HATCHER PASS — In its heyday, Independence Mine in Hatcher Pass was a beehive of activity. Two hundred and four men worked the gold mine in 1941, and 22 families, including eight school-aged children, lived in the isolated community 3,500 feet up in the Talkeetna Mountains about 45 miles north of Anchorage.
It closed for good in the early 1950s. The mine was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, and the land was transferred to the state of Alaska in 1980.
Since then, the buildings have been weathering hazards both natural and human-caused.
“Nearly every single door has been kicked in at least once, and staff has gone and fixed them as best they could,” Alaska State Parks Superintendent Stuart Leidner said during a tour of the mine site Monday.
Now, thanks to a $1.3 million grant from the Helmsley Charitable Trust, four buildings are being targeted for rejuvenation and preservation.
The grant, which is being administered by the nonprofit Mat-Su Trails & Parks Foundation, will be used to not only restore damaged buildings, but also make them more resistant to vandalism.
“We’re looking at using laminated glass for storm windows,” Leidner said. “That helps us reduce our maintenance as well because then we’re not having to put up and down plywood every single season.” He’s also looking at replacing the original wooden doors with metal ones.
Robert Lee Hatcher discovered and staked the first lode gold claim in the Willow Creek Valley in 1906. In the 1930s, two mines merged to form the Independence Mine we see today.
The mine continued to produce gold until 1943, when it was deemed nonessential to the World War II effort and ordered to shut down. It reopened for a few years after the war, but closed for good in 1951.
Today, Hatcher Pass is perhaps better known as one of Southcentral Alaska’s premier outdoor playgrounds, popular with hikers and berry pickers in the summer, and skiers in the winter. Cross-country ski trails, maintained by the Mat-Su Ski Club, wind through the buildings at the old mine site.
On Monday, Leidner pointed out broken windows, unstable foundations and water-damaged walls. More than once, vandals have broken into buildings and sprayed fire extinguishers, filling the space with fine dust that requires the use of hazmat suits to clean up.
Since taking over ownership of the site, the state has done some preservation work, including jacking up the foundation on one of the bunkhouses in 1981 and painting some buildings about a decade ago, in addition to regular yearly maintenance.
“But after that, budgets for state parks obviously got smaller,” said Leidner, who oversees the park and 23 others in an area stretching from Denali State Park to the Copper River Basin. “To give you an idea, we have, just in my region, about a $16 million deferred maintenance backlog. And so, this is part of it, but that’s everything from our normal operating buildings to, you know, this.”
Any change made to the original building needs to follow historic preservation guidelines, which is why the state Office of History & Archaeology has to sign off on all the plans ahead of time.
“We’re working with the state park and the foundation, reviewing the compliance portion of this to make sure that all of the work here is within the Secretary of Interior standards for the preservation of historic buildings,” said Amy Hellmich, with OHA.
“We’re just really trying to make sure that the buildings are solid, so that they last for a long time,” Hellmich said, “but also keeping it in line with the design of the building so that it retains its historic integrity.”
“This park, due to its location and notoriety, people come from in and out of state to visit here, to see Alaska history up close and personal,” Hellmich said.
But she worries about maintaining the historic integrity of the buildings and site.
“It’s one of those balancing acts, where you want your history to be appreciated, but you don’t want so many people that they trod over everything.”