Denali, photo Lynn Lovegreen

History of Denali and Kantishna

My last Gold Rush novel, Gold Nuggets, will be released on July 3rd, four weeks from today! To whet your whistle, here’s an encore of a blog post that I wrote shortly after my research trip for that book.

Denali was the name of the tallest mountain in North America long before it was part of the United States. It is an Athabascan Indian name, usually translated as “The High One.” Most Alaskans I know call it Denali, McKinley, or The Mountain, as in “Did you see The Mountain?”  It was named Mt. McKinley in 1896 by prospector W. A. Dickey who named it for the future president and leader of the gold standard. The current name of the park is Denali National Park and Preserve.

I went to Denali to research the history of Kantishna, the setting of my current work in progress. It started as the Kantishna Mining District. When the Wickersham expedition went through the area on their way to climb Denali in 1903, they noticed it might be a good place to prospect for gold.  The gold strike and boom years for Kantishna were 1905-6, but mining continued for many years afterward.  Kantishna is in the northwest corner of the current park, which expanded in size in 1980.

At the time of my novel in 1916, a handful of hardy miners lived in the area. For example, Joe and Fannie Quigley had several claims in Kantishna, and Fannie was famous for being a consummate Alaskan woman. She could hunt, butcher, and cook any animal, and trapped for furs in the winter. She had a huge garden that provided vegetables and rhubarb, collected berries and preserved them all to provide food throughout the winter. She was also quite good at embroidery. You get the idea she could do anything she put her mind to. Joe was a self-educated geologist and one of the best miners in the area. He was a tough long-distance hiker and dog musher as well. Together they made quite a team. And other miners also had colorful personalities and accomplishments. It would have been marvelous to live in Kantishna back then. Charles Sheldon, Belmore Browne, and others have written about their experiences passing through the area, and many of the stories are shared in Tom Walker’s excellent book Kantishna: Mushers, Miners, and Mountaineers. A great book about Fannie is Searching for Fannie Quigley by Jane Haigh.

While mining was fading in the area, market hunters to the east were killing large numbers of Dall sheep and caribou in order to feed the crews building the Alaska Railroad. Charles Sheldon, Belmore Browne and other conservationists wanted to create a game preserve before these animals would be wiped out as the buffalo had been in the Lower 48 states. This was one of the major incentives for creating the national park. Together with James Wickersham, who was now the Alaska delegate to Congress, they supported a bill that would leave the Kantishna Mining District outside the park boundaries and allow the miners to susistence hunt as needed to survive. After much debate and negotiation, it was passed and Mt. McKinley National Park was created in 1917.

Thanks to the following who helped me with research connected to the trip: Jenna and Simon Hamm and staff at Camp Denali; Mary at Kantishna Roadhouse; Kantishna residents Mike & Carol Conlin; Marianne Jakob at Deneki Lakes B & B; Jane Bryant, Kirk Dietz, and Kim Arthur from NPS.

I love to share my passion for Alaska and its history in my writing for young adults and their grown ups.


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