Kudos to Girdwood! The rustic little ski town near Crow Creek south of Anchorage was named in the top 25 of the World’s Best Ski Towns by National Geographic! Like many of Alaska’s towns, Girdwood can trace its roots to the gold rush era more than 100 years ago.
As news of Alaska gold spread through America in the mid-1890s, hundreds of people flooded Seattle docks seeking transportation northward. Among the 100 passengers who packed onto the Cook Inlet-bound steamship Utopia was a man whose name would become synonymous with an Alaska ski resort.
James E. Girdwood traveled to Kachemak Bay in early May 1896, where he hopped aboard the small steamer L.J. Perry, run by “Cap” Austin E. Lathrop. Girdwood made his way through the ice-filled Cook Inlet to settle for a short time around Sunrise City and Hope.
Girdwood, the son of a Dublin linen merchant, studied the region and eventually staked placer ground on Crow Creek, across Turnagain Arm from Sunrise. He built his cabin at Glacier City, a small distribution settlement on a trading and transportation route over the Chugach Range. He then rolled up his sleeves and dove into prospecting for gold.
The linen salesman was used to hard work. After arriving in New York City in 1882 with only $400 in his pocket, the then 20-year-old managed to control more than half of the Irish linen market in the United States within 14 years. Girdwood came north with the money from the sale of his business and put it into his mining venture on Crow Creek.
By 1900, Girdwood had staked four claims called the Annex, Omega, Alpha and Little Gussie. His Crow Creek Alaska Hydraulic Gold Mining Co. was operating some of the largest hydraulic plants in the Turnagain Arm region by June 1904.
The mining claims paid off in subsequent years, yielding bullion income exceeding $106,000 a year. And Girdwood proved so popular with his fellow miners that they gave him the honorary title of “colonel” and renamed Glacier City after him.
With his gold-mining operation doing well, he shifted his attention to another metallic element found in abundance in Alaska.
Girdwood staked copper claims on Latouche Island. On Jan. 4, 1907, he formed the Latouche Copper Mining Co. in New York and became a close friend of Daniel and Isaac Guggenheim. He sold his copper claims to the Ladysmith Corp. in 1921, which later sold them to Kennecott Copper Co.
Girdwood’s gold mining company operated high in the Crow Creek Valley for many years. It built several cabins, had a five-ton derrick and brought in a large giant to undertake the mammoth task of removing boulders from the streambeds. About 50,000 yards of gravel were removed in 1905 in order to get those flakes and nuggets known as placer gold.
Eventually the operation became too demanding, and the practice of dumping tailings into the creek started raising legal problems. A court injunction finally closed the operation.
A short-lived effort to raise money to revive the mine in the mid-1920s failed, and Girdwood returned to the East Coast. He died in 1928 at his home in New Jersey.