The Discovery of Gold on Ester Creek
John Mihalcik (known as Jack) was a well known Ester miner in the early days. A lot of his workings were in Ready Bullion Creek, where he patented the "Seattle Bench" claim, which is still being mined. Local lore has it that Mihalcik was the first to find gold in Ester Creek. The 1907 Directory of the Tanana Valley doesn’t agree. It says "Ester creek was discovered Feb. 4, 1903 by L.A. Jones." But I’m getting ahead of myself: let’s hear the Mihalcik story first.
Mihalcik, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia born in 1866, had worked in coal mines before coming to Alaska in 1896. He was in the Rampart District in late 1902 when he joined the rush to the new Fairbanks District. His buddy George Dreibelbis may or may not have provided his grubstake, depending on the version of the story you hear. Dreibelbis was later the deputy marshal who caught the Blue Parka Bandit (if you haven’t read the book about the Blue Parka Bandit, you can find it at the library). One version of the story has it that Mihalcik was a deputy, too, at some point.
Anyway, Mihalcik struck gold on Ester Creek in November 1903 on just the second hole he’d dug to gravel (through 40 feet of frozen muck). He found more pay in his next three holes. He wanted to let Dreibelbis, back in Rampart, know about his find before word got out to others. But Mihalcik was illiterate, at least in English, and he couldn’t simply write him a letter.
So Mihalcik filled in his holes to hide the evidence until Dreibelbis got down to Fairbanks. It wasn’t until the following July (1904) that the public finally learned of his discovery. Or so the story goes, and I think much of it is probably true.
As best as I can tell, this account mostly comes from two sources: John Mihalcik’s great niece, Marion Mihalcik Waterman, and an early Ester miner named Gus Conradt. Both were in a position to know something about John Mihalcik—but also, maybe, to not get everything exactly right. Waterman has always lived Outside and was only six when her great uncle died.1 We know Conradt’s version only from an interview done 40 years after the event, which was briefly written up in a 1943 Yale University history dissertation.2 So, as I say, I believe most of the story but wonder if some of it might have gotten a wee bit dramatized or garbled in transmission. Like the part about him filling in the holes. If it were me, after all that digging, I’d be awfully tempted to just hide the holes.
And I don’t know about him being illiterate (he wasn’t in later years). He recorded his claims on Ester and other nearby creeks in Circle (there wasn’t a recorder’s office in Fairbanks yet). Along with his own he also recorded many claims for others (including George Dreibelbis), acting as their "attorney in fact."3 It appears a group went around together from creek to creek, staking claims. They then sent Mihalcik up to Circle to record the claims for the whole bunch. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t vote to send the illiterate guy to file the official paperwork. Unless, I suppose, everybody including Deputy Dreibelbis was illiterate.
But this brings up a whole different point. Mihalcik may have found the first gold on Ester Creek, but he certainly wasn’t the first to stake a claim there. A different group (also down from Rampart District) beat Mihalcik’s bunch by one day. They staked seven claims (3 Above to 3 Below) on Feb. 24, 1903. L.A. Jones staked the first, or "Discovery," claim.4
Mihalcik’s group might have been first to Ester if they hadn’t dawdled, staking claims on nearby Alder Creek (Feb. 20 and 21) and Cripple Creek (Feb. 23 and 24). They staked on Ester Creek Feb. 25 (Mihalcik on 5 Above) and on Eva Creek March 1. In all 15 claims—7 Above to 7 Below—were staked on Ester Creek between Feb. 24 and 28, 1903.
Note that this was nine months before Mihalcik was supposed to have found the first gold there. By November 1903 most of the creek bottoms in the area had been staked. What’s going on here? I have three questions.
My first: who says everybody in these groups was present to stake their claim? Maybe there were just a couple of guys, staking not only for themselves but for some of their buddies back in Rampart, too. This sort of thing went on back then, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t legal, at least at that time. Anybody out there know about the history of mining law? Write a letter to the Republic and help me out here.
My second question: Did anyone actually discover any gold on "Discovery" or any other claim in February 1903? Certainly I don’t believe seven friends all completed shafts and hit pay on Feb. 24. Did anyone even chip out some frozen surface "muck" that February, melt snow, and pan out a flake or two of color? I doubt it. The claims records show that people were staking willy nilly all over the Fairbanks District that winter. Why pan now—you could do that later—when you could be staking the next creek before somebody else got there?
I don’t think this was kosher either. You were supposed to have evidence of valuable minerals to stake a mineral claim. An appeals court overruled Judge Wickersham on this point a few years later in Lang v. Robinson, a case concerning some nearby claims on Cripple Creek. The appeals court said Wickersham was requiring too much evidence to make a claim valid. But the court agreed you needed something.5
Anyway, I’m willing to believe John Mihalcik was actually the first to dig a hole and discover gold on Ester Creek, and that he did it in November 1903. But if so, doesn’t this imply that, technically, his claim filed in February was invalid, as were those of the others who staked before gold was actually discovered in the vicinity? Whether the claim was valid, I’m pretty sure they all got rich. I know some of them (including Mihalcik) did. There was heaps of gold in Ester. Still is.
And, oh yes, my third question: Who’s L.A. Jones, the person who staked Discovery Claim? I haven’t been able to find out much about this person. For all I know, this could this be a woman. Now wouldn’t that make a story?
• • •
1. Waterman visited Ester in 1993 and she and her uncle Jack’s story were written up by Dermot Cole in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on July 2, 1993. She’s written and sent copies of photos, etc. to Erik Hansen and Jerry Hassel of Ester and to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Rasmuson Library Archives.
2. "The Penetration of an Alaskan Frontier: The Tanana Valley and Fairbanks," Cecil F. Robe, dissertation to Yale Graduate School, 1943 (copy in UAF’s Rasmuson Library).
3. Mihalcik recorded nine claims for himself and 20 claims for five others on 3/28/03, according to Locations Vol. T-1, pp. 402-414.
4. In mining jargon the first claim staked on a creek is "Discovery." #1 Above Discovery Claim (or simply "1 Above") is the next claim staked upstream along the creek, etc. Discovery Claim on Ester Creek is now Discovery Subdivision, where Scott Allen has his weather station. The post office is on 1 Below. Jones et al.’s seven claims are recorded in Locations Vol. 1, pp. 123-125 in the Fairbanks Recorder’s Office.
5. See "Reversed Decision by the Circuit Court of Appeals" in the Tanana Weekly Miner, 11/16/06, p. 4 cols. 2-4. Also see the editorial about the decision on p. 7 of that newspaper.