Dark Deed – The
Cache Creek Murders
MATANUSKA-SUSITNA BOROUGH – A former officer in the Canadian military, John Clark made his living mining gold in Alaska’s Cache Creek mining district.
In September 1939, four prospectors were found brutally murdered on two of his claims. Local authorities and the FBI investigated, but no arrests were ever made. The still unsolved Cache Creek Murders, along with several lost gold caches that once belonged to the victims, has become one of Alaska’s best-known unsolved mysteries.
Clark was a strange man, shrewd when it came to business, but his abrasive personality left him without friends. Clark leased a number of his claims to prospectors who agreed to pay him a percentage of their season’s take. But there was bad blood in the Dutch Hills. Richard “Dick” Allen Francis (1879-1939) and Frank W. Jenkins (1879-1939) both had been prospecting in this area for over 30 years, and both leased and worked adjacent claims owned by Clark.
There had been a long running feud between Francis and Jenkins. Jenkins had much better success at mining then his rival and was a prominent man in the community. Over the years, however, both Francis and Jenkins had a number of run-ins with Clark over their lease agreement, and that season Clark was quarreling again with Jenkins.
Sensing trouble, two other prospectors, Frank Sandstorm and his stepfather, John Hill, were fed up with the unremitting abuse from Clark and decided to pack it in early and return to Anchorage.
Clark was irate that they weren’t going to finish the season and demanded the larger share of the 11 ounces of gold they’d mined that summer, a breach of their agreement.
Hours later and miles away from the Dutch Hills, Hill went to shoot a squirrel for dinner when he noticed some dirt at the end of his rifle barrel. On inspection, he and Sandstorm both found rocks and dirt tightly packed into their barrels. Had either man fired their rifle, the barrel would’ve exploded in their face resulting in serious injury or death. It was clear Clark had no problem using violence to settle a score, real or imagined. The pair eventually reached the Alaska Railroad where they hopped a train into Anchorage.
A week later, word reached Anchorage about a mass murder in the Dutch Hills. Pilot Hakon Christensen had flown in from Peters Creek after a miner named “Rockie” reported that Frank Jenkins, his wife, Helen, an employee, Joey Brittell, and Dick Francis had been found murdered on their mining claims. Christensen alerted the authorities who departed for the Cache Creek mines.
Investigators discovered that Dick Francis had been shot twice in the head inside his cabin. Frank Jenkins and Joey Brittell both had been ambushed on the trail from Ruby Gulch to Ramsdyke Creek. Both had been bludgeoned severely and their throats cut from ear to ear. Their bodies had been covered with brush to conceal the crime. Helen Jenkins had been lured away from their cabin three miles before she was murdered. She was beaten so badly that her face had been “obliterated.”
Local authorities requested assistance from the FBI and they sent agent Ralph Volgel, the bureau’s sole investigator for Alaska, who flew in from Juneau.
Investigators concluded Helen Jenkins had known her killer. Evidence indicated she had finished breakfast that morning and, before leaving the cabin, had taken the time to put on her coat and lock the door. There was no sign of force at the Jenkins’ cabin or along the route to where she’d been murdered.
Jenkins had been mining in the area for decades and it was well known among long-time residents that he had a routine for caching his gold. He hid each day’s haul in or around his cabin. Then, after a week or when the cache was full, he took his gold into the nearby hills and deposited it into his main cache, which he unearthed and hauled out at season’s end.
It has been estimated that the Jenkins’ average take for one season would’ve been about 6,000 ounces. At the Jenkins’ cabin roughly 200 ounces of gold was recovered. His main cache was never found. The caches belonging to Dick Francis and Joey Brittell likewise have never been found. The Cache Creek Murders were never solved.
One final note: The one man never questioned by investigators was John Clark, who was seen a short time after the murders struggling with a large duffle bag, which was locked on top as he boarded the train at Talkeetna. He never returned to his mining claims in the Dutch Hills.
Incident at Chitina – A
Gambler’s Lost Gold
UNORGANIZED BOROUGH/VALDEZ-CORDOVA–“Cort” Thompson (Cortez D. Thompson) was a successful gambler. He and his wife, “Mattie” (Martha A. Silks), a madam in Denver’s red-light district, were both local celebrities during Denver’s boomtown era. It was during the height of the Alaskan Gold Rush that Cort bid his wife a farewell to go seek their family fortune in Alaska.
Cort had no intention of mining; his plan was to mine the miners through a series of crooked card games. For the most part his plan worked. Traveling from one gold boomtown to the next, Cort had accumulated roughly $50,000 in gold by running shady games. Then one night in Chitina, a copper mining and railroad camp, Cort had the misfortune of dealing to a local named “Soapy” Smith (Jefferson Randolph Smith).
That night Cort’s luck ran out. Soapy accused Cort of being a grifter and cheating him at cards. Cort defended his honor as best he could, but their gentlemanly discord suddenly turned into a wicked beating for which Cort was ill prepared. After regaining his wits, Cort not only got of Chitina as fast as he could, but out of Alaska as well. He didn’t stop until he reached Denver - without his gold.
Although Cort never returned to Alaska to claim his ill-gotten gains, he sometimes offered his own version of the events that night in Chitina. He explained it was his usual practice after arriving in any camp or town to secretly bury his gold somewhere on the outskirts of the village, just in case his ruse was exposed and he had to flee for his life.
Of course he carried enough gold on him to present himself to the locals as a freewheeling, successful gambler. And in those days there were plenty of young men working in local mines that, with enough liquor, were eager to engage “Lady Luck” in a friendly game. Perhaps Lady Luck will one day shine upon some treasure hunter and a gambler’s lost gold will be found somewhere on the outskirts of the ghost town of Chitina, population 100.
Ghost Town Gold
UNINCORPORATED BOROUGH/SOUTHEAST FAIRBANKS CENSUS AREA – The small ghost town of Eagle, population 146, is located on the Yukon River 8 miles west of the international border between Alaska and the Yukon Territory of Canada. Originally a fur-trading post established in 1874 known as “Belle Isle,” Eagle became a boomtown during the Alaska Gold Rush as a supply and trading center for the miners working the upper Yukon and its tributaries.
At its height, Eagle had a population that exceeded 1,700 and became the first incorporated city in the Alaska interior. The U.S. Army built Fort Egbert there in 1900 and abandoned it in 1911. Hundreds of abandoned dwellings can be found there and local legend claims buried gold caches remain hidden in this area.
Fee, William, “Tragedy on Cache Creek,” July 1996, Lost Treasure magazine, p. 30
AK Radio, Murder and Mayhem, aired on October 6, 2007, Alaska Public Radio Network, http://akradio.org/archive/
Garrett, Dennis, (Book Review), The Mystery of the Cache Creek Murders – A True Story, by Roberta Sheldon, http://www.alaskafreegold.com/home4322
Henson, Michael Paul, America’s Lost Treasures, 1984, South Bend, Indiana, Jayco Publishing Company, p. 4
Pandozzi, Frank W, Alaska Lost Treasure, http://www.metal-detecting-ghost-towns-of-the-east.com/alaska-lost-treas...
Wikipedia research, Eagle, Alaska, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eagle,_Alaska