I spent over forty years in Alaska, with time out as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II, and an Arctic survival instructor during Korea, and two trips to South America.
I was raised on a cattle ranch on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the badlands of South Dakota, and left home at the age of 14 after completing the sixth grade.
I hoboed all over the western United States, Canada and Mexico, working the harvest fields, the timber lands, rodeos, road construction, mines, and prospecting for gold. I prospected all over Alaska, and in between trips I worked for Cal Lathrop in the coal mines at Healy, on a survey crew on the DEW Line on the Arctic Ocean from Barrow to Barter Island, and points in between. I guided the first cat train between Fairbanks and the Canadian Arctic for Al Ghezzi of the Alaska Freight lines, and worked on the docks at Valdez. I was an assistant to Slim Moore (a big game guide) and took local hunters out on my own.
In 1953 I discovered the MacLaren River copper lode and in 1956 incorporated the MacLaren River Copper Corporation operation with my old partner Everett Albertson of Fairbanks. I mined copper until the price was driven down and then frozen by our benevolent government.
In 1957 I married Helen Mary Lorell, also of the Pine Ridge Reservation, and thenceforth she accompanied me on my various ventures, with the exception of South America.
In 1963, because of the increased cost of supplies and wages and the low price of gold, I quit prospecting and purchased Sourdough Roadhouse on the Richardson Trail, which, with the exception of taking care of a goodly number of people from Valdez immediately following the great earthquake, was a resounding flop.
In 1965 we moved to Anchorage, where I appeared on television in a daily morning show between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. called Breakfast in Bedlam. I had a 15-minute segment “Pettyjohn on Alaska” where I told stories of Alaska history, the dance hall girls, and the old sourdoughs. The rest of the show I kibitzed.
In 1966 some of my loyal fans organized the Pettyjohn Fan Club, a first for Alaska. and which eventually numbered a membership of over 300 members. While on television, and for many years afterwards, I lectured on Alaska history and told stories in Anchorage schools, at the Anchorage Museum of Fine Arts, and various civic clubs.
During the Alaska Centennial I was in charge of the Native artifact exhibits and the Native dancing at the Iglu-Puk, the Alaska Native Cultural Exhibit at Anchorage International Airport.
I was on the first Board of Directors at the Anchorage Museum of Fine Arts under Mike Kennedy, and produced and directed live stage shows circa the dance hall girls.
In 1970, along with Miki Ballard of Anchorage, I founded “The Alaskana”, a monthly publication dealing with Alaska history and stories of the goldrush days. It was distributed to all the towns and Native villages of Alaska, and was carried by all the major airlines serving the state.
In 1978 during the great Peruvian gold rush, Mike Barrego, a prospector, and Jon Adams, an engineer, and I traveled to Peru to relocate Swiftwater Bill Gates’ lost gold mine. We located the mine on the river Tunquimaye near Puerto Maldanaldo, District of Cuzco. We leased the ground, and while Mike and Jon traveled through the jungle with an Indian crew to inspect the mine, I returned to Alaska to obtain additional financing. When the boys reached Swiftwater Bill’s lost mine they found that all the gold had been mined out years before, and they returned to Alaska a mite disappointed.
I returned to Peru the following year by myself, employed an Indian crew, and commenced prospecting several jungle river systems. Finding paying gold near the headwaters of the Rio Inanbari, District of Cuzco, I immediately leased 70,000 acres along said river. We lost Swiftwater Bill’s mine and my holdings along the Inanbari due to a change in government, exactly as had Swiftwater in the old days. Another fiasco. So much for big dreams.
In my years in Alaska I prospected with a pack on my back and a pick and shovel, by horse and by dog teams, cross-country vehicles and river boats, D-8 cats, planes, and helicopters, sometimes with a crew of up to six men, but mostly alone. I located and staked over 1,000 claims in Alaska alone, working or selling at least one-third of them.
In 1981 we moved to Prescott, Arizona, as I was employed by a group of New York investors as a consultant on the Glory-Anna gold mine just north of Phoenix.
In 1983 I retired, first in Happy Camp, California, thence to Mountain Gate, a suburb of Redding, California.
In 1984 and 1985, along with my nephew Richard Pettyjohn, I prospected and staked 100 mining claims, just to keep a hand in.
My only regret is that I was never able to secure a large enough grubstake to prospect Antarctica, where I know the greatest mother lode of all creation must exist.
I am now 70 years old, and still ready to stampede at the merest whisper of gold.
[written by F. S. Pettyjohn in 1987]