Independence Mine overlooks the Matanuska Susitna Valley, nestled amid in the Talkeetna Mountains. Ground squirrels rustle around in the low bushes that encompass the alpine tundra, and a choir of birds can often be heard, but very seldom seen. Water trickles year-round here, whether it's dripping from the melting snow or flowing by in the many streams that run throughout the Pass. Every so often, a breeze makes its way to 3,500 feet, communicating its message through the rustling leaves. If you listen closely, the abandoned buildings of this mining community can be heard creaking in the wind, each new gust bringing the walls them closer to their fate. They will inevitably collapse in due time, as so many others here have done before them.¿
Having spent many years walking through the old mines at Hatcher Pass, I’m comfortably familiar with the unique sounds, smells and incredible scenery here. I’ve also learned that it takes a certain amount of patience in order to truly appreciate the quiet melodies that one can discern with a trained ear, each claiming residence somewhere between the parking lot and the unstable traces of mine cart tracks a few hundred feet up the Mine Trail.
This old mining town is officially uninhabited, but there are caretakers who come and go, offering their knowledge of the sites and a brief history to visitors who have interest. A brief walking tour is even offered to those who yearn for a first-hand look inside these historical buildings, at least the ones designated safe enough for exploration. Even on the warmest summer day here, a walk through the old mess hall can be chilling. The windows are few and provide little light for the complex interiors of these forgotten rooms. In one dorm room, an old cot and a pair of boots were left in place sometime in the 1950’s, as if for fear that any further movement would cause them to fall apart. And in one particular dorm room, a social security number can be seen scratched into the wall.
In moving from the peaceful outdoor setting into the buildings’ interior, one immediately observes a difference -- true silence. Within the walls of the formerly occupied Mining town, the melodic tune of hidden songs birds can no longer be heard, and you would never know that you were surrounded by roaring streams and hectic ground squirrels. It’s only the rare occasion when you come across an old window that has fallen victim to a flying rock, that sound invades the silence here, as if desperately craving attention to ensure its not forgotten.
Since Independence Mine was was abandoned in the 1950's, it has remained a peaceful respite for solitude amongst the Mat-Su Valley’s explosion of growth. I predict locals and tourists will continue to be drawn to Hatcher Pass for decades to come, whether it’s to ski between the tattered ruins built by dream-seeking Prospectors -- or to discover their own adventure in the scattered mountain trails that criss-cross the beautiful landscape. But, to me, no visit here is complete without taking time to appreciate the gold mine’s most complex and abundant element – its cache of “golden silence”.
Reader's Note: Catherine Steward is a KTUU Photojournalist and grew up in the Mat-Su Valley. This “perspective” piece follows Catherine’s recent story on Independence Mine, which aired on Channel 2 in early July.