Mon, February 25, 2013

Honoring Melvin Dempsey: Part II

A continuation of the story of Melvin Dempsey, a half-African-American, half Cherokee prospector who contributed much to the establishment of early Valdez.
by Andrew Goldstein
With George Hazelet and A.J. Meals, Dempsey discovered gold on Chistochina River in the fall of 1899. Starting for the interior via the glacier route, he arrived at Chisna, placing numerous claims along the Chistochina River between 1899 and 1901. In March 1898, Dempsey became the center of a controversy. Since 1897, the Valdez town site had been a part of the Prince William Sound Mining District, located on Bligh and Busby Islands where the population of prospectors was then centered and the district recorder made his home. Melvin Dempsey and others who at that time had decided not to go over the glacier began staking claims in Port Valdez. In the face of criticisms about the legality of these claims, Dempsey and others called a meeting at the Christian Endeavor Hall to declare the formation of a separate mining district. Nancy Lethcoe writes, “On January 16, 1899, the Port Valdez Mining District was formed. All claims within Port Valdez would be filed with the new district, those outside the Port with the Prince William Sound Mining District.”
Map of claims in Chisna district placed by Melvin
Dempsey, most likely hand-drawn by Dempsey
himself. Photographed by P.S. Hunt c. 1905.
In 1900, Dempsey was elected recorder for Chisna (Cherokee) Mining District, as most of Dempsey’s claims were on Slate Creek trail. Dempsey became the postmaster of the new mining town of Chisna, which was renamed Dempsey in his honor. In 1902, Dempsey had accumulated enough wealth to warrant an expansion of the Christian Endeavor Church in Valdez, and became the chairman for the Valdez Mining District the following year. Dempsey also helped to form Valdez’s first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. This achievement was well warranted, as the treacherous conditions of travel to the Interior applied equally to horses and dogs as well as the prospectors who owned them.
Beginning in 1903, Dempsey’s involvement with Valdez waned. A falling out with the church over financial matters led to him stepping down from his post as the Valdez Christian Endeavor Society president, and resigning from the church altogether the following year. Dempsey spent some of his time traveling between Alaska and the mainland U.S. during the following years, trying to interest investors in his property. Curiously, he was reported as having drowned in the Chistochina River in 1915.
Melvin Dempsey helped to establish the “Everyman’s Clubhouse”,
Alaska’s first free reading room. The room housed newspapers,
religious publications, popular contemporary books, as well as
games and musical instruments.
However, Dempsey’s story doesn’t end there. In 2006, descendants of Melvin Dempsey arrived at the Valdez Museum to learn about Dempsey’s adventures in Alaska. In attendance was Melvin Dempsey’s nephew, Avery Chandler, Sr., an elderly gentleman with childhood memories of having met his uncle. According to Mr. Chandler, Dempsey did travel back and forth between Alaska and his family in Michigan in the late 1910s and early 1920s. At one point Dempsey had stopped writing home to his family, and the family hired the law firm of Wilkes & Stone to investigate. The story of the Chistochina drowning may have been fabricated by the firm, based either on hearsay or to cover up a lack of findings. Whatever the reason, Mr. Chandler clearly remembered Dempsey staying with his sister Sarah Chandler, of Battle Creek. Dempsey attempted to get family members to join him in his mining operations because he “couldn’t find an honest man” to help him.
The sad coda to this story is that Dempsey, despite his numerous contributions to Valdez history, was regarded as an outcast by his sister, culminating in her burning a large stack of the letters he had written home. This information is truly heartbreaking to any historian. As the saying goes, “History is written by the winners,” but it is the mission of scholarship to recover that which has been lost. Who knows what may have been revealed by these valuable documents? We may never know.
Do you have questions or answers about Dempsey’s story? Contact Andrew Goldstein, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Valdez Museum, at, or call 907-835-8905.