Russell Schaefer

~1914 - 1960

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photo of Russell Schaefer

Russell Schaefer, circa 1960
Photo by Russell Schaefer


Russell Schaefer was one of the most innovative and respected Alaskan miners of his generation; in the same class as other Alaskan miners like AMHF Inductees Gus Uotilla, Earl Pilgrim, or Joe Quigley, who, by themselves or with a wife or partner, accomplished amazing feats of mining and prospecting in Alaska's remote 'frontier' mining camps. Schaefer's activities took place in a backwater of the Alaska wilderness — the Kuskokwim Mineral Belt.

At the start of his Alaskan career in 1940, Schaefer had a partner, Harvey Winchell, but later Russell would become more of a loner, flying, mining, prospecting and retorting mercury alone. Schaefer was not a hermit. He made good friends with the Lyman family and with many people along the Kuskokwim River. He accepted help and guidance from U.S. Geological Survey geologists, who were completing geological studies of the Kuskokwim region, one of whom, Pete Sainsbury, was about as tough as Schaefer--and a good friend. Schaefer enjoyed time off during the winter months, frequently staying with the Parent family at Crooked Creek. In letters that he wrote, he alluded to a desire to find a good wife, but never married. Russ Schaefer died at his Cinnabar Creek mine camp in the fall of 1960.

Early Years in the Upper Midwest

Russell Schaefer was born on May 31st, 1914 near Luce in Otter Tail County, west-central Minnesota. His parents were John J. Schaefer and Josephine (Januszewski) Schaefer. John Schaefer owned a saloon in Luce, where Russell's sister, Marie, was also born. Russell's other siblings include Norbert J., Frances Lorraine and Dorothy Evelyn. When Russell was about 8 years old, the Schaefer family moved from Otter Tail County, Minnesota to La Crosse, a city on the banks of the Mississippi River in western Wisconsin.

Knowledge of Russell Schaefer's early years is sketchy. After arriving in Wisconsin, the Schaeffer family first lived in the 'Town of Campbell (French Island), a part of north La Crosse; but later moved to the 'Grand Crossing' area, also in north La Crosse, near the railroad tracks. Russell finished the 8th Grade, but did not attend High School. He was known to be quiet in his youth, and enjoyed hunting and fishing in both Wisconsin and Minnesota.

It is unclear when Russell decided to leave Wisconsin and head west. By the beginnings of the Great Depression, he worked grain harvests in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and then Montana. He continued part time work in Oregon and Washington, and eventually worked his way up the coast to the Alaska Territory.

Schaefer's Alaskan Mining Career

A review of the Alaska Territorial Department of Mines records for the years 1934-to-1940 does not identify Russell Schaefer as participating in any mine exploration or development activities. Photographs show that he spent time in Alaska's Matanuska River valley during the late 1930s. A 1939 data sheet for the 1940 U.S. Census from Sleetmute in the 4th Judicial District lists Russell Schaefer in partnership with Harvey Winchell from Nebraska, who is listed as the head of the partnership. Schaefer lists his occupation as 'placer gold mine laborer' (Kreitlaw, 1939).

In 1941, Russell Schaefer and Harvey Winchell located three placer claims that contained numerous cinnabar (mercuric sulfide) nuggets in fluvial gravels and detrital materials derived from the erosion of nearby bedrock exposures on each side of Cinnabar Run, in the upper Cinnabar Creek basin. Cinnabar Creek is a remote 3rd order tributary of the Holitna River, which in turn is a major 4th order tributary of the 5th order Kuskokwim River in Southwest Alaska. It's name is derived from Schaefer and Winchell's discovery of cinnabar there. The partners also staked a claims on Cinnabar Gulch, and easterly tributary of Cinnabar Creek and staked and sampled the Lucky Day lode, on Beaver Creek six miles from Cinnabar Creek.

Schaefer and his partners like Winchell were prospecting and developing mercury, which more-or-less defined a large part of the Kuskokwim Mineral Belt during the early-to-mid 20th Century. The element mercury (symbol Hg) is a liquid at room temperatures. It is silvery and flows easily; hence it's ancient name 'Quicksilver'. Mercury is dense (specific gravity-13.6), and amalgamates with gold and silver. The chief ore mineral is the brilliant red cinnabar, a mercury sulfide. Mercury vapor and some mercury compounds are highly toxic, a property which is taken advantage of in fungicidal paints and germ-killing properties of the common antiseptics merthiolate and mercurochrome. Because of the use of mercury in explosives, electric switch gear, thermometers, mercuric acid dry cells, and fungicides, the U.S. War Production Board declared the liquid metal 'strategic' in 1942, which caused a flurry of prospecting and mining activities in the Kuskokwim Mineral Belt. During the late 1940s and 1950s, the Defense Minerals Exploration Administration (DMEA) provided incentives for prospectors to search for and develop mercury deposits. Because mercury can be concentrated in a container (nominally a 76 pound 'flask') by simple retort technologies for direct sale to a buyer without expensive metallurgical refining costs, it was an ideal commodity for a small miner or company to produce it from a remote location. However, due to cumulative toxicity, many mercury uses have now been restricted or banned.

at Cinnabar Creek

Russell Schafer at his Cinnabar Creek Mine, circa 1950.
Photo Credit: Russ Schaefer self photo

In 1942, Schaefer and Winchell retorted 2,300 pounds of cinnabar (mercuric sulfide) ore from the Lucky Day cinnabar lode, and recovered 15 flasks (1,140 pounds) of mercury; the high grade ore averaged 49 percent mercury. In 1943, Schaefer and Winchell recovered 11 flasks (836 pounds) of mercury from another batch of high grade ore from the Lucky Day lode (Jasper, 1962).

On October 30th, 1943, Russell Schaefer enlisted into the U.S. Army. He had indicated in a letter to his father in 1941 that he expected to be drafted. Records indicate that he was a Private 1st Class, and served "for the duration of the war (WWII)"; no one in the Schaefer family knows if he saw any military action overseas or where he served.

After he was discharged from the Army, Schaefer returned to the Kuskokwim River basin to resume his prospecting and mining activities. He had been with the U.S. Geological Survey party as a field assistant during the summer of 1947. At the end of the field season, Schaefer prospected in the general area of the Mukslulik River about 40 miles south of Sleetmute, and discovered rich gold-tungsten placer deposits in a creek basin that contained massive quartz veins at it's head. Russell named the stream Fortyseven Creek, after the year of discovery.

The geology of both the lodes and placers at Fortyseven Creek was complex so Russell enlisted the help of long-time friend and AMHF Inductee Robert F. Lyman. Lyman helped Schaefer prospect Fortyseven Creek for a month. Then Schaefer joined Lyman in mining the underground, lode cinnabar deposits at DeCoursey Mountain north-northwest of Crooked Creek and about 30 miles southwest of the current Donlin Creek gold project. The Lyman-Schaefer partnership worked well, but it was not without some misadventures. Robert Vanderpool Sr., a bush pilot from Sleetmute, flew both Lyman and Schaefer into Fortyseven Creek in November, 1947 and was supposed to pick them up on December 1st to take them to DeCoursey Mountain. The weather turned bad, and Vanderpool was only able to pick up Schaefer and a little gear and return to Sleetmute. Subsequently, a major blizzard hit the Kuskokwim country and Lyman was left stranded at Fortyseven Creek camp for days before Vanderpool could return and pick him up. This story of the adventure, as told by Bob Lyman to his brothers, was published in the Bozeman (Montana) Courier.

Fortyseven Creek Airstrip from aloft

Fortyseven Creek airstrip, in the general area of the Mukslulik River, circa 1948
Photo by Russ Schaefer

Schaefer was a keen observer and a competent, self-taught geologist and mineralogist. AMHF Inductee Wallace Cady, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist, was so confident in the value of Schaefer's work, that he based his descriptions of mineralization at Fortyseven Creek on Schaefer's observations (Cady and others, 1955, pages 120-121). The mineralogy of the metalliferous lodes at Fortyseven Creek is complex. Schaefer identified the gold, the tungsten minerals scheelite and wolframite; and minor amounts of lead sulfosalts, argentite, and silver tellurides in a gangue of quartz and tourmaline. Schaefer mined both placer gold and placer scheelite from a single paystreak on Fortyseven Creek and marketed a modest scheelite concentrate (for the strategic metal tungsten) as well as the placer gold. Fortyseven Creek was explored by the Anaconda Minerals Company during the 1980s and others since.

Russell Schaefer was involved in other mining projects in addition to those in the Cinnabar Creek area and at Fortyseven Creek. He placer mined for gold on Cripple Creek, a tributary of the Salmon River in the Aniak Mining district southwest of Crooked Creek. Most of his active mining and prospecting there took place during the early 1950s.

placer mining on Cripple Creek

Cripple Creek placer gold mine, Aniak-Tuluksak District, circa 1953.
Photo by Russ Schaefer

According to Arlene Clay of Aniak, in order to winter-supply his mining camps, Schaefer cat-trained out of Crooked Creek but eventually moved down-river to Aniak, where he developed new trails into both Cripple Creek and Cinnabar Creek. As stated in a letter from Russ to his father in 1957, the Aniak-to-Cinnabar Creek trip usually took 30 days to complete. The winter cat train activities were used to supply the fuel, heavy equipment, and their parts, and hard goods needed for the mining efforts. During summer months, he commuted with aircraft. When he ran short of fuel for his heavy equipment during the summer season, he filled a 55 gallon barrel in the back seat of an Aeronca 11 ChiefTM aircraft.

last cat train to Cinnabar Creek

Russ Schaefer on his last cat train run with a 'go-devil' sled into Cinnabar Creek from Aniak, circa 1960

Schaefer returned to his original discoveries of cinnabar in the Cinnabar Creek basin and mined residual cinnabar-bearing placers north of Cinnabar Gulch on Cinnabar Creek and recovered about 500 flasks (38,000 pounds) of mercury, making the Cinnabar Creek deposits the number three producer of mercury behind the Red Devil and White Mountain Mines. Most of the mercury production on Cinnabar Creek took place from 1955-to-1960. Russell worked in the cut all summer and stockpiled mercury-bearing material. In the winter, he would retort the ore and put the mercury into 76 pound flasks. He then flew the flasks to Aniak, where an air cargo flight from a commercial aircraft service would fly them to Fairbanks.

Schaefer experimented with mercury recovery and built his own retort furnaces. His first experimental retort operated in 1942 and 1943 at the Lucky Day lode. According to Arlene Clay of Aniak (written commun., undated):

"Russ was careful in retorting and always wore a mask. But when he shoveled away the sludge from the retort area subsequent to the retort process, he didn't wear a mask, which eventually led to detectable mercury in his blood stream".

In the early 1940s, U.S. Geological Survey geologist Bob Wallace helped Schaefer with the first retort and later wrote about it. In principle, mercury recovery is straightforward and simple. When the mercury sulfide mineral cinnabar is heated above 356 degrees Fahrenheit, the sulfur is driven off and the mercury vapor is condensed and drawn off into a 76 pound container — known as a flask. In commercial reactors (retorts) of the day, the sulfur driven off combined with oxygen to form a sulfur dioxide gas. In Schaefer's primitive retort, some of the mercury tended to recombine with sulfur about as fast as the mercury was liberated during heating. Wallace suggested that Russell mix the cinnabar with tin cans that accumulated in camp. Wallace's idea worked. As the sulfur was driven off, it combined with iron in the tin cans to form an iron sulfide, which allowed for all of the mercury to be driven off. Later Wallace wrote:

"The black stuff that had clogged his condenser was synthetic form of meta-cinnabar. The residue of combined sulfur and iron was a synthetic form of marcasite, and it sparkled like the 'fools gold' that it was."

In 1954, Russell Schaefer did make one trip back to his home town of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Subsequently, he was able to link up with three of his four siblings in Texas: Nobert, Dorothy, and Frances, before returning to his Alaska home.

family in Texas

Left to right; Russ Schaefer, sister Dorothy, brother Norbert, and sister Frances; at a family reunion in Texas, circa 1954

Russell Schaefer was not just a miner. Although a substantial amount of his income was from the mining of gold and mercury, he also trapped and hunted fur-bearing animals, subsistence fished, and hunted both big game and small game animals. He briefly operated a horse pack train. He was also known as a boat builder and whip-sawed several large river boats for himself and for others. Russell also did do some homesteading in the Kuskokwim River basin; his homestead was on the South Fork of the Holitna River where he stayed while not at his mining camps or wintering over in Crooked Creek.

house on Holitna River

Russ Schaefer's homestead on the Holitna River

Schaefer built river boat

Whip-sawed river boat built by Russ Schaefer.

At both Cinnabar and Fortyseven Creeks, Schaefer frequently encountered trouble with brown bears, which sometimes damaged his parked aircraft on both remote air strips while he was mining and prospecting. On one of his supply trips to Fairbanks, he bought a car battery and wire and rigged an electric fence around his airplane —a latter-day electric bear fence — one of the first used in Alaska. His bear fence worked and he never had to worry about bear problems with parked airplanes on his airstrips ever again. He could work the mine cut in peace. However, he did continue to have trouble especially with black bears within his camps, which sometimes caused damages to sleeping and cooking tents and other camp infrastructure, necessitating the bear being dispatched with gunfire.

Death and Remembrance

Russell Schaefer died in the late fall of 1960. He was only 46 years old. The exact time and situation of his death is uncertain, as he was alone. Bob Lyman, disturbed by the lack of radiotelephone communication from Schaefer, flew over to his mine on Cinnabar Creek and found him dead. The photo of Russell Schaefer depicted at the beginning of this biography was taken by Schaefer using an automatic timer on his camera. It was the last photo shot on Russ Schaefer's camera. Lyman buried Schaefer at the mine site. Russell's sister, Frances Maclure, and a partner took over the Cinnabar Creek mine and operated it briefly after his death. According to Jasper (1962), an exploration program commenced on claims held by Schaefer, which found additional resources of the strategic metal mercury that could have been mined. However, no production from the newly discovered resources ever took place.

Theresa Parent knew Russell Schaefer when she was a child growing up in Crooked Creek, a small community along the banks of the Kuskokwim River. In conversations she had with one of the writers (Bundtzen) in 2007, she remembered:

"Mr. Schaefer was a kind man and was always polite and respectful with the members of the Crooked Creek community. During his prospecting expeditions that took place throughout the region, he always landed on a sandbar below the village of Napaimiut for supplies and for refueling his 'Stinson' or 'Cessna' aircraft. Frequently he would hire local native 'bushwackers' to help him clear brush along claim lines and help with other prospecting activities".

Schaefer was quite inventive. He reminds the writer of AMHF Inductee John Miscovich, another self-educated and inventive mining man from Flat in the Iditarod district. According to Arlene Clay of Aniak:

"Russ was a brilliant person and spent time in the winter studying aerodynamics; he invented a turn-table which he ran his airplane up on and then tied it down. It was rigged so that the aircraft acted like a wind sock, which resulted in the plane always turned heading into the wind."

During May-to-July of 1954, the United States Army (Army) conducted troop training and map making exercises based out of Schaefer's Cinnabar Creek and Fortyseven Creek airstrips. For parts of nearly two months, the Army practiced parachute drops of supplies and men with two large helicopters, and CessnaTM, BeaverTM and WidgeonTM fixed wing aircraft. Russell assisted the Army with logistics planning and helped the military with photographic coverage of these events. For reasons unknown, but perhaps because of his valued service with previous training exercises, the U.S. Army placed a military marker on Schaefer's grave at Cinnabar Creek. In 1993, his sister Frances and her husband flew out to Cinnabar Creek and erected another monument on his grave.

The Schaefer biographic sketch was originally compiled by Charles C. Hawley in 2007, but has been substantially modified by T.K. Bundtzen in 2019 with significant new information provided by R. R. Schaefer and other family members of Russell Schaefer; and a written correspondence by Arlene Clay of Aniak. The Alaska Mining Hall of Fame Foundation is most grateful for this new information.


Cady, W. M., Wallace, R.E., Hoare, J.M., and Webber, E.J., 1955, The Central Kuskokwim Region: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 268 pages 113-115; 119-121.

Clay, Arlene, undated, Russ Schaefer, Unpublished biographic sketch, Aniak, Alaska, 2 pages.

Jasper, Martin W., 1962, Cinnabar Province, Kuskokwim Region, in, Williams, J.A., Division of Mines and Minerals Report for the Year 1961: Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Juneau, pages 65-79.

Kreitlaw, E.J., 1939, Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census Sixteenth Census of the United States-1940: Fourth Judicial Division, Kuskokwim District, Sleetmute Village, Alaska, Sheet 23A, December 21-22, 1939.

Rutledge, F.A., 1958, Investigations of Mercury deposits, Cinnabar Creek area, Georgetown and Aniak districts, U.S. Bureau of Mines report R.I. 4719.

Sainsbury, C.L., and MacKevett, E.M., Jr., Quicksilver Deposits of Southwestern Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1187, 89 pages.

Author not identified, 1948, Lyman Brothers Inc. Bob Lyman Sits out Alaska Blizzard Waiting for Bush Pilot: The Bozeman (Montana) Courier, January 2nd, 1948, one page.

Author not identified, 2020, Mercury (element); from Wikipedia the free encyclopedia commons, 3 pages (on line).

Written Correspondences

Letter written by Russell Schaefer to his father John J. Schaefer of Onalaska, Wisconsin, September 24th, 1941, 2 pages.

Letter written by Russell Schaefer from Crooked Creek to his father John J. Schaefer, of Onalaska, Wisconsin, November 15th, 1953; 2 pages.

Letter written by Russell Schaefer from Crooked Creek to his father John J. Schaefer, June 24th, 1954; 3 pages.

Letter written by Russell Schaefer to his father John J. Schaefer, November 27th, 1957; 2 pages.

Correspondence between Thomas Bundtzen (Fairbanks) and Theresa Parent of Crooked Creek, August, 2007.

Correspondence from Russell Raymond Schaefer to Tom Bundtzen (Fairbanks), April 7th, 2016, 3 pages.

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