Herman (Tofte) Tofty

(1873 - 1922)

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photo of Herman Tofty

Herman Tofty, undated
Photo Credit: John Graham III

Herman Tofty belongs to the tradition of Alaska miners of Scandinavian heritage; i.e, The Olsons, Lucky Swedes (Brynteson, Lindeberg, and Lindblom), the Strandbergs, and Big Lars Ostnes. These families left their impoverished homelands in Europe for a new, hopefully richer, life in the United States. Their northern heritage prepared them for life in Alaska. Whereas some southern Europeans such as Croatians, Greeks, and Italians successfully adapted to the new climate, the Scandinavians were already acclimated.

Herman Tofty spent the first years of his life on a Norwegian farm that had been in the Tofte family at least since 1597. He was born in 1873 to Andrew (Anders) and Anne, nee Haarstad, Tofte as the fifth of seven children and the next to youngest son. The nearest community to the family farm was Kristiansund, near the mouth of a fjord, an ocean-invaded valley which must have seen many Viking flotilla embark and return in earlier centuries. Sometime after 1877 but before 1880, the Tofte family immigrated to the United States, and was registered in Faribault, Minnesota in the 1880 census. Like many Scandinavians immigrants of the period, they were lured to America by the promise of fertile, almost free lands, offered by railroad companies. Within a few years, the family moved west to Fuller Township, Codington County, South Dakota where they were among the first homesteaders. The Tofte family suffered a severe loss in 1886 when mother, Anne, died at age fifty-one. Of Herman's siblings only his oldest sister, Mary, was out of the teen years. His youngest brother Magnus was probably only nine years old. A few years later the family began to disperse.

Herman appear to have been in most adventuresome of the family. His next oldest brother Olaf (Ole) left home for the lead-silver mines of Idaho. Herman sought more distant but perhaps more immediate riches when he left for the newly discovered Klondike diggings in 1898. Herman is registered at both Lake Bennett and Chilkoot Pass checkpoints in late spring of 1898. He and four companions, Jason Walsh, J. C. Hallady, Joe Warleburn and W. Terry, registered with skow 1135 on Lake Bennett, apparently with sufficient supplies to satisfy the Canadian entry requirements of the Mounted Police. Ground near the discovery points in the Yukon Territory was already heavily staked, so Tofty headed down river to Alaska. On October 11, 1898 he recorded the No. 3 Surrey Gulch and Pup Off of No. 2 Below on a tributary to Gunnison Creek, Rampart District, Alaska Territory. In the spring of 1899, Tofty recorded No. 21 Below Eureka Creek in the Hot Springs District, the the district where he later had his greatest success.

Tofty had no mining background before he joined the rush to the Klondike in 1898, but he must have been a quick learner, also an organizer as it was reported tat in the fall of 1900 "Tufty and men are working on the upper end of No. 24, Little Minook, Junior Creek." Tofty apparently was the leader of a group of men that included Hart Smith, and Foley, Austin and Goss, of unknown first names.

Based on articles in the Alaska Forum and Rampart Miner, Tofty mined mainly in the Rampart District from 1900 to 1905 where he was also a notable part of its social and civic life. Records of 1902 show that Tofty and pioneer miners Carlo, Walbridge, and Foley brought down a load of lumber by barge from Eagle to construct a new jail and courthouse at Rampart. Tofty found rich ground on Glenn Creek where some pans ran as high as $3. In 1904, Tofty assigned his Glenn Creek lease to a man named Sinclair.

The first major discovery of the Hot Springs district, which for a while was called the Sullivan District, was made in 1906 by M. J. Sullivan. His discovery and another by C. P. Snyder and George Kemper on January 12 1907 near the mouth of Tofty Gulch caused a flurry of activity in the district. Tofty may have been associated with Sullivan in these discoveries, as a newspaper article, Hot Springs Echo and Tanana Citizen reported that "Messrs Tofty and Sullivan are in from their new diggings. Without being overconfident, [sic] they say they think well of it and intend to thoroughly prospect the new creek." In prospecting, Tofty produced 376 ounces of placer gold in six weeks on Tofty Creek. The new district was blanketed by twelve association claims each of 160 acres located between July and October in 1907. Tofty was a principal in all twelve associations. M. J. Sullivan was a principal in seven.

The commercial center of the district was the village of Tofty where the Hot Springs-Tanana winter mail-trail intersected Sullivan Creek. The village boasted three roadhouses and a Post Office which was active from 1908 until 1943.

In general, pay in the Hot Springs district is deeply covered by tens of feet of the frozen deposits that the miners called muck. The paystreak in Sullivan Creek often was seventy feet deep, leaving no option at that time other than shafting and winter drift mining of deep pay. The pay in Tofty Gulch was much shallower, buried by less than ten feet of frozen soil matted with vegetation and tree roots. The developers of the gulch, possibly including Herman himself, stripped the frozen soil and developed the creek as an open cut. To prepare the frozen muck, it was blasted with dynamite after sinking drill holes in the permafrost with steam points to place the explosive charges. Steam-driven scrapers that delivered the pay gravel to elevated sluices for recovery of the gold. Miners in the district were were developing new techniques. The use of steam points was only a few years old and it may well be the first use of dynamite in overburden removal in Alaska. Tofty definitely used steam points in his operations as the Hot Springs Echo and Tanana Citizen of July 27, 1907 reported that he had ordered a boiler from Fairbanks.

In September 1908, Tofty left briefly for the family home in South Dakota, his first time outside in eleven years. His father was about eighty-two years old and would live only three more years. Before he returned to Alaska, Herman toured the southern states from Florida to Texas and had an enjoyable time. A reporter noted, however, that "he is glad to be back where he is free of city ordinances and suspenders . . ."

Although Tofty, often "Tufty" to his friends, returned to Alaska, he was now a well-to-do man and evidently tired at last of northern climes. He disposed of his claim interests in 1908 and left Alaska in the summer of 1909 almost certainly a prosperous miner. Herman visited South Dakota, and then moved briefly to Boise, Idaho where his brother Ole was a hard-rock miner. But Tofty determined to go further south. His Passport (No. 34560) was to be forwarded to him in La Paz, Bolivia where he presumably mined and prospected for several years. In 1917, Tofty left Bolivia and moved to British Guiana, initially working for Demerara Bauxite Company on the upper Demerara River. At this point, he also tired of the bachelor's life and married Caroline Menezes, a lady of Portuguese descent, in Georgetown on July 28, 1917. Four children, Alma, Herman, and twins Kenneth and Lloyd, followed quickly between 1917 and 1921.

Although life as a bauxite miner was probably more stable, it may have not satisfied the financial needs of his new family. The streams of British Guiana carried both gold and diamonds. Herman, thoroughly familiar with alluvial mining, returned to alluvial prospecting in search for a last stake. He died in the jungle, either of tropical disease or - by family tradition - at the hands of hostile natives, on March 4, 1922, leaving very little to his wife and young children. His tangible legacy included 64 small diamonds totaling just under 2 carats valued, then, at $100. Caroline immigrated to New York but died in poverty in 1926. One of the twins died; Alma and her two brothers entered the New York Foundling Home as indigent children.

Herman's Alaska legacy is in the central Yukon country near Rampart and Manley Hot Springs, where he was a valued member of the civic and mining community. The nearly deserted settlement of Tofty remains; geological his heritage is recorded in the Tofty Tin Belt, an intriguing belt of placer gold-tin deposits that extends for several mines in the Hot Springs district, nearly through the village of Tofty. As Tofty's grandson (son of Alma), John S. Graham III, has written (1997), "No ordinary man, Herman Tofty left an indelible mark on the history of North and South America - a mark that endures 124 years after his birth and 75 years after his death." Graham's appellation that his grandfather was "a quintessential miner" seems apt.

Written by John S. Graham III


Graham III, J.S., "Odyssey of a Miner: From Cheechako to Sourdough to Porkknocker, the Life and Times of Herman Tofty," Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush Centennial. International Symposium on Mining, September 9-14, 1998, Fairbanks, AK.

L'Ecuyer, Rosalie, 1995, "The Rampart, Manley Hot Springs, and Fort Gibbon Mining Districts of Alaska." U.S. Dept. of Interior, Bureau of Land Management Special Report.

U.S. Geological Survey, 1909, Mineral Resources in Alaska. Report of Progress in Investigations, 1908, Bulletin 259

U.S. Geological Survey, 1910, Mineral Resources in Alaska. Report of Progress in Investigations, 1909, Bulletin 442

U.S. Geological Survey, 1911, Mineral Resources in Alaska. Report of Progress in Investigations, 1909, Bulletin 480

Wayland, Russell G., 1961, Tofty Tin Belt, Manley Hot Springs District, Alaska. U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1058-1

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