seattle, the Dirigo began to wind its way through the protected waters of Alaska's Inside Passage. The ship bypassed the small fishing village of Wrangell and made a short stop at the mining town of Juneau before sailing north on the 2,000 feet deep (but narrow) Lynn Canal. At the northern extremes of the Canal, the ship swung wide around a small island known as Eldred Rock, where the 150 foot Steamer, Clara Nevada, had exploded nine weeks earlier, killing all aboard. Once safely around the uncharted rock island, the Dirigo steamed to the northern reaches of Chilkoot Inlet, then veered east into Taiya Inlet and docked at Skagway, the largest town in Alaska, population 10,000. Here, the men inspected the remains of the burned out S. S. Whitelaw as well as the partially submerged Mercury, a bark that had fallen victim to Skagway winds four days earlier. They also took a short side trip to Dyea, population 5,000, to see the infamous Chilkoot Pass where thousands of men, and a few hardy women, were climbing the torturous thirty-three mile Pass with dreams of striking it rich in Canada's Yukon Territory.

From Skagway, the Dirigo backtracked south on Lynn Canal and into the Icy Straits where she experienced mechanical problems and anchored for repairs near the Tlingit village of Hoonah, on the north shore of Chichagof Island. The chief engineer diagnosed the ships mechanical problem as a faulty condenser; the ship would have to limp 40 miles back to Juneau to order the new part. While the team waited eight days in Juneau for the new condenser to arrive from Seattle, they enjoyed a working-tour of the Treadwell Quartz Mine on Douglas Island. With repairs completed, the Dirigo was preparing to leave Juneau when she accidentally rammed a coal transport called the Czarina. The collision cut a large hole in Czarina's side and she had to be beached at Douglas Island to avoid sinking.

Finally out of Juneau, the men sailed past Glacier Bay and Brady Glacier before entering open ocean for the first time in their journey. The next scheduled stop was the Port of Valdez on the Valdez Arm of Prince William Sound. Six miles from Valdez, the Dirigo ran aground at low tide, leaving her bow high and dry and her stern in sixteen feet of water; there she lay stranded until the next high tide released her and she sailed into Valdez for the night. The following morning the ship departed in a blinding snowstorm and sailed through Prince William Sound where a foot of dense white snow floated on the water surface. The S. S. Dirigo, originally built as a two-mast schooner, was converted to steam power in late 1897. At 843 tons, she had one-fourth the tonnage of most steamships traveling between Seattle and Alaska. As she entered the Gulf of Alaska, the storm intensified, and the ship's smaller size reacted accordingly: she was rolled from gunnel to gunnel for the next two days. The waves were so relentless that a young Massachusetts man named Burrows (from the Revere Expedition Party) died, reportedly of seasickness, and was buried at sea, as the ship entered Cook Inlet.

Orvlle Herning's destination was an outpost called Tyonek near the head of Cook Inlet. It was primarily an Athabascan Indian village, but it also had a nearby Alaska Commercial Company outpost which was a major supply source for anyone entering South-central Alaska. The trip from Seattle to Tyonek had taken twenty days, fifteen days longer than expected. Freight was lightered ashore from the Dirigo and left in great stacks on the muddy Tyonek Beach. Herning's team went to work moving their supplies to a location above the high tide line and building a series of tents for cooking, sleeping, and storage. Once situated, their first major goal was to locate Willow Creek in the extreme southwest corner of the Talkeetna Mountains, 110 unmapped miles from Tyonek. Unfortunately for the team, the rivers were still full of ice, which meant Susitna River access to the Willow Creek mining area would be delayed for another two weeks.

Miners continued to arrive at Tyonek every day, and before long, 300 novice prospectors populated the beach. Expectations were high and tall tales of secret gold strikes were the talk of the day. Boodlers, selling imaginary claims and "priceless" treasure maps, were abundant. The beach resembled a shipyard with hundreds of first time boat builders scratching their heads in confusion. The most economical way for Herning's team to obtain a boat was to build one, but that option did not seem practical. Not only was lumber scarce, but the men had heard many stories about newly constructed boats disintegrating in the rough Cook Inlet waters. Instead of building, Herning decided to buy a boat with a proven history; he purchased a sea otter boat from a Tyonek merchant for $75. The merchant assured him that the boat was built for seal hunting and was very strong. Anxious to try out their boat, the men took it out for a quick trial run on a sunny afternoon; it handled nicely as the team rowed out into the deep waters of Cook Inlet. However, without warning, the sunny weather turned into a late afternoon gale force wind. Rowing for their lives, it took the men an hour to reach shore while the waves brutally battered their boat. Safely back on land, the men were convinced that a lesser boat would have cost them their lives; the sea otter boat turned out to be a very wise purchase and would save their lives many more times during the next few seasons. The experience also gave the team a lifelong respect for the weather and waters of Cook Inlet.

Two prospectors died the first week at Tyonek. One (unnamed) man died from natural causes. The second young man, from the Patterson Expedition Party of Kansas, became gravely ill after eating desiccated cabbage. With no medical help available, the men on the beach did what they could to comfort the dying man. One of Herning's men played his violin while the rest of the team sang In the Sweet By and By. The deaths were a sobering experience to everyone, even the most hard-bitten old timers.

In late May, the rivers were ice-free and it was time to locate Willow Creek. The men chose the most practical route, which began with a two-part sloop ride to Knik Station. Part one took the men 30 miles, from Tyonek to Fire Island at the head of Cook Inlet (three miles from present day Anchorage) where they spent the night on the beach and waited for the next high tide; part two of the journey took the men from Fire Island to Knik Station, an additional forty miles.

Knik Station was barely a spot on the map in 1898; it had a small Alaska Commercial Company outpost, thirty-six Athabascan residents and three Non-native residents. Here, Herning's team learned about a system of ancient Athabascan walking trails that laced through South-central Alaska. Historically, the trails were used by seasonal nomadic hunting parties, and were narrow and hard to find. Herning hired two Athabascans, at the going rate of $6 per trip, to lead his men over the trail from Knik Station to Willow Creek. The team and their guides left Knik, reaching the foothills of Bald Mountain by the end of the third day. Their fourth day's progress was not as good; after ten hours of climbing their way over and around the snowy remnants of last winter's avalanches, the Native guides seemed to be lost. In an effort to summon help, they set a dry spruce tree on fire and shot their rifles into the air. Receiving no reply, the team set up camp for the night and dried their clothing.

The next morning, the guides had regained their sense of direction and led the team to a group of miners on who were already actively mining gold at Grubstake Gulch, off of Willow Creek. Their names were, L. H. Herndon, Billy Morris, Brainard, E'Van and Captain Andrews. Herning's team spent two days prospecting with Captain Andrews to "learn the ropes".

Within a week, Herning's team had located fifteen full placer claims on Willow Creek, and built a sluice box that produced a good sample of placer gold, a piece of silver, and reportedly, one ruby. On June 11, 1898, Herning, and his men, Edward C. Kirkpatrick, George H. Brown, Fred M. Young, William H. Thorne, George F. Butler, George F. Burrows, Michael Dinneen, H. P. Daniels and Daniel Coleman, joined the Grubstake Gulch miners, to establish the Willow Creek mining district, and appointed L. H. Herndon as recorder. The end of this historic meeting was punctuated with a strong earthquake that shook the gold dust off the recorder's table.

After two weeks at Willow Creek, Herning and two of his men left on a re-supply run to the mouth of the Susitna River. Travel on foot was slow; the men were plagued with clouds of voracious mosquitoes that emerged from the wetlands along the creek's edge. Without the aid of netting, the insects were unbearable. With every breath, the men inhaled mosquitoes; their only relief was a nightly smudge fire or the hope of a strong breeze.

At the end of the third day on the trail, the men could smell heavy smoke. Thinking it might be a forest fire; they found refuge on a sandbar in the middle of a small side-stream and waited. Within thirty minutes, they could hear the approaching fire. The men buried their blankets and supplies in the wet sand and crouched in the shallow water as the flames raced down the banks on both sides of the stream. The men were surrounded by fire, and slapped frantically at the sparks that ignited their clothing. Once the fire had consumed all of the dry vegetation in the immediate area, the danger seemed to be over. The men were elated to discover their damages were limited to wet blankets, holes in their clothing and singed hair. To celebrate their survival, as well as the subsequent demise of the mosquitoes, the men said a prayer of thanks, shared a drink of Jamaica Ginger and retired for the night.

The next morning, as soon as the men had traveled outside of the burned area, the mosquitoes returned with a vengeance. So intolerable were the bugs that Herning decided to build a raft and float the Susitna River for relief. It didn't take long to fall the trees then build and launch the raft. On the second bend in the river, the hastily built raft struck the bank and fell apart, dumping the trio into the swift cold water. The men struggled their way to shore and decided it would be safer to continue on dry land and battle the mosquitoes.

Travel along the river was slow, and food was short. The three men made plans to buy food at the Alaska Commercial Company (AC Co.) store at Susitna Station, which was closer than their supply camp. They weren't sure exactly where the Station was, they only knew that it was on an island roughly 30 miles from the mouth of the Susitna River. Tired and hungry, but fearing another broken raft disaster, the men continued downriver on foot, for two more days with no sign of the Station. They passed dozens of small islands, and at each one, they let out signal whoops but received no reply. On the sixth day, they ate the last of their food. . . one piece of bacon for each man.

In hungry desperation, the men decided to try their luck with another raft. It took two hours to fasten three 24 foot spruce trees together. Herning wrote their names on the tree stumps as well as the log ends of the raft. If their attempt failed, and no one lived to tell their story, the names written on the trees would record their fate. The plan was for one man to stand on the bow of the raft, with a long pole, and keep it from hitting the banks; a second man would stand on the stern, with a 16 foot oar and propel the raft; the third man would stand on the side midsection to help steer. The trio pushed the raft out into the swift current of the Susitna River; before long, they were traveling at (what Herning guessed to be) 10 miles per hour. Floating hour after hour, the men came to a section of the river where the current overpowered their control of the raft. The raft was now steering itself and picking up speed; they were totally at the mercy of the river. A group of Athabascan Indians, from a village two miles downriver, heard the men scream and came to their rescue. Paddling birch bark canoes, at a high rate of speed, the valiant Natives caught up with the raft, threw the men a towline, and began the heroic struggle of pulling the raft to shore against the fast current. Overjoyed with their escape from certain death, Herning eagerly paid the rescuers two bits each to take his men to the Station, a distance of two more miles.

The three men were a sorry sight when they arrived at Susitna Station: one had no shoes and his pants and shirt were nearly gone, the other two men only had the soles of their shoes left and their pants were worn off to the knees. The AC Co. agent, James Cleghorn, fed the men a welcome banquet of pork and beans, corned beef, bread, butter, cheese, canned peaches, canned apricots, crackers and tea with cream and sugar. After dinner, Herning hired the Natives to transport the trio to the mouth of the Susitna River, a thirty mile, three-hour canoe trip for $6.

In mid-July, Herning decided to make an unguided, solo trip to Willow Creek. He packed 65 pounds of provisions, and left Knik by boat at 8:30 one night to take advantage of the tides. He arrived at Cottonwood two hours later, and camped for the night. The next morning, he left Cottonwood at 10:30, on a horse he borrowed from a man named Lee, and arrived at Big Lake at 5:45 that evening, where he made camp, cared for the horse and slept, in the rain, under a tarp. Herning left Big Lake at 8:30 the next morning, and traveled due north to the Little Susitna River, arriving there at 1:00 in the afternoon. After a brief rest and a dinner of fried ptarmigan, he continued on to the base of Bald Mountain, where he spotted some caribou, but he wasn't close enough to shoot one. The next day, Herning reached the summit of Bald Mountain at 1:00 in the afternoon, where he arranged to have Lee's horse taken back to Knik by a prospector who was going that way. From the summit of Bald Mountain, it took him 3½ hours to snowshoe over to his mine.

Herning's team spent a total of 80 days working the ground at Willow Creek (in Grubstake Gulch) that first summer, and produced 39 ounces of gold. . . not bad considering most of their time was spent staking claims, building cabins, hauling supplies, building dams, and whip sawing enough lumber to build a dozen sluice boxes measuring 12 feet long x 16 feet wide x 6 inches deep.

Grubstake Gulch did contain placer gold, some of it rather coarse and angular, suggesting that it had not traveled far from its lode source, but it was not a simple placer gold deposit. Developed off and on for more than 100 years, one deposit type appears to have gold concentrated in an alluvial fan at the mouth, while the other deposit type contains placer gold within multiple river channels of Willow Creek. In both cases, gold may or may not be concentrated on bed rock surfaces, which is typical for most river placers. In any event, Herning realized that the deposit was potentially large, and could be attacked with hydraulic giants operating at a head of about 180 feet that could be developed in upper Grubstake Gulch.

The Boston-Klondike company would later make a valiant effort to develop and mine the deposit, ultimately with three hydraulic giants and thousands of feet of ditch. The mine's heyday was in the early 1900s, but, handicapped by floods, it was never very successful. Only three or four of the original venturers stuck with Herning, who built up his mining team with Indians, including Chief Nicolai from Old Knik. In the meantime, though, Herning assembled other claims, and developed contacts that would serve him substantially in later ventures.

In mid-August 1898, the men broke camp and headed for Knik Station. When they reached the Little Susitna River, they set up camp and were cooking dinner when their dog ran into camp with an angry brown bear sow nipping at its heels. The men scrambled for their revolvers as the cook began screaming and banging cooking pots together. The startled bear stopped within ten feet of the campfire and stood upright, towering over the men. The tense face-off lasted for several seconds before the bear retreated into the brush, leaving her two cubs crying in a distant tree. Assuming the bear would return, the men stood guard all night but they did not see her again.

In late August, with the mining season winding down, Herning's team wanted to build two food caches south of Knik Station for future use. The first cache was built at Goose Bay on the west side of Knik Arm. The second food cache was built at (what Herning called) Crescent Bay, on the east side of Knik Arm, directly across from Goose Bay. Herning predicted major growth for Crescent Bay. With its plentiful fresh water, wood, game, and deep Bay, he predicted it would someday be the "Skagway of Cook Inlet".

With the food caches completed, the men headed for their main supply camp at the mouth of the Susitna River. En route, they stopped, on the beach, just west of the Little Susitna River to inspect an abandoned AC Co. store building precariously perched in shallow water at high tide. The 1898 Lake George flood had washed the building from its original Knik River foundation and floated it, intact, including merchandise, down the Knik Arm to the Cook Inlet mud flats. The building and its contents would soon be devoured by scavengers and the Cook Inlet tides.

The discovery and subsequent development of the Skyscraper and Gold Bullion hard rock gold deposits in the Hatcher Pass area soon eclipsed the placer gold deposits on the tributaries of Willow Creek. Herning maintained his placer interests, but soon concluded that "mining the miners" was the way to go, and he opened the Knik Trading Company in 1905, then the leading transfer point on Cook Inlet. While Herning was operating the Knik Trading Company, his wife Mattie wintered in Seward. Mattie helped determine Herning's path in life, as she was 'urban-bound'. Herning built a new house in Wasilla for both of them to live in, but Mattie refused to move in, preferring to live in the growing community of Anchorage, or, later, the established community of Seattle. In 1917, Herning built a general store (the first permanent building) in the new railroad camp town of Wasilla, which he operated until his death in 1947.

Herning family washing dishes on Knik Beach, circa 1901 - Elmer (with shovel), Mattie, and Orville Herning(?).

Herning family washing dishes on Knik Beach, circa 1901. Elmer (with shovel), Mattie, and Orville Herning(?).
Photo from Alaska's Digital Archives.

When he died, Herning's store and home were sold to Walter and Vivian Teeland. Today, the building is located behind the fire station in downtown Wasilla, is owned by the Wasilla-Knik Historical Society, and houses a coffee shop.

Orville Herning's general store in Wasilla, Alaska, circa 1931.

Orville Herning's general store in Wasilla, Alaska, circa 1931.
Photo from Alaska's Digital Archives.

Many of the prospectors that landed at Cook Inlet in 1898 stayed, and mined the Willow Creek, a.k.a. Hatcher Pass, district for many years. Many Wasilla streets, businesses and subdivisions are named after gold mines in the Willow Creek mining district - Hatcher Pass, Independence, Lucky Shot, Gold Bullion, Grubstake Gulch, War Baby, Gold Cord, and Gold Mint to name just a few.

Herning was a very civic-minded man. He was the only source of medical aid (and veterinary care) for early Knik residents and Athabascan villagers. He helped build the first school at Knik in 1912. He and J. N. Johnston drew the first detailed map (1898) of the area between Hope and Mount McKinley, showing all rivers, trails, boat routes and gold fields. Before law formally arrived at Knik, Herning was part of an informal court that dealt with local scofflaws, and occasionally he was the unofficial coroner. Orville worked tirelessly to bring a school to early Wasilla. He wrote a series of letters to Alaska's Territorial Governor, which resulted in funding for the first school in 1917. He drew plans for the building, donated fire wood and gas lamps, and built school desks. As a member of the School Board, he was instrumental in hiring Wasilla's first teacher, Miss Ora Dee Clark. Herning also acted as the unofficial bank of Wasilla for thirty years. He cashed checks, collected debts, carried lines of credit and held money and valuables for people in his safe. He was well respected and hard working, and scrupulously honest. He never forgot a good deed or a scoundrel. He is the unsung patriarch of the Wasilla we see today and the quintessential Alaskan pioneer.

Orville Herning passed away in Wasilla in 1947, shortly after the end of World War II. He was a faithful chronicler of events. Various attempts have been made to transcribe his rather hard-to-read diaries. Currently the author (Mielke) is now proofing her transcription of hundreds of thousands of words written by Herning over his fifty-year career in Alaska.

By Coleen Mielke, 2009, with mining and photographic additions by C. C. Hawley and C. R. Laird.

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