Editor’s note: This is Part Two of a multipart story concerning the Manitoba cabin at about Milepost 50 of the Seward Highway. Last week, Part One explored the contentiousness between the U.S. Forest Service and the owners of the cabin and its nearby mining claims. This week examines the earliest mining history related to the cabin and its likely progression of ownership. Next week, Part Three will discuss the debate over the historic value of the cabin. (Correction: Last week, there was an error in one date. Willard Dunham’s parents began making payments toward the purchase of the cabin in 1942, not in 1940 as previously stated.)
By Clark Fair
The Manitoba cabin was already well entrenched in family history by the time Willard and Beverly Dunham — away from the presence of their disapproving parents — got married in Fairbanks in 1951.
While Beverly was in college in Oregon, she received a wire from Willard in Fairbanks to tell her that he had just won $2,000 playing craps, and he wanted her to head north and get hitched. She quit school and flew to Fairbanks to say her vows.
“Our families,” said Beverly, “were not pleased at all.”
Fortunately, Willard’s parents — mother, Violet Lenore (Dunham) Robbins, and stepfather, Delbert Robbins — were
not so unhappy with Willard that they were willing to disown him. When the Robbinses, who had purchased the Manitoba cabin in 1942 from Jack and Marie Shield, decided after statehood to leave Alaska, they deeded the cabin and adjoining property in 1961 over to Willard and Beverly for a dollar.
The Dunhams said they kept the property in the family for another decade before they, like Willard’s parents, tired of the U.S. Forest Service’s efforts to destroy the place, which they considered an important link to the area’s mining history.
The validity of that “link” has long been a source of controversy, however.
The mining history of the area begins with a confluence of gold-bearing creeks and what came to be known as the Cook Inlet Gold Rush. East of the rocky promontory upon which sits the Manitoba cabin, Juneau and Mills creeks unite to travel westward into Fresno Creek to form Canyon Creek, which then tumbles through a jagged gorge before descending northward toward Sixmile Creek near the Hope Road. All of these creeks began receiving heavy mining pressure starting in about 1895.
According to Mary Barry in her book, “A Mining History of the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska,” Mills Creek was named for Sanford J. Mills, who acted as recorder for the Sunrise District and had planned to locate gold claims on the stream named for him. After he changed his mind and abandoned his claim in July 1895, opportunities arose for mining partners Robert Michaelson and John Renner, who came to Mills Creek and found coarse gold.
In August 1895, Michaelson and Renner formed a partnership with three other miners, claimed all of Mills Creek mineral rights from its confluence with Juneau Creek to its confluence with Fresno Creek, and called their enterprise the Polly Mining Company, after Renner’s wife.
Born Parascovia Kalashnikoff in 1866, according to Kaylene Johnson in her book, “Trails Across Time,” “Polly” was the daughter of a Russian father and an Athabascan mother. In the late 1880s, she married Phenice Shell and in 1890 gave birth to a son they named Lewis. Polly became a widow shortly thereafter when Phenice was killed in an accident. Then, in the same year that Renner and Michaelson discovered gold on Mills Creek, Renner discovered and married Polly.
Polly simply refused to be a cabin-bound wife. Instead, she picked up a shovel and worked side by side with her husband. At the same time, however, she displayed a keen fashion sense and used her prodigious skills as a seamstress to create her own elegant clothing. And she could easily afford such fineries because the Polly Mining Company struck it rich. The partners pulled $40,000 in gold (more than $1 million by today’s standards) out of their claims in just the first year.
Soon, Michaelson and Renner bought out their partners, and their mining fortunes continued. According to U.S. Geological Survey reports filed in 1905 and 1906 by geologist Fred Howard Moffitt, the most important gold-bearing gravels of Mills Creek were in a narrow canyon three-quarters of a mile above its confluence with Canyon Creek, but there was also plenty of gold to be found, he said, “on top of a blue clay” near the mouth of Juneau Creek.
Handwriting on two of the oldest known photographs of the Manitoba cabin refers to a “Blue Gulch Cabin,” and Mary Barry mentions the name Blue Gulch when discussing Mills Creek mining. However, it is likely that the Manitoba cabin and the “Blue Gulch cabin” are not the same structure. The Blue Gulch cabin almost certainly belonged to Michaelson. The Manitoba cabin almost certainly did not.
The photographs themselves — one taken in summer, one in winter, both from the same vantage point, purportedly
in 1943 — account for much of the confusion. Prominent in the foreground is the Manitoba cabin, but clearly visible in the background is the Michaelson cabin, according to Willard Dunham.
Back around the turn of the century, Renner and a miner named Louis Lauritsen constructed homes near the Fresno Creek confluence, south of Mills Creek, while Michaelson built himself a place to the north of Mills Creek, probably on or near the high rocky promontory.
The revised edition of Mary Barry’s history book features a 1910 map of area mining cabins and mine locations.
The only structure shown immediately north of Mills Creek is called the Michaelson cabin. The only structures shown immediately south of Michaelson’s place are called the Renner and Lauritsen cabins.
When Willard Dunham’s parents bought the Manitoba cabin, another structure nearby was called “the Michaelson cabin,” Willard said. Almost certainly all the early structures there — including outbuildings and outhouses, a miner’s dormitory and at least one ore-testing shed, a blacksmith shop and a meat house — belonged to Michaelson himself or to the Polly Mining Company in general.
But it is also possible that one or more of the buildings in existence at that time belonged to Jack and Marie Shield. Willard Dunham said that Shield used material from an older structure on the property to join together two other buildings and create what became known as the Manitoba cabin. Willard said that he remembers being told that one of the buildings involved had been an old miners’ dormitory.
In 1933, the Shields, along with a man named Judge H. Mellon, obtained the Sweepstake Mining Claim via a deed from miner and Seward hotel proprietor Oscar Dahl. According to a 2007 Forest Service document, Dahl’s claim was located “on Canyon Creek just above Mills Creek” and lay “south of Robert Michaelson’s Blue Gulch ditch.”
This description could be somewhat confusing, unless the ditch location refers to Michaelson’s cabin site instead of
the Blue Gulch clays. Most of Dahl’s hydraulic mining efforts occurred on Canyon Creek, just north of the Mills-Fresno confluence. In fact, the large gravel pit along the Seward Highway and north of the Manitoba cabin is mostly the rearranged rocks and soil from the powerful blasts of water that Dahl used to scour the creek banks for gold. Also, the phrase “just above Mills Creek” could refer to elevation, not a location upstream, since the cabin site lay high above the confluence.
The Forest Service document also refers to an interview with Moose Pass resident Ed Estes — a cousin of Willard Dunham — who claimed that the Manitoba cabin was built in the late 1930s by a man named Ray Thurston. A future bill of sale, says the report, places the construction year as 1936. A 1938 Forest Service report mentions that Jack Shield was mining on his claim at this time.
The following year, according to the annual territorial filing report, Shield had been joined on the claim by Delbert
Robbins, the stepfather of Willard Dunham. Then, on May 8, 1942, a conditional bill of sale called for the transfer of the Manitoba cabin to the Robbinses once the full price of $500 had been paid to the Shields.
Delbert and Lenore Robbins put down $100 and agreed to pay the rest in increments of $50 a month, plus 7 percent interest. Later that same year, Gentry Schuster, owner and operator of a recently completed Glacier Ski Lodge on Mount Manitoba, created a map of the area and included the “Manitoba cabin” at its current location.
In 1943, when the final payment had been made on the cabin, Jack and Marie Shield filed a quit claim deed that transferred the property to the Robbinses.
The Robbinses continued mining on the property through 1949, according to the Forest Service.
Their mining activity beyond that is unclear, but by the time they deeded the property over to the Dunhams in 1961, the phrase “Sweepstake Claim” had disappeared from the records.
And the apparent absence of continual mining activity associated with the property seemed to have opened the door to the eventual federal takeover of the cabin.