The discovery of gold at Jacksina Creek in 1899 was an exciting find for prospector K.J. Fjeld, but it proved too remote to develop successfully. Other prospectors were persistent though, and in 1925 Carl Whitham found a rich lode on White Mountain. That find, and his subsequent development of the mine, led to the construction of Nabesna Road. At its height, between 40 and 70 men were employed at the mine. It also provided trading opportunities for area residents, who would sell food and wood to the miners.
Wilson Justin, who grew up in Nabesna not far from the mine, tells a little-known aspect of its history. Most stories give a hungry bear the credit for unearthing the Nabesna gold while digging to find a marmot. The main vein of gold was referenced as “Bear Vein.” According to Wilson, his father, “Nabesna John,” had found gold on White Mountain and had been mining it personally since the early 1900s. It provided enough in trade to take care of his family. But then lots of other prospectors started coming around.
In 1925, Nabesna John and prospector Carl Whitham made a deal. Nabesna John would show Carl where he’d found the gold – way up on a White Mountain ridge. In return, Carl would ensure that the Justin family had jobs to make a living and were treated well as long as he owned the mine.
The deal couldn’t be inked. As an Alaska Native, Nabesna John didn’t have the right to enter into a contract. However, Carl kept his end of the verbal agreement, recounted Wilson Justin. Miners even provided the lumber and labor to help bury Justin’s grandmother (and mother to subsistence rights activist Katie John) when she died at her Lost Creek cabin in 1938.
Nabesna Mine ended up being a very lucrative prospect for Whitham. Even though it only operated for about ten years in total, it recovered more than $1.8 million in gold. It might have operated longer, but Whitham died in 1947 and the mine was permanently closed. Today Nabesna Mine is privately owned. The National Park Service recommends the park visitors steer clear of it, as mine tailings extend onto park lands and contain high levels of acidic metals. Nearby surface waters contain contaminants such as arsenic, mercury, nickel and lead.
Is there still gold to be found at Nabesna? Maybe, says Wilson. But with recovery costs high, it’s unlikely that operations could start up again, especially considering the environmental concerns related to the existing tailings. For now, it’s a part of Alaska’s mining history, a short-lived venture that is the sole reason Nabesna Road exists today.