Russell Schaefer

~1905 - 1960

photo of Russell Schaefer

Russell Schaefer, circa 1959.
Photo courtesy of Helen Lyman.

Russell Schaefer (a.k.a. Schaffer) was one of Alaska's 'tough guy prospectors'. He was in the same class as Gus Uotilla or Frank Birch who, by themselves, or with a wife or a partner or two, accomplished amazing feats of mining and prospecting in one of the true backwaters of the Alaska wilderness-the Kuskokwim Mineral Belt. At the start of his career in the early 1940s, Schaefer had a partner, Harvey Winchell, but Schaefer became more of a loner-flying, mining, and retorting mercury ore by himself. Schaefer was not a hermit; he made good friends with the Lyman family and with people along the Kuskokwim He accepted the scientists of the U.S. Geological Survey, one of whom, Pete Sainsbury, was about as tough as Schaefer, and a good friend. Schaefer enjoyed some time off in the winter months staying with the Parents family at their road house at Crooked Creek. In letters he wrote, he alluded to the desire to find a 'good wife', but he never married.

This brief note about Russell Schaefer is a work in progress. His birth place and birth date remain unknown. He died in the late fall or winter of 1960. The exact time of his death is uncertain, as he was alone. Bob Lyman, disturbed by the lack of radio-telephone communication from Schaefer, flew over to Schaefer's mine at Cinnabar Creek on the Holitna River, and found him dead, apparently from a heart attack. Russell's body was found in a cut at his mine, with his hand on his shovel. Bob buried Russell at the mine. Russell had a sister, Frances Maclure, and after Russell's death, she and a partner took over, and continued to operate Russell's Cinnabar Creek mine.

Schaefer was a prospector and a miner. As a prospector he found the Cinnabar Creek deposit, second only to the Red Devil as a mercury producer and the complex, gold-tungsten-polymetallic deposit at Fortyseven Creek in the Holitna region. Schaefer and his partner Harvey Winchell found the Cinnabar Creek mercury deposit in 1941. It was the first of several discoveries in the area. Small scale production commenced immediately, although it was not until 1955 that Schaefer began to produce extensively from the deposit. The actual discovery at Fortyseven Creek was made in the fall of 1947, hence the name, but Schaefer had been with the U.S. Geological party in the summer of 1947 when quartz veins and mineralized float were noted on the divide between Boss Creek and the Holitna River in an area that drained into the Mukslulik River. At the end of the Survey's season, Schaefer went back into the region and found rich gold-and tungsten-placers in the creek draining the divide and massive mineralized quartz veins at the head of the creek that he named Fortyseven Creek. The discovery was complex and needing some help, Schaefer struck a deal with Bob Lyman. Bob would help Schaefer prospect Fortyseven Creek for a month, then Schaefer would join Lyman in working the mercury lode at DeCourcy Mountain. It was a good plan and it ultimately worked, but not without some adventures. Robert Vanderpool Sr., pilot from Sleetmute flew the men into Fortyseven Creek, and was supposed to pick them up about December 1st to go to DeCourcy. The weather turned bad, but Vanderpool slipped in and picked up Schaefer and some of their gear. There wasn't room for Lyman, who set up camp. A major blizzard hit the country and it was days before Vanderpool could get in for Lyman. Bob told his adventures to his brothers who at the time published the Bozeman (Montana) Courier. Bob predicted that Schaefer would make several major discoveries in the almost unexplored Holitna region and Fortyseven Creek was number one.

Schaefer was a keen observer and a competent practical geologist and mineralogist. Wallace Cady of the USGS was so confident of Schaefer's competence that he based his description of Fortyseven Creek on Schaefer's observations (Cady and others, 1955, p.120-121). The mineralogy at Fortyseven Creek was complex. Schaefer found lode gold and identified the tungsten minerals scheelite and wolframite, also lead sulfosalts, argentite, and small amounts of gold and silver tellurides in a gangue of quartz and locally abundant tourmaline. Schaefer mined both placer gold and placer scheelite from a single paystreak on Fortyseven Creek. The lode deposit is still of interest. It was explored by Anaconda in the early 1980s and later by the late Clarence Fry and Associates.

Theresa Parent, who grew up in Crooked Creek, a small native community along the Kuskokwim River, has childhood memories of Schaefer:

"Russell Schaefer was a kind man, and was always polite and very respectful with the members of the Crooked Creek community. During his prospecting expeditions that took place throughout the region, he always landed on a sandbar below the village of Napaimute for supplies, and for refueling his Stinson, and later Cessna, aircraft. Frequently, he would hire a local bush whacker to help him clear brush along claim lines, and help with other prospecting activities".

Schaefer experimented with mercury recovery, and built his own retorts. His first experiments in the early 1940s were hazardous to his health, and possibly the health of Bob Wallace and the other Survey geologists camped near him at Cinnabar Creek as well. Wallace helped Schaefer with the first retort, and later wrote about it. In principle, mercury recovery is simple, if potentially hazardous. The mercury sulfide mineral cinnabar is heated, the sulfur is driven off, and the remaining mercury, now a liquid, is condensed and drawn off. In the commercial reactors of the time, the sulfur given off combined with oxygen to form gaseous sulfur dioxide. In Russell's primitive retort, the mercury tended to recombine with sulfur about as fast as it was liberated. Wallace suggested that they mix the cinnabar with the tin cans that accumulated at every camp. Wallace's idea worked. As the sulfur was driven off it, combined with iron in the tin cans to make a form of iron sulfide, and allowed the pure mercury to be drawn off. Wallace later wrote,

"The black stuff that had clogged his condenser was meta-cinnabar. The residue of combined sulfur and iron clearly was a form of marcasite, and sparkled like the fools gold it was."

Russell Schaefer was a quick learner. Before his untimely death in 1960, he was ranked with Bob Lyman among Alaska's premier mercury miners.

By Charles C. Hawley, 2007


Cady, Wallace, and others, 1955, "The Central Kuskokwim Region, Alaska", U. S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 268, pages 113-115 and 119-121.

Lyman, Betty and Lyman, Helen, communications, 2007

"Lyman Bros' Brother Bob Sits Out Alaska Blizzard Waiting for Bush Pilot" The Bozeman Courier, January 2, 1948.

Parent, Theresa, communication with T.K. Bundtzen, August 2007.

Sainsbury, C. L., and MacKevett E. M. Jr., 1965, "Quicksilver Deposits of Southwestern Alaska", U. S. Geological Survey Bulletin 118, pages 35-40.

Wallace, Robert E., 1996, "Earthquakes, Minerals, and Me" U.S. Geological Survey Open-file Report, pages 96-260.

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