I like a mystery—especially one I can solve.
Solving mysteries is what I try to do when researching local history and then writing about what I learn.
The mystery of Shackleford Creek had me baffled for quite some time. I still don’t have all the answers, but sometimes the past is reluctant to give up its ghosts. Sometimes, in fact, it doesn’t give them up at all.
For many years, I have been using the Shackleford Creek drainage as an access point for climbing on Cecil Rhode Mountain in Cooper Landing. Often, while crossing this creek I found myself wondering who “Shackleford” was and why a creek had been named for this person. Then one day, while examining Dr. David H. Sleem’s 1910 map of the Kenai Mining District, I noticed a dot next to an unnamed stream—which I knew from its location must be Shackleford Creek — and written next to that dot was “Shackleford cabin.”
So someone named Shackleford had a cabin as well as a creek. And this person had been in the Cooper Landing area before 1910 and had a cabin known well enough to have been included on a mining map.
I pored over local history reference materials — not realizing, in the process, that I was missing important clues — and found what seemed at first to be a dead end.
Under “People” in the index concerning mining prior to 1905, in Mary J. Barry’s “A History of Mining on the Kenai Peninsula, “Alaska, I found a Fred Shackleford—the only Shackleford listed under “People” in any of Barry’s indices. The spelling of his last name matched the creek and the cabin. The timing of his presence on the Kenai Peninsula fit the profile.
I turned to page 75, hoping to learn that Fred Shackleford had lived and mined in the Cooper Landing area, thereby connecting some of the important dots I needed in order to construct a proper narrative.
Instead, I was disappointed. The chances appeared slim that Fred was the Shackleford who’d had a place on lower Kenai Lake. Instead, Fred Shackleford had joined several other men working at the Fred Smith mine on upper Lynx Creek, near present-day Johnson Pass. And there, during the winter of 1900-01, he died.
No dots connected.
Who was this Fred Shackleford, I wondered, and where had he come from? When and how had he arrived in Alaska? Where on the Kenai Peninsula had he traveled?
It’s important to note, before I continue, that many, many individuals — young and old, but mostly men — were coming to Alaska in the 1890s to seek their fortunes. There was gold in Alaska’s streams, gold on the coast by Nome, gold in them thar hills. California gold-rush fever in the late 1840s prompted a similar “malady” during the Klondike stampede, and by 1898 prospective prospectors were scouring the gold-bearing creek beds of Hope and Sunrise and combing every outlying drainage possible in the hopes of making the next big strike. A handful of these men made a fortune; many more barely broke even, and most likely returned to homes in the Lower 48, richer in tall tales and experience, poorer in pocketbook.
For me, in my Shackleford investigation, more research followed, punctuated by head scratching and occasional breakthroughs, finally leading me to this conclusion: Fred Shackleford was one of those thousands of guys who had hoped to make it big but never did.
Frederic Walter Shackleford, Jr., was born on Jan. 15, 1877, to a father who was a baker and then the foreman in a jewelry factory in East Providence, Rhode Island. His mother, Amy, was a housekeeper, and Fred Jr.’s older brother, William, was an importer of precious stones.
When the enumerator for the U.S. Census came to East Providence on June 6, 1900, Mr. and Mrs. Shackleford reported that their household contained two sons — Frederic and William — and that Frederic was a prospector/miner, certainly an unusual occupation for a Rhode Island man.
But Frederic was, indeed, a prospector; it’s just that he didn’t live at home anymore. In fact, he’d gone to Alaska two years earlier, and in 1900 he was counted among the population of the Sunrise Mining District — three months before the census was taken in Rhode Island.
Perhaps young Fred was counted twice because, on March 9 in Sunrise City, the census-taker entered Fred’s surname incorrectly — as “Shakelford.”
Otherwise, the facts match. Fred was a 23-year-old East Providence native, born in January 1877, and had been a clerk back home but in Alaska was calling himself a miner.
According to census data, he had “located” in Alaska in April 1898, when he had been 21. He would go on to celebrate his 24th birthday, but would never reach 25.
News reports from the day reveal that Fred Shackleford, Jr., was one of five fatalities on about March 20, 1901. An article that spring detailed the tragedy:
“The slide started on the side of an adjacent mountain and came thundering down over a cliff into the camp beneath, a sheer fall of 600 feet. There had been nothing to give the men warning of their danger, and the first known of the catastrophe was when they heard the roar of the great body sliding down the mountain.”
Seven men were caught in the mass of snow. Two survived.
The bodies of the dead were transported to Sunrise and interred in the Point Comfort Cemetery. About a century later, the cemetery was spruced up, and new wooden markers were erected over the old graves. Today, not far from the shores of lower Six Mile Creek, the graves of the five who died that day at Lynx Creek form a single horizontal row, all carefully marked, all faithfully tended.
In a coda to Shackleford’s death, it should be noted that his estate went into probate and was worked out in a commissioner’s court. The old handwritten documents are difficult to read —and, ironically, his surname was misspelled as “Schakelford”— but it appears that young Fred’s estate had some value — until his creditors swooped in.
Probably he had been grubstaked in Sunrise City, thus accounting for most of the costs he’d incurred: $214.44 to Alaska Commercial Company, $42.10 to Wheeler & Company, $122.50 to Green D. Hitchcock, plus court costs, administrative fees, and funeral expenses.
Also, Frank Flaherty, one of the two avalanche survivors, asked for and received the gold dust that had been found on Shackleford’s dead body.
The story of Fred Shackleford led me at first to believe that he might have been the person for whom the cabin and creek had been named — if only I could prove it.
In 1898, when Shackleford came to Alaska — probably aboard a steamship — how had he gotten to Sunrise? And when? Had he traveled overland, like so many others, from the ice-free port of Resurrection Bay? Had he been delivered directly up Cook Inlet to the Hope-Sunrise area? Was it possible that he had spent some time in the fledgling community of Cooper Landing, perhaps building a small cabin and trying to mine on his own before moving on to the Sunrise District?
I may never find the answers to all of those questions, but now, after considerably more research, I am convinced that Fred Shackleford — whether or not he ever glimpsed Kenai Lake — had nothing to do with the Shackleford cabin and the eponymous creek.
Instead, I found another Shackleford — sort of.
• By Clark Fair, For the Peninsula Clarion