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Photo Credit: J. E. Spurr Family Collection

Josiah Spurr was born into a New England fishing family where his small size and predilection toward sea-sickness rendered him nearly useless as a commercial fisherman.1 Instead Spurr forged a career as a geologist. Regardless of his stature and apparent lack of physical strength, Spurr led pioneering expeditions to Alaska that demanded at least as much stamina and strength as the fishing career that he left behind. Always recognized as an accomplished field observer and a leader in the new science of economic geology (geology applied to the scientific study of ore deposits), Spurr was a non-conformist on the origin of ore deposits about which he was a prolific author. In his late years Spurr turned his powers of observation to selenology, the branch of astronomy dealing with the earth's moon. He published four extensively illustrated volumes (1944-49) on geology applied to selenology. Possibly Spurr's best and surely his most enjoyable work was the popular account of his Alaska adventures on the Yukon published as Through the Yukon Gold Diggings: A Narrative of Personal Travel (1900). It ranks with the best of the gold rush accounts.

Josiah was born in the fishing village of Gloucester, Massachusetts, on October 1st, 1870, to Alfred and Oratia Spurr. He was the fifth of seven children. In their space-limited home Josiah, nicknamed Eddie, slept in the attic with his two older brothers. His older siblings made sure that any original opinion held by Josiah was promptly squashed. Years later Josiah could remember that "no more complete underling ever existed." From this rather miserable existence, however, Stephen Spurr, Josiah's grandson and biographer concluded that Josiah "mastered the skills of adaptability, compromise, and diplomacy that " him well in adult life."2

Alfred, his sea-captain father, was a strong influence on Josiah. Alfred was always proud of the boy who shown as a scholar from boyhood, even though later on he was not sure what Josiah did for a living. As a youth Josiah earned his spending money by selling flounder and the small fish called cunners, and, in season, blueberries and dandelion greens. At home Josiah read widely and wrote "epic" poetry. His poetry was admired by his mother, but less so by poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, to whom Josiah sent a copy. Holmes advised young Spurr to retain his day work.3

When Josiah graduated from Gloucester H.S. on 22 June 1888, he was recognized by his peers as class orator. Except for his geometry teacher, Miss Burns, Eddie liked and respected his teachers, especially principal and inspirations." Miss Burns disallowed a geometric proof that Eddie worked out. Spurr sent his alternate proof to the text author who agreed that Spurr's proof was the same as Euclid's, correct almost by definition. Spurr showed the response to Burns who did not appreciate his one-upmanship. She retaliated later when Spurr refused to make a whispered answer to a classmate on a test answer. Burns asked Spurr if he whispered, not answered, the query and gave him a zero sufficient to keep him from graduating. Spurr thought that only Bachelor's intercession saved him for high school graduation.4

In the fall of 1888 with from his savings and from a brother-in-law, Spurr entered Harvard. He was maintained by scholarships and tutoring income. By the end of his first half year Spurr was tied for top scholar with one other in a class of 400. Overwork compounded with possible mononucleosis and a poor financial position forced Spurr out of Harvard in his second year, but the enforced less stressful environment gave him time to consider his future. Geology was chosen more or less by default, but soon was confirmed by his choice of geology Professor N. S. Shaler as advisor. A lifelong friend, also one of Shaler's students, was Alfred Hulse Brooks, who became "Mr. Alaska Geology". Continued financial problems forced some further delays. Without completing his degree, Spurr applied and was accepted as a field assistant to the Minnesota Geological Survey, then commencing its study of the great Mesabi Iron Range. In 1893, Spurr received his geology degree Magna Cum Laude by mail. In 1894 he received a Master's degree and concluded that Harvard was a pretty good school after all.5

Spurr and young associates completed work on the Mesabi in 1893. Then Spurr drafted maps, collected specimens, ground thin sections and on his own wrote a classic report that he had to complete by himself since the Survey had run out of money. The report was "The Iron-Bearing Rocks of the Mesabi Range of Minnesota," published as Bulletin 10 of the Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey in 1894.6

The work on the Mesabi Range was widely known and likely contributed to Spurr's appointment to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), then beginning an interest in Alaska. Before that time (1894) and except for W.H. Dall's report on Alaska's coal resources (that rested on work begun before Alaska's purchase) the Survey's Alaska presence had been quite limited. True, geologist I. C. Russell had accompanied a US Coast and Geodetic Survey (USCG) expedition in 1889, and another geologist, C. Willard Hayes, had been attached to the privately funded Schwatka- Wrangell Mountain expedition in 1891. No comprehensive survey of Alaska's suspected hard mineral wealth had been attempted by the USGS.7

The first USGS investigations of Alaska's metallic mineral resources were made by Becker (1895) and Spurr (1896). Becker studied the gold deposits of southern Alaska, mostly lode, and Spurr reported on gold districts, mostly placer, of the Yukon. Spurr's investigations immediately preceded the Klondike discovery (August 1896) and rush of 1897-1898, and Spurr and his associates Frank Schrader and Harold Goodrich had the opportunity to catch a more relaxed moment in time immediately before the last great gold rush of the Nineteenth Century — the rush to Canada's Klondike.8

The 'Yukon Gold District' that spanned the Canada-US border had been prospected since the early 1870s. Three men, Harper, Mayo, and McQuesten (all Hall of Fame inductees) came into the country in the early 1870s and opened trading posts. They prospected, especially Harper, who had studied the little known region and concluded that it should be auriferous. He encouraged other prospectors to join in the search. Several Yukon tributaries, especially the Stewart River, were rich, but the deposits were transient and of limited extent. The main significance of the shallow river-bar gold deposits was as indicators of the likely existence of more extensive deep placer or lode-source deposits. In 1886 Franklin (Hall of Fame inductee) discovered deep placers on tributaries to the Forty Mile, and by 1896, the Forty Mile was a mature district. In the meantime, two of McQuesten's native relatives discovered the very important Birch Creek (later Circle) district. Mining was active at Mission and American Creeks near present day Eagle, Alaska, and a Creole, Ivan (John) Mynook (also Hall of Fame), was mining down river near the Ramparts of the Yukon. Although soon to be upstaged by the Klondike, American prospectors had discovered the first important Alaska placer gold province, but it was virtually unknown geologically — a situation soon to be remedied by Josiah Spurr and his two, handpicked, Harvard geological assistants Frank Schrader and Harold Goodrich.9

Spurr, Schrader and Goodrich left Washington D.C. in late May 1896. They disembarked a coastal excursion steamer at Juneau where they met P. T. Wiborg "Pete" who was on his third trip into the interior, Pete's associate Cooper, also a sourdough, and an experienced English explorer Danlon. With guidance from the experienced men, Spurr procured the last items for a possible two season expedition into interior Alaska. The informal partners then crammed on a coastal tug bound for Dyea at the head of Lynn Canal. In June 1896, Dyea consisted of one building, possibly a hundred whites, and the rather squalid tent village of Indian packers who were available for hire. (A year later it had thousands of would be miners bound for the Klondike over Chilkoot Pass.) Skeptical at first, and after some bargaining on rates, Spurr watched as Indian men picked up loads of up to 160 pounds, while their squaws and older sons managed 100. He was impressed as one boy of less than 100 pounds bodyweight balanced 100 pounds of freight and took off up the steep trail. Over the pass, and with the experienced help from Pete and Cooper and the acquisition of sturdy river boat, the men shot rapids downstream from Lindeman Lake and eventually and safely landed at Forty Mile where their geologic work commenced. Noting the extreme abundance and ferocity of Yukon mosquitoes, Spurr's party took the pioneering trek in stride.10

At Forty Mile, the geologists split up so they could visit each of the seven Forty Mile tributaries — Miller, Glacier, Poker, Davis, Chicken, Franklin, and Napoleon that comprised the district. Based on this work, Spurr made the first geologic map of the district. In his government account, Spurr recorded the shape of the creeks, the composition and depth of the pay gravels, and the source and occurrence of the gold. When the Forty Mile work was completed, the young geologists again split up in order to timely visit each of the productive creeks in the Mission Creek (Eagle) and Birch Creek (Circle) districts.

Spurr followed the same outline in his popular account of the Yukon Gold Fields, but focused on the miners themselves. He recorded that each camp had distinguishing characteristics. Spurr noted that the miners on the Forty Mile were friendly and scholarly. They were interested in current affairs and science; they read and were familiar with Shakespeare. One man turned out to be a nearly contemporaneous Harvard grad. In contrast at Hog'em Creek, later Deadwood Creek, in the Birch Creek District, Spurr thought the miners were surly and if educated failed to show it.12

Spurr also documented a rather strange custom of the Circle camp--the squaw dance whereby miners spoke not a word to their equally taciturn partners. The only sounds were of the miner's boots and the screech of the fiddle. At the end of the affair, the Indian ladies picked up their infants and left, again without a word. Spurr also told of an event that he thought stretched coincidence. As they were approaching McQuestin's store, Spurr heard his name called. His mail had arrived at the same instant in time as his arrival. Mail had traveled an entirely different route.13

In the fashion of the time among USGS geologists Spurr also studied and wrote scientifically on the hard rock geology, rocks and structure, as well as the regional coal geology and the resources of nearby districts, as the Koyukuk. In one paragraph he announced the Klondike discovery which occurred while they were in Alaska's Yukon Province. As a first he defined a three-hundred mile gold belt. Between them Spurr, Goodrich and Schrader produced the monograph "Geology of the Yukon Gold District, Alaska" some 392 pages long, published in the Eighteenth Annual Report of the USGS. Goodrich brought the prospecting history of the district up to date to 1897, while Spurr described its "geologic column" of layered rocks, its igneous rocks and ore deposits. Although placer gold deposits were by far dominant, Spurr described known quartz vein and other hard rock deposits, which he believed sourced the placers. He recognized and described high level placers, the product of ancient streams, and methods of placer mining. Looking ahead to Spurr's interest in so-called ore-magmas a quarter century later, it seems clear his interests were already focused in that direction as he searched for transitions between igneous pegmatite and hydrothermal gold-quartz veins of the Yukon gold fields.14

spurr group

From Left to Right, Frank C. Schrader, J. Edward Spurr, and Harold B. Goodrich, in San Francisco, California, 1896
Photo Credit: U.S. Geological Survey Portrait Photo #3321

Originally conceived as a two season project, Spurr's party completed all field work on the Yukon Gold Fields in a four month period. Back in Washington, D.C. by October 1896, Spurr and his assistants compiled the text of their monograph and readied it for 1898 publication. The pressure was off in 1897, because Congress failed to fund Alaska field work. Spurr took advantage of the field work hiatus in two somewhat overlapping ways. He became engaged to Sophie Burchard, whom he had met in Washington D.C. He also determined to study in Europe, at that time almost a necessity if one was to advance in the USGS. Sophie was the daughter of an aristocratic German soldier of fortune who had come to America to fight in the Civil War. She was nine years younger than Spurr, and father Wilhelm Burchard thought his daughter too young for marriage. He proposed an interim strategy whereby Sophie should return to the family home in Germany for a year or so before marriage would be considered. Spurr initially studied in Berlin fairly near Sophie, but he did not appreciate the Teutonic style of his major professor and soon left. Spurr's friend Alfred Brooks was at the Sorbonne in Paris studying optical mineralogy under LaCroix, where Spurr joined him. A few months later Spurr and Sophie returned to America, their engagement still unresolved. Spurr found more certainty with his employment. In his absence, the Congress had appropriated $25,000 for Alaskan surveys, and there was $5000 available from prior appropriations, enough in those pre-inflationary times for several projects. The Director of the USGS, Charles Walcott, asked Spurr to plan reconnaissance surveys of five areas: First, the Susitna Basin north of Cook Inlet; and second, the adjacent upper Susitna and, across the Alaska Range divide, the part of southwest Alaska drained by the Kuskokwim River. The third was a suspected copper-rich area in Prince William Sound and the Copper River drainage: and the fourth, the White and Tanana basins in the Yukon province, and lastly, a broad area north from Resurrection Bay to the Tanana Basin. Spurr's former assistant, Frank Schrader, chose the Prince William Sound region and Alfred Brooks the survey of the White River-Tanana basins. Spurr, who could had have had any of the five areas, chose the Alaska Range and southwest Alaska Kuskokwim drainage basin, the most remote and least known.15

Americans were familiar with the Cook Inlet region as far upstream to about Susitna Station where the Yentna and Susitna joined, but increasingly uncertain as the divide into the Kuskokwim was approached. The lower Kuskokwim was like-wise well known, and the Russians had made some forays into the upper Kuskokwim drainage, going upstream as far as Kolmakof Redoubt. The intervening country between the upper Skwentna and Kolmakof was inhabited by Indians but wilderness to the Americans. It contains some of the most daunting terrane in Alaska, and it is highly mineralized. (The first significant discoveries were made in the late 1960s, seventy years after Spurr's) survey. Many peaks are still unnamed.

Spurr and his Seattle-equipped crew left Seattle on 5 April 1898 on the U.S. navy ship Wheeling. They landed at Tyonek in Cook Inlet, Alaska, on 26 April where Spurr's professional crew consisted of Oscar Rohn, a geology graduate of the University of Wisconsin, T. S. Hinckley, a naturalist, and William Schuyler Post, topographer. Three men, A. E. Harrell, George Hartman, and John Madison were hired as camp hands and general laborers. Madison, a trapper married to a local native, was hired in Tyonek to give a semblance of local knowledge to the trek. For transport, they brought three yellow cedar canoes made in Canada. (It was almost a certainty that, until the party reached the divide into the Kuskokwim, they would carry the canoes more than vise-versa.)16

The party left Tyonek in early May, but could not begin their upstream traverse until May 20th when the ice went out on the Susitna. At Susitna Station they left the Susitna for the Yentna, then after only a few more miles left the Yentna for the Skwentna. Finding a good divide into the Kuskokwim was easier said than done. Spurr faced an incipient mutiny in late June when the party was still on the Cook Inlet side. After Spurr used all his powers of persuasion, a newly reenergized crew followed as Spurr led off on July 2nd. They celebrated with Plum Pudding on the Fourth of July.17

They crossed into the Kuskokwim at the headwaters of a low pass on Portage Creek, in some of the most spectacular terrain of the Ala:ska Range which Spurr later described:

A wonderful panorama of mountain and lowland stretched before me for as many miles into the distance . . . . In the afternoon it cleared and showed us fully, for the first time, the peaks and the glaciers towering far above us, magnificent precipitous mountains, set with many spires and columns. I had never seen such beautiful mountains . . . gray awe-inspiring like Gothic cathedrals, which they singularly suggest in tone, color and spirit, but a thousand times more vast and elaborate with glaciers for roofs."18
Spurr as the first explorer of the region had the privilege of naming many features as the Styx for a turbulent river and 'Terra Cotta' for a colorful range of mountains. He memorialized his crew, for whom he named the Post, Rohn, and Hartman Rivers.19

Spurr and crew were finally into civilization when they reached Bethel and were fed their first complete meal in months by the Kilbucks, Moravian Missionaries. But rather than crossing back into familiar territory of the lower Yukon at the gentle divide between the Yukon and Kuskokwim, as at the Paimute crossing, Spurr, Rohn, Hinckley, and Post choose a less known easterly route back towards Cook Inlet, while their camp hands crossed into the Yukon route which seemed an easier and quicker way home. Spurr and his professionals arrived in Juneau on the little steam-sailer Dora on November 7, 1898, then traveled uneventfully to Washington D.C.. Spurr's Kuskokwim report was published as a 233-page monograph in the Twentieth Annual Report of the USGS in 1900.20

To complete a piece of non-technical unfinished business, Josiah Edward Spurr married Sophie Burchard on January 18th, 1899, in Washington, D.C. Alfred Hulse Brooks was best man. The marriage was eminently successful. It resulted in five sons all of whom reflected the brilliance of their father.21

With the conclusion of the Kuskokwim project, Spurr's direct involvement with Alaska ceased. He could have had Alfred Hulse Brook's Alaska assignment but chose not to. He retained an interest in Alaska and used examples from Alaska in his seminal work on Ore-Magmas. In 1900, through his government affiliation and at the request of USGS Director Charles Walcott, Spurr acted as a mineral advisor to the Sultan of Turkey, Abdul Hamid. The special assignment carried a significant raise in pay and travel expenses for his family which had been enlarged by one with the birth of John Constantine on July 5th, 1901 in Turkey. The autocratic sultan really did not wish to lose his advisor, but the Spurrs quietly slipped away. Over the next few years Spurr completed geologic studies in Nevada, Washington, and Colorado, published by the Survey, and a constant stream of scientific papers published in scientific journals. He left the USGS in August, 1905.22

Spurr was immediately hired by Guggenheim dominated American Smelting and Refining (ASARCO)who sent him to solve problems at their Esperanza silver mine in Mexico. From 1908-1912, Spurr and Rowland Cox operated a highly successful mining consulting business. During those years, Spurr was recognized as one of the highest paid, mining consultants in the world, ranking close to John Hays Hammond. Cox and Spurr split and during WWI, Spurr first served on the War Minerals Investigations Committee; then to solve the post WW mineral glut partly caused by the success of the Investigations Committee itself, the War Minerals Relief Board. In 1919, Spurr was asked to edit the Engineering & Mining Journal, a position that he held until 1927. During his tenure, Spurr greatly improved the stature of the Journal. In 1920, Spurr suggested that a society was needed to scientifically document the origin and controls of mineral deposits. Spurr's suggestion was immediately acted on as the Society of Economic Geologists (SEG) was formed the same year. Spurr served as the President of the organization in 1923. (Twenty years earlier, Spurr suggested a scientific journal for the same purpose. The journal, Economic Geology, came into existence within a few months of Spurr's suggestion. Spurr served as the first President of the Economic Geology Publishing Company.)23

The 1920s also were marked by Spurr's most intensive work on Ore-Magmas. Spurr believed that many metallic ore deposits were derived from late-stage silicate "melts" rather than aqueous solutions carrying metals as water soluble complex ions. It is clear that Spurr was inclined to his magmatic beliefs as early as in his 1896 work in Alaska, and he cites an Alaska gold-belt in his 1923 Ore-Magma work. Spurr believed that various gold or copper or silver belts owed their origin to ancient, deeply seated metallic regions. In Spurr's world view of Ore-Magmas he proposed that the earth had three zones:

"first, a superficial zone or crust of consolidated rocks; second, a deeper magma zone, and third, a still deeper zone which . . . is a storehouse of certain metals. The lowest zone is a stabile zone . . . The intermediate or magma zone is stable neither as to form nor as to position . . . it is restless . . . This fluid layer in the sandwich is, therefore, the great stabilizer, performs the observed physical and chemical adjustments, is the agent which ultimately renews the continents after the attacks of erosion, erects the mountains, supplies the igneous intrusions and forms the ore deposits."24
Perhaps this quotation makes Spurr sound more like a middle-earth Tolkien than a geologist. But if we grant to Spurr the later unification of plate tectonic theory with subduction zones and vast eruptions caused by plates moving across hot spots, Spurr's views may not be too farfetched. In his day, many geologists believed that his beliefs in ore-magmas were wrongheaded, yet he carried many mining men and geologists with him. He retained a reputation for significant practical work on ore deposits, solving fault displacement and apex problems. Spurr was doubtless one of the premier Economic Geologists of his day. His pioneering Alaska work makes him a must member of the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame.

His observational work on Earth's moon was important, and in his recognition, the naming of the volcano Mt. Spurr was well deserved. His faithful and sometimes outspoken wife perhaps deserves the last word. About a year after Spurr's death, and during an eruption of Mt. Spurr, a reporter asked Sophie if she thought that Josiah was attempting contact. Mrs. Spurr replied, "Well, I knew that Edward had passed on to another world, but until today I didn't know which one."25

Written by Charles Caldwell Hawley, October 2013, with sincere appreciation to Stephen Spurr.



1 Spurr, Stephen), Kuskokwim, 17.

2 Ibid, 9.

3 Ibid, 16.

4 Ibid, 21-22

5 Ibid, 28.

6 Ibid, 29-31.

7 USGS Publication records in Publications of the Geological Survey, 1879-1961, 3rd Printing 1972. Washington : US GPO 1973.

8 Ibid: Becker, G. F. "A Reconnaissance of the gold fields of southern Alaska." in Eighteenth Annual Report of the Geological Survey. Pt III, chapter a, 1-86, 1898.

Spurr, J. E. "Geology of the Yukon Gold District, Alaska." In Eighteenth Annual Report of the Geological Survey, Pt III, chapter b, 87-392, 1898.

Also, Sherwood, Explorations, on Becker and Spurr's expeditions, 171-172.

9 Alaska Mining Hall of Fame biographical articles for Harper, Mayo, McQuestin, Franklin, Mynook. Internet, also, Webb, Yukon frontier, 58-75.

10 On entry into Alaska, Juneau, Dyea, Sourdoughs Wiberg and Cooper, Englishman Danlon — J Spurr, Gold Diggings, 18-24. On Indian packers, Spurr, Kuskokwim, 44-46. On route through the Yukon, J Spurr, Gold Diggings, 65-108, including mosquitos.

11 J Spurr, Yukon Gold District, Forty Mile District, 317-336; Mission Creek District, 337-341; Birch Creek (later Circle) District,341-352; Mynook (later Rampart) District, 342-358.

12 J Spurr, Gold Diggings, 176-178, also 116-118, and 132-133.

13 Ibid, 162-163; Naddy, editor, Unknown Country.

14 Ibid, 298-300

15 On Spurr's engagement to Sophie Burchard; Spurr - Brooks in Europe, Spurr, Kuskokwim, 56-59.

16 Ibid, on planning Kuskokwim expedition, 63-65, expedition and personnel 1-7, 67

17 Ibid

18 Ibid. Quote on scenery 71

19 Ibid, on naming of features, 65 and fn 112, 74

20 Ibid, 77-78

21 Ibid, Appendices IV to IX

22 Ibid, work post USGS 95-102

23 Ibid, Service in WWI, SEG

24 The Ore-Magmas especially, Chapter X, V2, Concerning Metallographic Provinces, quotes 448-449 on outer earth, 447-448 on Alaska gold-belt.

25 Quote from Mrs. Spurr in Skinner, "Founders," 1 to 4.

Alaskan Publications of Josiah Edward Spurr

1896 Gold Resources of the Yukon region of Alaska (Abstract): Science, v. 4 p. 801

1898 "Geology of the Yukon Gold District." Eighteenth Annual Report of the US Geological Survey, Pt. III, chapter b, 87-392.

1899 G. H. In Eldridge and others: Maps and descriptions of routes of explorations in Alaska in 1898. USGS Annual Report.

1900 "Scapolite rocks from Alaska. American Journal of Science. 4th ser.,v. 10, 310.315.

A Reconnaissance in southwestern Alaska in 1898. USGS Annual Report 20th, Pt VII, 31-264.

Through the Yukon Gold Diggings: A narrative of Personal Travel. Boston: Eastern Publishing Co.

The Exploration of the Kuskokwim River and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Boston. Privately Printed.

1924 (Necrology) "Alfred Hulse Brooks." Eng. & Min. Journal. V.118, 891

1975 "Into an Unknown country: The recollections and journals of an Alaska expedition 1898." Ray Naddy, ed. in Alaska. 7 parts — May-November 1975.

Sherwood, Morgan B., 1992, Exploration of Alaska, 1865-1900. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.

Additional Bibliography

Berton, Pierre, 1969. The Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush. New York: Knopf.

Brooks, A. H., 1973 "American Exploration of Alaska," in Blazing Alaska's Trails. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press. Especially 264-295. 2nd edition.

Dall, W.H., 1970, Alaska and its Resources. Reprint edition of the 1870 work originally published in Boston by Lee and Shepard. New York: Arno Press.

Skinner, Brian J. "The Founders of Economic Geology" in SEG Newsletter. No. 63, October 2005.

Spurr, Stephen J., 2010, In Search of the Kuskokwim: The Life and Times of J. Edward Spurr. Kenwood, WA: Epicenter Press.

Webb, Melody, 1985, Yukon: The Last Frontier. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

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