The Fortymile River region in east-central Alaska has a long and colorful history as the site of the first major gold discovery in interior Alaska. Placer gold has been mined in the region nearly every year since its original discovery in 1886. Total gold production is approximately 500,000 troy ounces. Although many of the rich deposits have been mined, there still exist areas that contain gold. Areas of mined and unmined gold-bearing creek and terrace gravels are outlined on the accompanying geologic map.
The early history of the Fortymile area centered on the small frontier settlement of Fortymile City located at the junction of the Fortymile and Yukon Rivers in Canadian territory. This was the supply and jumping-off point for prospectors who worked their way into Alaska up the Fortymile River and found gold on many of its tributaries. Hand mining, both underground and surface, using sluice boxes and (or) rockers were the earliest methods; later, hydraulicking, dredging, and draglining methods were used. More recently, bulldozers and elevated trammels have been used, as well as very portable floating suction dredges. The rich mining lore of the area is closely associated with events of the nearby world-famous Klondike District. Bedrock and placer geology and mining history of individual gold-rich creeks are herein updated.
The Fortymile area, which is part of the Yukon-Tanana Upland, contains quartzite, schist, gneiss, amphibolite, marble, serpentinite, and granite overlain by basalt, sandstone, conglomerate, shale, tuff, and coal; overlying these rocks are several deposits of varying ages consisting of gold-bearing gravel and colluvium. The close spatial association of creeks containing placer gold and the gneiss, schist, amphibolite, and marble unit strongly suggests this metamorphic unit is the gold source.
High terrace gravels record a time from the late Tertiary to early Pleistocene when the ancestral Fortymile River and its major tributaries, the North and South Forks, had floodplains roughly 1 to 2 miles (2-3 kilometers) wide and gradients of about 4 feet per mile (0.75 meters per kilometer). Base-level lowering during the post-early Pleistocene caused the rivers to cut into their floodplains and to develop the youthful characteristics they have today such as V-shaped canyons, narrow floodplains, and gradients of at least twice those of the old river.
Colluvium marginal to creek deposits in steep-sided valleys is often gold bearing. Much of the unconsolidated gravel within the major drainages of the Fortymile River, South Fork, North Fork, and Mosquito Fork is colluvium.
Heavy-mineral-concentrate samples from the gold-producing creeks and high terrace gravels contain varying amounts of magnetite (20 to 80 percent) and ilmenite (10 to 30 percent), and samples from creeks draining areas principally composed of metamorphic rocks contain abundant garnet (10 to 30 percent). Gold fineness ranges from 620 to 927, but it is difficult to attach any geologic significance to the fineness data.
Most placer gold in the Fortymile River area has been recovered at, or near, the gravelbedrock contact. The lowermost 3.3 feet (1 meter) of gravel and the uppermost 1.6 feet (0.5 meter) of bedrock may contain as much as 80 to 90 percent of the gold that is ultimately recovered. Gold nuggets are rare and most of the gold recovered is in the form of flattened fragments less than .2 inches (5 millimeters) in greatest dimension. However, large gold nuggets have been found on Wade Creek; examples are ones of 25,33,56, and 70 ounces. Occasionally, large nuggets may still be found in the tailing piles along the creek.
The Fortymile River and its tributaries the South Fork, Walker Fork, and Mosquito Fork, all of which at one time were the sites of bucket-line dredge operations, now are almost exclusively mined using floating suction dredges. Unmined gold-bearing gravel is present in the floodplain of the Walker Fork valley below Cherry Creek and in low (about 100 to 130 feet or 30 to 40 meters) terraces along the north side of Walker Fork and east side of Cherry Creek. Considering the locations of where most gold has been found in the South Fork valley both by the older bucket dredges and the modern suction dredges, it seems likely that the tributary drainages of Lost Chicken, Napoleon, Franklin, and Buckskin Creeks have supplied the bulk of the gold to the South Fork valley. A quarter acre (0.10 hectare), 130-foot-thick ( 40 meters) section of the high terrace gravels on the north side of Napoleon Creek was mined for placer gold and yielded values estimated to be $8.50 per cubic yard (or $6.50 per cubic meter) at $350 per troy ounce. The unmined high terrace gravels on the south side of Buckskin Creek contain gold; however, this gravel is only 3 to 6.5 feet (1 to 2 meters) thick.
The search for a lode gold source in the Fortymile River region may be in vain, because substantially more gold than has been recovered from the placers can be derived by the gradual erosion of large volumes of source rocks that contain background mean gold amounts. Using Leon's mass balance equation, 5,167 metric tons of gold may exist in the placers of the Fortymile River region, less than 1 percent of the recovered amount of 15.6 tons.
The largest gold resource remaining in the Fortymile River region is probably in the high terrace gravels exposed along many of the creeks and rivers. Until there is exploratory drilling or a comprehensive sampling program, the amount of gold in these gravels will remain unknown. Environmental constraints imposed by Federal and State agencies have slowed, but not stopped, placer mining in the Fortymile River area, and a significant gold price rise would result in more mining.