SUTTON — The annual Coal Miners Ball is still going strong at the Alpine Inn in Sutton.
For the past 33 years the event has helped celebrate the history of coal mining in the Sutton and Chickaloon area.
“Sutton is basically here because of the mine,” Alpine Inn owner Jim Psenak said.
On Saturday, starting at 4 p.m., the Alpine will host the ball with a buffet, live entrainment, a silent auction, door prizes, a photo booth and plenty of opportunities to dance the night away. The focus of this event is the induction of three coal miners from the days of yore.
“We’ll keep it going as long as we can find people out there,” Psenak said.
Before the Parks Highway was built in 1971, anyone trying to get to the Matanuska Valley, or further destinations such as Fairbanks, had to go through Sutton on the Glenn Highway. Prior to the Parks, vehicles were always coming through Sutton, Psenak said.
“Everybody knew everybody. But now, you know how it goes…” Psenak said.
Three years before the Parks was finished, the last mining operation in Sutton shut down, according to Psenak. When the mines closed down, so did a lengthy chapter of Alaskan history. Psenak’s ongoing mission is to dust off whatever tomes he finds to help him track down the living relics of the mining past as well as the living relatives of those who’re deceased. As time goes on, the latter is more common, he said.
“We’ve lost a lot them guys. A lot of those miners are dead. Every few years you lose a few more,” Psenak said.
Psenak bought the Alpine in 1986 and the Coal Miners Ball was created by Alpine Historical Society a year later and has been an annual staple of the inn ever since.
“It never was really intended to be, the way I can see it, never intended to be like it is now. I mean it’s a lot of people,” Psenak said.
Established around 1945, the Alpine went through several owners before Psenak took the mantle. He said about 100 people showed up to the first event and six people were inducted.
“This place was packed front to back,” Psenak said.
Psenak said that over time, miners and other locals who attended the event were reunited with familiar faces they haven’t seen in years. He said that effect encouraged more people to attend. He said that word of mouth getting around has been a “huge asset” for their cause.
“Everybody wanted to come and find out who else was around yet,” Psenak said.
Eventually, the Alpine took on the whole event and has been the sole proprietor ever since, according to Psenak. He said they take care of all the logistics, from decorating and sending out invitations to miners and/or their families to setting up the buffet and hosting induction ceremony.
Chuck Shaver was the mine treasurer and asked the union what he should do with all their mining records, according to Psenak. The union told Shaver to just throw the records away, but that didn’t happen. Shaver kept them all and kept telling Psenak about it until he died.
Shaver’s daughter brought all those records to Psenak, and ever since, he’s not only been preserving them but using them to track down the various miners and their families. Psenak said these records span from about 1942 through the 1960s and contains information about the miners paying their union dues and most importantly, it contains their names.
Obviously, the further back in time you go to find names, the harder it gets to find anyone alive or even find their relatives locally. Many miners left the state entirely. Psenak tracked down one of the migrating miners, Don Deland, who is alive and lives in Arizona. Deland is over 90 years old and his family was part of the original 1935 Matanuska Colony.
Deland is one of the three miners to be inducted this year. The other two are Dave Rush (died on the job in 1957 due to a heart attack) and Al Bannon (deceased), whose family had a farm nearby. Psenak said they try to get four to five inductees each year.
Psenak said that if they find a miner they would like to induct but they are no longer alive, they research and attempt to contact the family for permission and invite them to the ceremony. He said that some families (be it the widowed or the kin) have even flown up from the Lower 48 to attend the event.
“To them, it’s a pretty big to-do,” Psenak said.
While a majority of miners and the families of deceased minders are apt to give consent to the induction and many have attended the event, some just flat out refuse, he said.
“Most of them are all very, very pleased they get added to this list,” Psenak said.
During the ceremony, Psenak shares a few words about what he knows about each miner being inducted. He then opens the floor to the miners and/or their families if they want to share stories of their own; and most of the time, they happily oblige.
“You go back there and you start looking around them walls and you see all the pictures of all the people in there; and them people recognize them, ‘oh I remember that guy, I remember his family this way.’ It kind of jogs their memory in the age they’re at now,” Psenak said.
“The earliest enterprises in the Matanuska Valley were focused in the Talkeetna Mountains, in the form of gold mining in the Willow Creek Mining District, and the development of coal fieldrs near Chickaloon and Sutton,” historian Helen Hegener wrote on her website, The 1935 Matanuska Colony Project.
Had it not been for the U.S. Navy, there likely wouldn’t be a reason to commercially mine coal in Sutton and the surrounding areas.
Early prospectors knew about the coalfields thanks to local Athabascans, and in 1898, U.S. Army Captain Edwirn Glenn’s exploration party discovered a quality vein of coal in the Chickaloon Mines above the Matanuska River, according to Hegener. In 1913, the U.S. Navy blossomed an interest in those fields as a consistent source of fuel for their Pacific fleet, avoiding the needr to return all the way to the U.S. to refuel, she wrote.
In front of where the Srutton Library is now, used to be the coal washing station, according to Psenak. He said the Navy moved coal from Chickaloon, washed it in Sutton and took it to their ships for fuel.
“In 1919, more than 4,000 tons of coal was mined. Two years later, the Navy began building a million-dollar coal-washing station at nearby Sutton. All of the coal that Chickaloon mines produced over the next few years was for Navy use, and not even the government railroad could burn the coal from Chickaloon.” Hegener stated on her website.
Around the same time, California boomed with oil and that black gold proved to be the more economical choice so ship engines were converted to burn oil instead of coal and soon enough, the Navy shut down their mining operation.
Evan Jones was the superintendent at the Eska mine (just a few miles northwest of Sutton) until he opened his own mine called Jonesville in 1921, according to Psenak. He said there’s been about six different coal mining outfits that have operated in Jonesville until it shut down for good in 1968.
“It’s a pretty interesting history of all them old guys. If you could have five or six of those guys sitting here they’d tell you stories that would be unbelievable how all that was going on but you’re not gonna find them guys anymore,” Psenak said.
The back hall of the Alpine is lined with black and white portraits of the inducted miners along with an eclectic collection of relics of the mining days. Psenak even acquired a wooden box used to ship dynamite. Psenak said they apparently mailed dynamite in those days and chuckled at the notion.
Walking past each picture, Psenak said that he’s talked to many of those people before the eventually died. He said that some are still around but they are depleting. He plans to keep doing this event each year, keeping up the work of honoring the past, well into the foreseeable future.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at email@example.com