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Stetson Creek

Hats off to a different Stetson.
Published 7-24-2020 | Last updated 7-24-2020
60.446, -149.849


GNIS Entry

History Local name reported in 1898 by Mendenhall (1900, p. 320), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Description on Kenai Peninsula, flows N to Cooper Creek, 28 mi. NW of Seward, Chugach Mts.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Stetson Creek was named after the Stetson hat company, founded in 1865 by John B. Stetson. Although he tried his hand at gold prospecting in Colorado, along with a variety of other jobs along the way west from his birthplace in New Jersey, he failed in each endeavor and eventually wound up back on the East Coast and nearly broke. There, he turned back to the family business of hatmaking with a brilliant idea: producing wide-brimmed felt hats suitable for rough outdoor use in the American west. He called his first design the ‘Boss of the Plains,’ and it and other variations were so influential that even though his company sold hats for every occasion, Stetson would become synonymous with cowboy hats.[1] Stetson hats followed the American frontier westward all the way to Alaska. In 1898 in Skagway, a Stetson hat was offered as first prize in a waltzing competition, more highly prized than a box of 25 cigars.[2]

It’s a remarkable story of innovation and success but Stetson Creek, tributary of Cooper Creek on the Kenai Peninsula, was named for a different Stetson – an Alaskan prospector who found more gold than John Stetson, although he undoubtedly made less money than the boss of the Boss of the Plains.

"Stetson Creek, a tributary of Cooper Creek, was discovered in 1895 by James Stetson who worked his ground for two seasons quite successfully, but it was finally abandoned."[3]
-The Pathfinder, Early Gold Mining in Alaska

James B. Stetson, a resident of Oakland, California,[4] arrived on the Kenai Peninsula among the first groups of American prospectors and joined an 1896 hand-picked expedition organized by Joseph M. Cooper (the namesake of Cooper Creek) to systematically stake the Kenai River and its tributaries up to its headwaters at Kenai Lake. The expedition was described in two 1896 letters published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, by George Bottcher[5] (who would die several years later in the Blackstone party) and John McArthur.[6] McArthur’s letter mentions that Stetson has located claims on Victor Creek near the head of Kenai Lake (respectively called Vickery Creek and Long Lake at that time).

The claims he had staked earlier on Stetson Creek seem to have drawn more of his attention and investment. In 1897, Stetson joined forces with the Towle family (pronounced ‘toll’) under patriarch George Towle to form the Towle & Stetson Mining Co., incorporated in San Jose, California,[4][7] to focus on the area around Stetson and Cooper Creeks. Frank Towle, the youngest son of George, and his family were one of the first non-native families to settle permanently in the area, claimed credit for naming the settlement ‘Cooper Landing,’[8] and are commemorated by the street name Towle Circle.

The gold mining in the area proved marginal. Frank Towle, who found more success as a big game guide, recalled “We mined on Stetson Creek (near Seward) for several years but never made much over expenses at it.”[9] Contemporary news reports note that the company earned $2000 in the 1901 season, referred to as “disastrous and expensive,”[10] and $3000 in 1902, just about break-even for a crew of several men when a laborer’s wages were $4 per day.[11] They always seemed on the verge of something good: chancing upon $200 in a single pan and random 3 ounce nuggets but never finding consistent paydirt.[9] Just the thing to keep a prospector’s dream alive and pan in the creek.

Around 1900, however, James Stetson fades into obscurity. This author cannot find any further sources confirming whether he remained in Alaska, passed away, or changed careers. A James B. Stetson (1867-1905) is buried in the Mountain View Cemetery of Oakland[12], but it is uncertain whether he is the same man. Around the same time, another James B. Stetson was a leading citizen of San Franscisco, serving as the president of the North Pacific Railway and the California Street Cable Car Company, and a partner at the firm Holbrook, Merrill & Stetson[13]. He died in 1909,[14] but coverage of his activity obscures the search for our James Stetson, who skipped hatmaking and cable car investments to pan for gold and be one of the first English-speakers to traverse the Kenai Peninsula.


Sources


[1] Muzquiz, A. "The History Behind Stetson: The Quintessential Cowboy Hat" Heddels, December 20, 2018. https://www.heddels.com/2018/12/history-behind-stetson-quintessential-cowboy-hat/ (accessed June 26, 2020)

[2] “Prizes for Dances.” The Daily Alaskan (Skagway), July 2, 1898. Accessed May 9, 2020. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/2017218619/1898-07-02/ed-1/seq-4/

[3] "Early Gold Mining in Alaska," The Pathfinder I, no. 2 (December 1919): 17-18, https://books.google.com/books?id=u56IVrGrYsgC&pg=RA1-PA17 (accessed March 27, 2020).

[4] “Articles of Incorporation.” The Record-Union (Sacramento), October 19, 1897. Accessed July 23, 2020. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82015104/1897-10-19/ed-1/seq-6/

[5] Bottcher, G.J. “A Miner's Opinion.” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 23, 1896. Accessed July 23, 2020. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82015104/1897-10-19/ed-1/seq-6/

[6] McArthur, J. “From a Seattle Man.” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 16, 1896. Accessed July 23, 2020. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045604/1896-08-16/ed-1/seq-16/

[7] San Jose City Directory, 1902, s.v. “Towle & Stetson Mining Co.,” accessed June 29, 2020, https://books.google.com/books?id=MK9KAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA431&lpg=PA431.

[8] Towle, Frank E. Frank Towle to Director of Geological Survey, March 1, 1924. Folder 60-40-3181, USGS Technical Data Archive, Anchorage, Alaska.

[9] “Sourdough Recollects Find Of Rich Crevice.” The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, July 18, 1958. Accessed July 23, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com/image/11717100/

[10] “The Northland - Information for Everybody.” The Douglas Island News, March 13, 1901. Accessed July 24, 2020. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84021930/1901-03-13/ed-1/seq-1/

[11] “Local News Nuggets.” The Alaska Prospector (Valdez), March 20, 1902. Accessed July 24, 2020. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84021905/1902-03-20/ed-1/seq-4/

[12] California, Oakland, Mountain View Cemetery Records, 1857-1973, digital image s.v. "James B. Stetson," FamilySearch.org (accessed July 24, 2020).

[13] “James B. Stetson & Mrs. Doe Are Married.” The San Francisco Call, February 20, 1900. Accessed July 24, 2020. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85066387/1900-02-20/ed-1/seq-5/

[14] “Death Summons Pioneer Merchant.” The San Francisco Call, August 22, 1909. Accessed July 24, 2020. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85066387/1909-08-22/ed-1/seq-18/