Funter Bay History: Tall Tales

October 29, 2013

One of the finest traditions of Alaskan culture is the Tall Tale or “BS Story”. Whether a heroic adventure, unlikely wildlife encounter, lost treasure, or exaggerated fish, Alaskans have made an art of far-fetched claims. These days they’re usually related in person, over the marine radio, or at the bar, but in the old days you could get them printed in the newspaper! Actually, you probably still can in certain less-rigorously-edited publications!

One common “BS” news story in the early 20th century was the ever-popular “Next Treadwell” mine. Newspaper editors knew that attracting outside investors to the state would help grow their small towns’ economies, so almost every mine, no matter how small, was compared favorably to Treadwell (an operation known to be highly profitable). The Sitka Alaskan of Feb 27, 1886 describes deposits in the Funter Bay area as “equally as large and rich [as the “great gold belt of Douglas island”]”. After Treadwell caved in and flooded in 1917, local editors had to come up with more general terms like “the great Juneau mines”.

Of the two Juneau papers at the time, the Daily Alaska Dispatch seemed to talk up Funter Bay the most, although the Daily Record-Miner was also favorably biased towards local mines. The Dispatch referred to Funter Bay as “One of the very best camps in the district” (May 8, 1903), “The best copper proposition in this district” (Apr 16, 1909), and as having “claims which will unquestionably become good producers within a short time” (Oct 15, 1915). A July 31, 1902 article describes a Funter Bay claim “richly impregnated with gold” as well as being “40% copper”, and being “highly mineralized all the way through” and “a great big chunk of the world’s wealth”.

Reading these articles leads one to think that Funter Bay was constantly poised to become a major competitor in the national economy, but the mines referred to in these articles were mostly one or two-man prospects that never got beyond 50ft of tunnel, such as the Mansfield Mine.

Otteson’s Dano mine was also mentioned in the Dispatch, described as having a “big and rich ledge” (3 Aug 1909) and producing “rich gold bearing samples” (27 July 1919). Despite all this richness, the mine did not develop into a major producer. The papers handled such delays in promised wealth with their usual optimism, an 1903 article mentions that barren rock encountered in the first 50ft of a mine at Funter must have been “all cap-rock”, and “a change has taken place… the values in the quartz now are very good”. Any mine which failed or went bankrupt, if mentioned at all, was promptly blamed on the incompetence of the prior managers, and never on the geology of the claim.

Another great tall tale appeared in the Dispatch on Sept 12, 1912.

Explores Unknown Region on Admiralty Island

W. C. Miller Finds Lake and River Alive With Mountain Trout and Tremendous Wall of Ice.
W.C. Miller, a well known Alaskan who has valuable prospects at Funter Bay, has just returned from an exploration of the “unknown country” of Admiralty Island, and this trip is believed to be the first exploration of that region. The country lies near the center of Admiralty Island, between Hawk Inlet and Seymour Canal. Mr. Miller was accompanied by his nephew, F. E. Koeper.
“The entire territory,” said Mr. Miller, “is worthless to the prospector. We found a little gold, but nothing worth while, except mountain trout.”
At the head of a river Mr. Miller found a lake four miles long and a mile wide, alive with mountain trout of unusually large size. “We had no bait but venison,” said Mr. Miller, “but a crowd of fish entered into competition for the hook as often as Koeper threw it in.” Miller and his companion came back by a shallow river, a hundred feet wide, and this stream was also alive with trout. No salmon were seen, and Mr. Miller believes that on account of the swiftness of the current the salmon are not able to swim a very great distance in it. Mr. Miller named the lake “Isaac Walton Lake” in honor of the great angler.
The explorers found a new glacier with a wall of ice sixty feet high, running along the top of the range for miles. (From Daily Alaska Dispatch, Sept 12, 1912).

For those unfamiliar with the area, Admiralty Island has no glaciers,  and mountain top snow of that thickness is unlikely in September . The size and location of the lake and river are also quite questionable!

On May 25th of 1937, lighthouse keepers at Point Retreat reported that they had seen a “Ragged wild man”. This was said to possibly be Bud May, a trapper from Funter Bay who had been missing for some time. However, a few days later, 65 year old Albert Miles arrived at Point Retreat and claimed that he is not “wild”, he had simply walked there after wrecking his boat near Cordwood Creek. Miles was later ruled to be insane (per Kinky Bayers’ notes).

I might have a few more of these lying around for a later update. If any readers have a contribution I would be glad to publish it! Names can be withheld or changed to protect the guilty!

Funter Bay History: Dick Willoughby’s Exploding Raven

May 13, 2013

Richard “Uncle Dick” Willoughby (1832-1902?) AKA “The Professor”, was apparently quite the local character. Known for various pranks and tall tales, he left a lasting impression on the history and geography of Southeast Alaska (he has both a street and an island named after him).


Dick had a cabin at Funter Bay and did some prospecting in the area, locating several claims around the bay in 1887 and even starting a small mining company. An apparently successful prospecting method was to carry a metal rod with a carbon tip. Willoughby would prod through the mossy muskeg layer covering much of Admiralty Island, hoping to find shallow bedrock. After some practice, he claimed to be able to tell the difference between quartz and other rocks by feel. Even after selling many of his mining claims, Dick spent much of his later life at Funter Bay.

Willoughby also prospected and explored around Glacier Bay and other parts of Southeast Alaska. Around 1885, he claimed to have photographed a “phantom city” above Muir Glacier. He made some money selling copies and guiding tours to see this supposed mirage (which no one else ever glimpsed, and was later revealed to look remarkably like Bristol, England). The ever-reliable and never-sensationalist Popular Mechanics magazine swallowed the bait with a full article in 1897, although most people list it as an obvious fake. As late as 1928, cruise ship passengers were still looking for the phantom city!

An 1887 Juneau Free Press article claims that Dick Willoughby had dug up “The Devil’s Skeleton”. Willoughby was occasionally mentioned in the papers as finding “monster bones”, as well as various mammoth skeletons, often around Glacier Bay.  He apparently had a “museum” in Juneau where you could “see the elephant” for 50 cents admission.

To get back to the title of this post, below is an anecdote from his time at Funter which appears (with slightly different details) in several period newspapers:

exploding raven

A slightly different version is mentioned here, in which Dick’s cabin at Funter falls victim to the nefarious bird. Who knows how much, if any, truth this story contains!

Chapter 7 of the 1909 book Through The Yukon and Alaska is devoted to Dick Willoughby.

A fairly comprehensive obituary of Mr. Willoughby is here.