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Independence Mine Ski Resort

Mid 1960's to Late 1970's

Name of Ski Area: Independence Mine Ski Resort, Independence Mine Ski Facility, Hatcher Pass
Location: Palmer, at the Independence Mine near Hatcher Pass.  This general area is now called the Hatcher Pass State Historical Park.
Type of Area: Ski Hill
Dates of Operation: Mid 1960's to Late 1970's
Who Built It?: This ski area had three owners over time: 1st: Julius Moore, 2nd: the Wattum/Hanks family (Ben and Muriel Wattum, Marne and Lew Hanks) and then 3rd: Mark Mucha
Base/Vertical Drop:

Base: ~3580' / Vertical: 500'

Lifts: Rope tows, T-bar
Facilities: Bunkhouse, food, bar, ski rental, ski patrol
History: Independence Mine was an active gold mine up until Word War II.  After WWII the price of gold was not high enough to justify reopening the mine, so the mine buildings stood vacant.  Skiers started using the abandoned buildings as bases for skiing and climbing the surrounding ridges.

This area became popular amongst skiers and once the road was improved skiers could take a long bus ride (3 hours) from Anchorage to the mine.  In the 1960s rope tows and a T bar were running at this ski area.  And a miners bunkhouse was setup to offer skiers lodging and meals.  During the 1960's the US Army Biathlon team was also based here as snow conditions were often better here than at their training facility on the Arctic Valley Road.

The 1970s saw the mine's Manager's House (now the state park visitor center) converted to a bar and lodge for skiers and snowmobilers.

This ski area was closed due to a number of reasons: The cost of keeping the road plowed from the Hatcher Pass Lodge up to the mine (the State of Alaska only plowed to the Hatcher Pass Lodge).  New state ski lift safety regulations that were cost prohibitive.  And the TransAlaska pipeline economic boom which spurred growth of more recreational opportunities in South-Central Alaska. 

In the 1980's the price of gold recovered enough to justify reopening the mine.  But the mining resumed on the opposite side of the ridge, and for state tax reasons the mining buildings and area around them was given to the State of Alaska for what is now the current Hatcher Pass State Historical Park.

Miscellaneous: At one time the ski tow incorporated waist straps that were connected to a tow rope holder.  This was to make the ride up less hard on the hands.  But this arrangement seems to be remembered in infamy.  Several folks we have talked to said the tow was "scary".  And Mike Besh has a childhood memory 'frozen' into his mind about this tow.  He remembers skiing at Hatcher Pass on a bitter 10 to 20 below zero day.  Near the top he was frantically struggling to get the tow hook off the rope.  The metal hook finally popped off the rope, flipped up and hit him in the mouth ... where the cold metal hook instantly froze to his tongue !!

The Dave and Eloise Spencer Family (kids: Paige, John, Bill and Lynn) would stay in the bunkhouse for ski trips to Independence Mine.  Paige said the upper two stories had rooms.  The bottom floor had bathrooms and a cafeteria.  And that the place smelled of what it was heated by - coal.

Curt Christiansen recalls that some days of skiing at Independence Mine would end with a downhill tuck of the Hatcher Pass road - from the mine all the way down to the Little Susitna Roadhouse (now the Motherlode Lodge)! 

Sources of Information:

Elizabeth Tower's "Skiing In Alaska", Mike Besh, Rodney Crews, Curt Christiansen, Anne Sudkamp, Paige Spencer, Pat Murphy, Fred Trimble, Russell Dow photo archives, Daryl Haggstrom, Kate Wattum, Barbara McIlrath, Sandy Spitzer, Franz Froelicher, Sam Anderson, Tony Jaramillo; Randy Sauder; Alan and Sharon Baldwin; Chuck Sandvik

~  PHOTOS  ~
 

Carol Christiansen Photos (1970's)
 
Thanks to Curt Christiansen for sending these early 1970's photos that his father Carol took during the years the Christiansen family skied at Independence Mine.  Carol Christiansen was on the ski patrol for the Independence Mine ski area.  His son Curt provided the captions for these great pictures.

The ski area.

From the parking lot near the bunkhouse.  You can see that we basically only skied the one side of the rope.  You would have had to walk up and around the top of the tow rope shack to ski the right side.  Notice in later pictures that area is well skied once the poma lift went in.

Shows both the rope tow and the poma lift.

Taken from part way up the hill, building on left is the Managers House, bunkhouse on the right, return rope tow in the foreground.

I enlarged this portion of one of my photos. You can see the silver metal portion of the “waist grabber” [or "rope tow gripper"].  When you got on the rope tow you opened one half of the metal handle and “clamped” the curved portion onto the rope.  The effect was to allow you to relax your arms and save you arm and hand muscles from fatigue.  When you neared the top you had to unclamp the device and then tuck it into the belt (the metal part was attached by string/rope to the belt).

 
Skiing at Independence Mine was great FAMILY fun. Lift lines were short!

We had races with trophies awarded by age class.  If you look closely to the left of these kids and above them you’ll see the slalom poles stuck in the snow.  Also in the upper right hand corner below the steep rocky area you can see the upper poles of the poma lift that was installed in the last few years of operation.

 

Thanks to Fred Trimble for sending these pictures, taken December 9, 2004, of the old First Aid Shack at Independence Mine.  Behind the shack you can see the old miners' bunkhouse that was later used as a skiers' bunkhouse.

First Aid Shack with bunkhouse in background First Aid Shack Before this building was a First Aid Shack, it was Independence Mine's dynamite storage building.

[Photo credit: Russell Dow/ UAA Archives]

Fred Trimble found an 1939 account of backcountry skiing on the Independence Mine area slopes now called "Microdot".  The skiing story excerpt of the transcript of Joeseph A. Sertich's 1983 oral recording "Reminiscences of Independence Mine 1937 - 1940" can be read by clicking on the image to the left, or here.  (note file size = 2.2 MB)

 

Fred Trimble sent in this scan of a 1960's Independence Mine embroidered ski patch. Mark Moderow sent ALSAP a scan of his Matanuska Ski Club patch ... a collectable from the days he used to ski at Independence Mine.  Daryl Haggstrom sent ALSAP these scans of a circa 1970 Independence Mine Resort lift ticket and season pass.

The pictures below can be seen in the Hatcher Pass Lodge (as of 2008).  The picture on the left is a 1960s shot of the ski slope and rope tow at Independence Mine.  Little is know about the 1966 Hatcher Pass Corp sign on the right below.

 

Randy Sauder Photos - 1966-67

Dorm building in 1967.  Skiers and rope tow are in the background.  Randy's 5 year old sister, Janice Sauder Miller, is in the foreground.

Top of the rope tow, summer 1966.

 

Alan and Sharon Baldwin Photos - 1965-66

Anchorage school teacher Sharon Baldwin (far left) with students and friends at Independence Mine (circa 1965-66).

[Randy Sauder 27 February 2013 email excerpt] The man on the left [is] Dave Escobar.  The man on the right is Zeke Nichols who at the time was a GI friend stationed at Fort Richardson in Anchorage.  Our group came up here to Independence Mine both ski and ride the WWII surplus sleds you see on the car roof top.

 

Sam Anderson Pictures From 1964

Road to Ind. Mine, Scott (8) and Sammy (6) Anderson

Sheila Anderson (15), takes her first run at Ind. Mine Ski Area Base of rope tow "Apres ski" lodge Skiers' bunkhouse Parking, Sam's VW Microbus

 

Chuck Sandvik Pictures from 1962-63

[Randy Sauder 25 February 2013 email excerpt]  Photo was provided by my boyhood friend Chuck Sandvik (second from right in red jacket).  Chuck's parents and grandparents were some of the first settlers in the Matanuska Valley in Palmer.  They owned half of the famous Butte that everyone in area likes to climb in summers.  This photo dates to about 1962-63 up at Independence Mine.  Chuck kindly consented to have the photo posted on your site.  This was just a group of our Palmer friends out for a group snow shoe trek.

[Randy Sauder 04 March 2013 email excerpt]  [This] Photo with the adult and three children snowshoeing was taken up at Independence Mine area.  Those shown are Palmer area residents (L-R) Glen Gingery, a Palmer teacher and minister, Patti Sullivan Schultz, Ronda Sandvik and Shela Churches.   Ronda's grandparents were part of the much publicized 1935 Franklin D. Roosevelt New Deal settlers.   Her brother Chuck Sandvik kindly provided the photo for your site. (circa: 1962-63)

 

 

From Kate Wattum, of the Wattum/Hanks family that once ran the Independence Mine Ski Area, a harrowing Christmas Eve account of sliding off the treacherous road to the mine in 1971 ...
Mostly I remember the car trip to and from the mine every weekend. We would leave Friday evenings, the truck loaded with supplies, sheets, liquor etc. The road was windy and rough. My father was the one to do the snow plowing so we were the first car through if there was new snow - which there almost always was (it seemed).

There were two parts I dreaded. One was the "Big Hill". It was a long steep section of the road that was very exposed and sloped down the mountain. Cars would wait at the bottom as the lead car would take a run at it. If the car made it around the corner at the top, the next car would start up the hill. I always thought we were going to slide off.

The second part was the very windy road between "Little Susitna Lodge" and "The Big Hill". I was always scared of being hit by an avalanche.

On one Christmas Eve, I was probably eight (in 1971), it was a warm spell. There was ice and slush all over the road. On the last windy corner after the "Big Hill" (the first point that you can see "Independence Mine") the brakes froze up on the Van and we rolled over the edge. We rolled about two times before we stopped at the bottom in a small creek. After my father let go of me (he was driving and had grabbed me off the middle of the van engine area - we used this as a seat) he told me to kick out the front window with my feet. Everyone then followed me out. The back half of the van was pretty flattened as it landed on a big rock, but we were all okay.

We were walking up the road toward the lodge when my grandparents, who were following about an hour behind us, picked us up. They were Marne and Lew Hanks and were co-owners in the Resort with my parents.

Kate Wattum [14 Dec 2005 email]

 

Jack Edward McIlrath Pictures (circa 1940-1942)

Jack Edward McIlrath spent time in the military in Alaska during 1940 to 1942.  These pictures of his show that the Independence Mine area was used for skiing during the 1940's - for ski lessons in this case.

[Photo credits:  Jack Edward McIlrach / Barbara McIlrath]

Getting to Independence Mine could be a challenge! The road was very primitive in comparison to today's road. Jack is on the left, the woman on the right has an Anchorage Ski Club patch on her sweater.

Jack's photo notes for these two bottom pictures were: "Ski Lessons From Olympians".

 

1st Lieutenant Edith A. Spitzer, Army Nurse Corps (1943)
Photos courtesy of Sanferd "Sandy" Spitzer
Here Edith Spitzer skis at Independence Mine, and "Boomtown" can be seen in the background. At Independence Mine married miners were not allowed to live with their family in the bunkhouse.  So the mining company let married miners build houses for their familyin the "Boomtown" area of this mining claim.

[Photo credit: Stoll/UAA Archives]


 

 

After World War II, when skiing at Hatcher Pass became popular and even before lifts were built, you could take a 3 hour bus ride from Anchorage to ski here.  You would stay overnight and then take the long bus ride back home.

(click on pictures to the right to expand them)

[Photo Credits:  right: Anchorage Museum of History and Art, far right: Anchorage Museum of History and Art]

Skiers would drive up the Hatcher Pass Road to get to Independence Mine.  This road goes through a canyon carved by the Little Susitna River that used to have this neat rock horn at a curve in the road.  To the dismay of many people, this unique landmark was dynamited and removed in the late 20th century to widen, and eventually pave, this road.  [See J. S. Parry email below concerning the name of this rock.]

(click on this image to expand it)

[Photo credit: Alaska Museum of History and Art]

AMHA_FishhookRoad_1940s_horn.jpg (33899 bytes)

Elizabeth Tower, in her book "Skiing in Alaska", has an interesting section on the history of skiing at Hatcher Pass.  In her book she credits Russell Dow, a former Dartmouth College ski racer, for the birth of skiing at Hatcher Pass.  In the late 1930's Russ was working as a tractor driver at the Independence Mine.  He had a girlfriend named Dusty that ran the town laundry in Palmer.  So to visit her he would ski from Hatcher Pass down to Palmer.  Fellow miners saw all the fun he was having, and realized there were way more single women in Palmer than (none) at the mine.  Soon many of the miners became skiers and were accompanying Russ on his ski treks to Palmer.  Elizabeth Tower also states that miners would occasionally ski down from the mine pulling sleds with their wives in them - so they could deliver babies at the Palmer Hospital.

To the right is a picture from 1940 of Dusty and Russell Dow at the City Ski Bowl Jump in Anchorage. 

[Photo Credit:  Russell W. Dow collection, UAA Consortium Library Archives]

Dow_CitySkiBowl_1940_Dusty-Russ805.jpg (172778 bytes)

 

Russell Dow took this picture in 1939 at Independence Mine.  Featured is the tractor, or 'cat', that he drove for the mine.  These diesel tracked vehicles would pull supplies up on large sleds to the mine from lower on the Hatcher Pass road, like from the Fishhook Inn.

What is also interesting about this picture are the ski tracks in the background.  These are likely Russell's tracks.  So - this is the earliest know photographic record of skiing at Independence Mine.

[Photo Credit:  Russell W. Dow collection, UAA Consortium Library Archives]

~  MAPS  ~

This large scale topo shows where Independence Mine is located in relation to Palmer and Wasilla.

(click on this map to expand it)

topo_palmer.jpg (148881 bytes)

A zoomed in topo view shows the area around the Independence Mine State Historical Park.  The location of the area served by the ski tows is shown by the red ellipse, extending from the main mine building complex up to the Gold Cord Mine.

(click on this map to expand it)

topo_zoom_indep.jpg (155148 bytes)

Research Correspondence 

[Rodney Crew - November 14, 2004 email excerpt] 

 

Independence Mine: Had a rope tow and  a poma-lift (I remember because I dreaded them); the day-lodge was the main bldg. there that's closed to public now -- had 1 40-watt bulb for the whole joint, but was warm.

 

[Curt Christiansen - November 16, 2004 email excerpt] 

 

My family and I grew up skiing at Independence Mine.  My parents were on the ski-patrol so we went often.  I’m guessing from about ’67 to ’72 or ’73. My recollections are vague as I was 6 when we started skiing and I think it was open until I was 12 which would have been 1973.  I do remember that sometimes when the day was over our parents would let us ski down the road all the way to the Little-Su Roadhouse (now the Motherlode Lodge).  That was basically a downhill speed run in a full tuck as fast as you dared go. 
 

[Daryl Haggstrom - October 25, 2005 email] 


It is amazing what kinds of stuff one squirrels away [see Daryl's lift ticket scans above].  I skied Hatcher Pass once in about 1970.  Later I worked at Independence Mine State Historical Park when the mine manager's house and the related mine buildings were upgraded and stabilized.  The house is now the IMSHP Visitor Center.  In 1970 it was the ski lodge for the ski resort.  One of the dorms was used for the ski rental and repair shop.  I remember wet, heavy snow and that two people broke their legs that day.

[Randy Wagner - 26 December 2005 email excerpt] 
 

I Skied Cleary Summit on the uphill side of the highway in the 50's (rope tow).  Skied Ullerhaven too.
And in 1970-71 operated Independence Mine with Ron Jaeger, Leif Kopperud, and Charlie Wansor (RIP). 
 
Leif has a story to tell...Yes, we had a bar, homestyle dinners, and turned the bunkhouse into a "condo".  The US Army biathlon team trained there also.  The sauna was built over a creek for a cold plunge.

They [rope tow grippers] were used at Cleary Summit, Skiland, Independence Mine (and repaired in the infamous "Boiler Room at Independence Mine"), and just about everywhere there was a rope tow.  They were simple and SAFE tools that made riding a long rope tow much easier.

[J. S. Parry - 01 January 2006 email excerpt] 

The name given the old erratic which used to teeter over the Hatcher Pass Road, (approximately a half mile upstream from the bridge), was called "Bent Dick" previous to it's first blasting.  After that time, it was retagged "The Nub" and "Broken Dick" in various climbing and trekking books.  I believe Fred Beckey, (who mapped the Archangel, Lane, and Reed Valley climbing areas in Hatcher Pass), was the man responsible for renaming it "Broken Dick", which was what I grew up knowing it to be.  In fact, if you can find the old book "Hatcher Pass Climbs" that was written in the mid 70's, that's what it is uncontestedly called in plain print.
 
That was the rock I learned to rock climb on, and it is a shame that it no longer exists.  Please, don't let this pass through history without resolving the issue.  It had a name, and while not everyone was terribly excited about the name it received, that's the name many of us grandchildren of the early Mat Su pioneers affectionately remember it as.

[Elaine Morris Moxness - 28 November 2006 email excerpt] 

I attended Palmer Elementary School, my brother went to the high school as did my sister in law.  My 6th grade teacher was Charles "Chuck" Akers, who had been an Army Olympic biathlons skier.  My early ski coaches was Hans Metz and Chuck. 
 
We skied mostly at Independence (Julius Moore family owned) and occasionally at Arctic Valley near Ft Richardson.  Independence had only a rope tow; there was a school bus that you could take to go skiing - round trip was  cents.  We had to pack the left side of the hill/mountain where the rope tow was for the adults.  Usually plenty of powder so it was a workout.
 
Have many fond memories of spending new years at Independence.  The parents would stay in the executive lodge; us kids would stay in the main lodge with no heat. Boys on the third floor and girls on the second floor.  We used our arctic sleeping bags and slept on the old bunk beds still in place.    

[Franz Froelicher - 08 March 2008 email] 

Besides the information on Gunsight Mt. Ski Area which I sent you, I also have some interesting information you might like to have on Independence Mine Ski Area. I was a friend of Julius Moore and we used to talk about how to "develop" the ski area he had going there.

In the summer of 1963 I was instrumental in bringing a Mr. Fred VanDyne, VP of Loomis Sayles & Co. of Wall St. NYC, a friend of our family, to look over the area. He said that a client of his, Fred Pabst, of Pabst Beer Co. was developing ski areas in New England (Mad River Glen, MA/CN and some others) and wanted to know if Mr. VanDyne had any likely prospects. My father mentioned that I was living in Alaska and was active in skiing.

VanDyne arrived during the beautiful days of July of 1963 and I hooked him up with Julius. Julius organized a helicopter trip up to and around Independence Mine. I was able to tag along for that glorious tour. We stopped at the mine buildings, looked them over, got back on the helicopter, blazed up the pass and just cleared the top of Bald Mt. Ridge at 80 miles an hour at surely no more than a few feet. As the chopper cleared the ridge the Susitna Valley exploded into view. I still remember VanDyne's intake of breath! (well... mine too!) After stopping at an A-Frame Chalet that I (Chalet Craft) had just sold to a family in road-less Knik, we stopped for dynamite dinner at the Wassilla Lake Lodge. Needless to say VanDyne was impressed and he pitched the idea to Fred Pabst. Fred was very interested and a firm plan was made to come up and take a good look in April 1964, but the earthquake changed all that as it did so much in Southcentral Alaska and nothing ever came of it.

When I returned in the summer of 2006 my good friend and fellow Alaska Methodist University student, Harvey Bowers of the Agate Inn in Wasilla introduced me to his brother-in-law Fred Trimble and we went up and toured the Gold Cord Mine. I remembered so much of the old days. It seemed very little had changed, or perhaps it had the time to revert back to the old. So much in Alaska seems to do that.

[Tony Jaramillo - 18 July 2009 email] 

FYI, during the 70's it was used by the US Army to train the Infantry on how to ski. I was stationed @ Ft. Richardson with the 172th Supply Bn. We supported the infantry, by setting up fuel support stations while they were there for 3-4 weeks learning how to ski. I had the pleasure of breaking my nose on mountain next to ski slope, right next to the entrance of the mine. As it was, the infantry practiced skiing while we just slept. We alternated shifts fueling the guys gas cans, on one occasion my buddy and I got an (akquio) pull behind a snow mobile. Anyway, we took it up on the mountain, I mention and rode it down the mountain. We learn that we could control the way it went with body english, lean one way and it would go the opposite direction. Both being from Texas we had no idea what we were doing. So after a while we were having a ball.... We were frozen stiff, so we went to warn up in our tent. At that time we asked our other buddy if he wanted to join us? He was chunky and we wanted the extra weight to see what would happen. We convinced him to join us and put him at the end of the sled, myself in the middle and the other guy in front. We were doing great until we went over this hump on the path, (covered tree stump). We shot, they say about sixty ft. in the air. The guy up front landed flush to his chest in the snow, I landed rolling in the snow, but the chunky guy landed head first with his feet sticky out of the snow. We both hurried to pull him out of the snow, we did, and as we turned around we had the whole Infantry Co. clapping and laughing at us. They were rolling on the snow from laughing so hard. Needless to say we got off, went to our tent and five minutes later a Captian walks into our tent, and we thought for sure he was going to chew us out for doing what we were doing. Boy were we wrong, his eyes were watery from the laugh he had at our expense, and he thanked us. We couldn't believe our ears, he said his Co. was so tried of training and the moral was bad. But when they saw us having a great time. They all stopped and observed us acting, really like kid. The Capt. then asked us to look outside the tent. The whole infantry company was out there skiing or trying anyway. He then handed us a bottle of whiskey, so we could stay warm. What a nice guy! Hence my blood in still on the mountain and the sled kept going down the mountain, so if you guys find it, please return it to Uncle Sam! Thanks! lol.........

Tony Jaramillo
SFC USA Ret.

[Tim Kelley - 04 November 2009 note] 

This picture of a Hatcher Pass Lodge, at Independence Mine, nordic skiing pin from the late 80's is not really related to the lost alpine ski are at Independence Mine.  But I figured I'd put it here as it is an old pin from a nearby skiing operation.

[Fred Trimble - 12 July 2010 email excerpt] 

If you go to Hap's place [Hatcher Pass Lodge] at Hatcher Pass any time soon, go in and buy a Wadem and Hanks era Independence Mine Ski Area patch from him. One of the Wandems (or Hanks) came up recently and gave Hap a large supply of brand new old stock embroidered patches that were made up in the 60s. Hap is now selling them for something like $7.00 each. This is a totally undiscovered stash.

 

 

Do you have further information, stories or pictures that you would like to contribute about this ski area?