Coal Mining in Alaska: Coal Fields of the Alaska Engineering Commission

Mining has been a vital part of Alaska’s economy for hundreds of years. Often when we think of mining in Alaska, we think of gold mining and the gold rush of the late 1800s. In addition to gold, however, Alaska’s mining industry also produces zinc, lead, copper, silver, and coal, as well as, construction materials such as sand, gravel, and rock.

An English trader named Captain Nathaniel Portlock first found coal at Coal Cove (presently Port Graham) on the Kenai Peninsula in 1786. The first commercial coal mine in Alaska was opened in 1855 by the Russian-American Company in the same location. However, it was closed in 1867 when the United States assumed possession of Alaska.

Following possession by the United States, small coal operations began sprouting up along the Alaska coast. In 1882, the Alaska Coal Company was formed to work at Unga Island. This was the first significant coal mining operation undertaken by Americans on the Alaskan Peninsula. The majority of the coal mined at the time was used by steamships, railroads, and canneries.

In 1914 the Alaska Engineering Commission was created by President Woodrow Wilson as part of the Alaska Railroad Act to locate, construct, and operate a railway system in Alaska. The railroad was to pass through the Matanuska, Little Susitna, Broad Pass, and Nenana coal fields. In 1915, the Alaska Engineering Commission became part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Alaska Engineering Commission was later renamed The Alaska Railroad.

Over the next few years, the Alaska Engineering Commission purchased several coal fields and subsequently expanded the railroad. The coal fields supplied the railroad with coal until the railroad switched to diesel power.

The Cartographic Branch of the National Archives holds drawings and maps of some of the coal fields owned and operated by the Alaska Engineering Commission. The collection includes maps and drawings of the coal fields at Chickaloon, Bering River, and Eska Creek. The records show topography, and the progress of work on surveys, mine facilities, tunnels, and railroads. Included are cross sections of coal beds and a plan of coal storage cleaning plant. The collection has been digitized and the records are available to view/download from the National Archives Catalog.

Below are some maps and drawings from the collection:

Record Group 126: Records of the Office of Territories, 1881-1976. NAID: 59728269. Leasing Units and Government Reservations Showing Public Land Surveys and Possible Transportation Lines in the Bering River Coal Field Copper River Meridian.
Record Group 126: Records of the Office of Territories, 1881-1976. NAID: 60006457. Chickaloon Coal Mines Leasing Unit 12 Progress Plat.
Record Group 126: Records of the Office of Territories, 1881-1976. NAID: 60089626. Eska Creek Coal Mines Leasing Unit Number 7 Progress Plat Maitland Bed.

For further reading:

Alaska’s Coal History


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