William Sulzer


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William Sulzer, undated
Photo Credit: Patricia Roppel Collection

A ghost town on the north end of Hetta Inlet on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska is named Sulzer. In its final years, the town was a cannery and fishing site. Earlier it had been the bustling headquarters for copper mines on Jumbo Mountain a few miles to the south. The abandoned village is named after William Sulzer, who formed the Alaska Industrial Company that developed the mines. William Sulzer is almost forgotten today, but in his day he had a national reputation and was well known in New York and Alaska. William Sulzer was born in New Jersey in 1863 to Thomas Sulzer, a German immigrant, and Lydia Jelleme Sulzer, of Dutch Scot-Irish heritage. Sulzer's father farmed and young William, "Bill", helped on the farm. While exploring the nearby fields and brooks, he collected and tried to classify rocks and minerals that he picked up in the neighborhood. Later he speculated that this early activity led to a lifetime interest in mines and geology. When William was twelve years old, he ran away from home and signed on as cabin boy on a sailing ship that rounded Cape Horn and visited trading ports along the west coast of South America. When Sulzer tired of adventure and returned home nearly a year later, he completed his public education. At the age of fourteen, Bill moved to the lower east side of Manhattan, the quintessential American melting pot. In the daytime, Bill worked as a clerk in a wholesale grocer; in the evenings, he continued his education with the free classes offered at Cooper Union.

In New York, young Sulzer caught the attention of John Reilly, a precinct leader for Tammany Hall. Reilly found that Bill Sulzer was a natural orator and soon Sulzer was known as Reilly's "boy spellbinder." Reilly urged Sulzer to study law, and in 1884, at twenty-one years of age, he passed the New York bar. Sulzer's elected political career began five years later when he was elected to the New York Assembly, the lower house of the New York legislature, where he rose rapidly serving within a few years as Majority Leader, then Speaker of the New York legislative body in 1893.

In 1893, William Sulzer made his first trip to Alaska, the first of more than thirty visits in his lifetime. In 1895, Sulzer was elected as a Representative to the U.S. Congress. Sulzer again visited Alaska in 1899, when he began his search for mining prospects. In southeast Alaska, he met Aaron Shellhouse, who had made some copper discoveries that interested Sulzer. In 1897, Shellhouse discovered a copper lode he named the Jumbo that was at least twenty-five feet wide and traceable for up to one thousand feet along the flank of Jumbo Mountain, in west-central Prince of Wales Island. The famed #4 Jumbo claim would produce more than half of the ore for the future mining operation. Sulzer acquired the Jumbo claims from Shellhouse and his partner, John Loomis Gould. To develop the mines, Sulzer formed the Alaska Industrial Company. His first attempt to develop the Jumbo copper mine was unsuccessful.

Map of Jumbo Basin; from Wright and Wright (1908)

In 1901, William Sulzer's youngest brother, Charles, a veteran of the Spanish-American war, dropped out of West Point to come to Alaska to explore and develop the mines of the Alaska Industrial Company. Although inexperienced, Charles August Sulzer had ability and engineering skills and soon proved to be a giffted manager for a technically difficult project. To develop the deposit, Charles Sulzer built a mining camp on the outcrop of the ore and a wharf and bunker complex on the shore. Mine and bunkers were connected by an 8,500 foot aerial tramway with drop of 1,500 feet from the mine camp to tide water on Hetta Inlet. Under Charles Sulzer's direction, the Jumbo copper mine monthly production increased from 1,000 tons to more than 2,500 tons of high grade ore. Although a small copper smelter had been constructed at nearby Copper Harbor, ores from the Jumbo were shipped to Tacoma, Washington for smelting. The Jumbo mine operated continuously from 1907 until 1918, and was the second largest producer of copper in southeast Alaska until it closed down, at least in part because of the crash in copper price at the close of World War I, and partly by the untimely death of William's brother and mine manager, Charles Sulzer in early 1919. The Jumbo mine also produced substantial amounts of byproduct silver and gold as well as copper. The Jumbo copper mine reopened briefly in 1923, but was closed for good later that year.

The early 20th century era was the heyday of the early mining boom in southeast Alaska. Sulzer's Jumbo mine produced slightly less total copper than the Mamie-Mt. Andrew mines on Kasaan Peninsula, but at a much higher grade - more than 4.0 percent copper, compared to a 2.5 percent copper grade for the Kasaan Peninsula mines.

Upper camp of the Jumbo Mine in 1913. Reprinted from Herreid and others (1978).

At the same time, William Sulzer did not neglect the politics of his favorite home away from home. His first Alaska cause in 1899 was the Alaska boundary issue. The boundary was not yet surveyed and after the discovery of gold in the Klondike it became a contentious problem. Sulzer believed that England wished to reopen the boundary issue to claim more gold-favorable ground for its Dominion, Canada. Sulzer chastised President William McKinley for not taking a harder line on the issue, and became a well-known figure by his forceful stand in favor of Alaska.

In the early 1900's, Sulzer became active in a more substantial Alaska issue: dhome rule. The issue, whether Alaska should have an elected delegate to Congress and legislature to be effectively self governing, or continue to be an ill-favored colony, was debated for more than a decade. Less forceful politicians would have settled for either delegate or legislature. Sulzer was one of a few early visionaries that fought for both delegate and territorial legislative representation. He often led the attack for home rule from his increasingly senior seat in the US House of Representatives.

Sulzer also took an active role in most of the other Alaska political issues of the day. He was concerned with the apparent depletion of fur seals and salmon, earlier believed to be of limitless supply, and found appropriations for trails and roads for the Territory of Alaska. In 1911, Sulzer obtained an appropriation for the Iditarod trail. Before Bill Sulzer left Congress in 1912, he introduced legislation authorizing a railroad from Seward to the Matanuska Coal Field, and thence to the Yukon River via the Susitna and Tanana valleys. This is essentially the route finally adopted for the Alaska Railroad. Sulzer also helped obtain federal funds for construction of a pioneer road from Beaver to Caro, the supply route for the Chandalar gold camp.

Sometimes it is difficult to see how Sulzer had time for his Manhattan district with all the time that he spent on Alaska, but William did, and he was a very effective and almost unbeatable congressman in a district that was the most cosmopolitan in the United States at that time.

About the time that Sulzer worked with Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota to pass the first successful Alaska delegate bill (May 1906), he became aware of another Alaska mineral opportunity, one in the Chandalar region in the eastern Brooks Range. Samuel Marsh, a geologist-prospector, took news of the rich strike back to the eastern United States where Congressman William Sulzer heard of it. Sulzer sent Marsh back to Chandalar in the winter of 07-08. Marsh was authorized to locate or buy claims for Sulzer. By 1911, Marsh had acquired several promising lode deposits for Sulzer, who subsequently bought the interests of Thomas Carter and Frank and Neva Yasuda, who had co-discovered the district in 1905.

With the discovery of gold in the Chisana region in the eastern Wrangell-Alaska Range in 1913, Sulzer also entered that region acquiring copper claims in the White and Snag River regions.

Sulzer's mining acquisitions in central and northern Alaska never gained the success of the earlier day Jumbo copper mine in the more accessible southeast Panhandle, but the Chandalar gold mines in particular were modestly successful. Today, nearly 100 years from its discovery, the Chandalar mining district is still regarded as incompletely assessed, with significant lode and placer gold potential. William Sulzer remained active in the Chandalar district from 1909 until his death in 1941.

William Sulzer never tired of promoting Alaska. Beginning in the early 1900s, he delivered a speech titled, "Alaska, the Wonderland of the World." It changed in detail over the years as new data became available but basically it was a statistics-packed promotional piece delivered by a skilled orator. Sulzer's congressional colleagues and cynical newsmen often tired of Sulzer's talk, referring to him as 'Seltzer or the Fountain of Debate'. Alaskans, who heard from Sulzer less frequently, seemed never to tire of his oratorical hyperbole. While representing New York as a U.S. Congressman, he, in many ways, also served as a de-facto representative of the diverse needs of the Alaska Territory. After leaving public office, Sulzer noted in a 1915 speech to the Pioneers of Alaska meeting in New York that that the copper production in 1915 was about eight times that of the preceding year. He also told the pioneers that: "The total value of Alaska's mineral production since 1880 is, in round figures, $306 million or more than 43 times the sum paid to Russia for the territory."

In 1912, William Sulzer left the relative political safety of a Congressional seat to run for governor of New York. Sulzer had long held gubernatorial ambitions kept in check by Charles F. Murphy, the boss of Tammany Hall. In 1912, however, the candidates for governor included a strong regular party Republican and Oscar Solomon Straus, running as a reform candidate affiliated with Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose party. To counter these strong contenders Murphy needed a candidate who could pull votes out of the lower East Side of Manhattan, votes which otherwise would go mainly to Straus. Sulzer had long been unbeatable in the district, outpolling both Republicans and 'Tammany' Democrats. Murphy, with some doubts on the reliability of Sulzer to follow the party line, allowed Sulzer to head the Democrat ticket and Sulzer was elected Governor of New York by a substantial margin.
Sulzer making a speech circa 1912

Politician William Sulzer on the stump in New York, circa 1912
Photo: Jacob Friedman Files

Sulzer's first few months in office were productive as the legislature moved a mildly reformist package of legislation that could be endorsed by both Sulzer and Murphy. Relations between Sulzer and Murphy and the legislature soon began to deteriorate. Sulzer-appointed committees identified deeply entrenched corruption in Tammany Hall, which Sulzer wanted to cure. Differences with the legislature were accentuated by a major battle over worker's compensation legislation. Sulzer vetoed a compromise bill which he considered to be too weak. Those issues were dwarfed by the direct primary. At that time, Murphy had almost unlimited control of minor political positions, which Sulzer proposed to fill by direct election. In effect Sulzer challenged Murphy for control of the Democratic party in New York, a battle that Murphy was not going to lose and one that led to Sulzer's impeachment.

Sulzer's impeachment was messy and, almost 100 years later, is still controversial. While his votes were never for sale, Sulzer freely used campaign funds for his personal needs and desires and thus was in a vulnerable position. Less than a year after his election, Sulzer was removed from office.

Within a week of his removal from office, Sulzer was returned to the legislature by his faithful Manhattan constituency, but after his term expired, Sulzer left the political arena forever to concentrate on his law practice and Alaska mining ventures.

In Alaska, William Sulzer held political influence for a few more years through his brother Charles. Charles was later elected to the first Alaska Territorial Senate and subsequently was later elected as Alaska's Delegate to US Congress. In the Alaska Territorial Legislature, Charles Sulzer introduced and saw enacted Alaska's first legislation on worker's compensation, something then urgently needed in Alaska's dangerous resource-based industries. William assisted his brother's draft workers compensation legislation.

Charles Sulzer's career as Alaska delegate to Congress was cut short by an early death in 1919 at age 40. It was a severe blow to William, as Charles had been not only a political ally but also the competent mine operator of the Alaska Industrial Company. The close brothers' divergent skills had complimented each other for nearly 20 years.

William Sulzer kept in the public eye in Alaska throughout the 1920s and 30s. He continually boosted Alaska and occasionally had enough influence to provide needed infrastructure for his Alaska mines and other projects. His earnings as a New York attorney were sufficient for a comfortable living, but not enough to build the mining empire that had been his initial aim.

When William Sulzer died in November 1941, the New York Times noted that he had long been absent from the public view, but the newspaper speculated, "if Sulzer had been duly docile to Charles F. Murphy . . . the loss [contributions] would probably have never been noted, and he might have lived and died in public honor." He was remembered with favor in Alaska. As noted in the Alaska Fishing News of Nov. 26, 1941,

" Sulzer was a man of vision and always active in the interests of Alaska. He made war on long-distance bureau control of Alaska and declared statehood as the remedy. There is a warm spot in the hearts of all old time Alaskans for Bill Sulzer."

By Charles C. Hawley, with contributions by T.K. Bundtzen


Alaska Fishing News. Obituary notes on William Sulzer, November 26, 1941.

Friedman, Jacob Alexis, 1939, The Impeachment of Governor William Sulzer: New York: Columbia University Press.

Galie, Peter J., 1996, Ordered Liberty: A Constitutional History of New York: New York: Fordham University Press.

Herreid, Gordon, Bundtzen, T.K., and Turner, D.L., 1978 Geology and Geochemistry of the Craig A-2 Quadrangle and Vicinity, Prince of Wales Island, Southeastern Alaska: Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys Geologic Report 48, 50 pages, includes mine maps of Jumbo copper mine.

Kennedy, George C., 1953, Geology and Mineral Deposits of Jumbo Basin, Southeastern Alaska: US Geological Survey Professional Paper 251, 42 pages.

New York Times, Obituary notes and articles on William Sulzer, November 7, 1941

Maddren, A. G., 1912, The Koyukuk-Chandalar Gold Region: US Geological Survey Bulletin 442-G, 114 pages

Marsh, Samuel J., Report on property purchased, located or otherwise acquired from July 23, 1908 to August 15, 1909 in the Chandalar Mining District, Alaska, 30 pages.

Marsh, Samuel J., Letter to Wm. Sulzer on Venus, Jupiter, Woodchuck, Bonanza, Eneveloe, and Last Chance Claims, 1911, 2 pages

Mertie, Jr., J. B., 1925, Geology and Gold Placers of the Chandalar District: US Geological Survey Bulletin 773-E, p. 215-267

Roppel, Patricia, 1973, Sulzer, The Alaska Journal v.3, no. 1, pages 41-49

Strandberg, Odin, 1990, Little Squaw Gold Mining Company: Description of Properties in the Chandalar District. Private Mining Engineers Report. 143 pages.

Wright, F.E., and Wright, C.W., 1908, The Ketchikan and WrangellDistricts, Alaska: US Geological Survey Bulletin 347, 210 pages

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