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The Golden Years : Mining's in His Blood, but It Hasn't Claimed His Soul

March 20, 1992|LESLIE KNOWLTON HERZOG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ORANGE — Gold fever. A sickness that can strike otherwise normal people to cause loss of all rational judgment. An affliction that makes thieves out of people who otherwise wouldn't steal, turns country against country and blasts families apart.

So says John Miscovich, a modern-day gold miner who has prospected his father's 1910 Alaskan claim for more than seven decades.

"Gold is a noble metal and has been respected from Day 1 around the world," said the Alaskan resident, who winters in Orange. "But in the wrong hands, it can be a very evil one. It can develop situations unlike anything else. The closest thing to it is diamonds, but even diamonds won't do it. It's an unbelievable spell."

Fortunately, he doesn't have it.

"It's always been a business to me," he said.

Miscovich, 74, sat in his memorabilia-lined home office and reminisced about his family's long gold-mining career near Flat, a once-booming interior town about 300 air miles from Anchorage. On the walls were dozens of family photographs, in addition to pictures of his invention, the Intelligiant, a hydraulic monitor for mining that is now used in many other industries worldwide.

"They say there's a relationship between your body chemistry and the chemistry of gold," he said, smiling. "It's like a magnet. You have to be very careful around gold that it doesn't become an addiction."

But gold is simply a product, said Miscovich, a product that has supported his family and his father's family before him for 82 years.

"By no means did we get rich," he said. "The first 25 years were a real struggle in every sense of the word."

The tale of the Alaskan Miscoviches trails back to Croatia in 1903. Peter Miscovich, John's father, was 18 then and wanted to avoid being drafted into the military.

"Some other Yugoslavs had already left for America and written back to say how wonderful it was, how free it was. (Dad) got enough money to get in a boat and head to New York," Miscovich said.

There, the elder Miscovich worked as a stevedore. Drawn by news from other Croatian immigrants, he then tried copper mining in Montana, gold mining in California and coal mining in Washington. Unhappy with working underground in all three jobs, he in 1910 saw a newspaper article about the gold rush in Iditarod, Alaska.

"He quit the mine, went to Seattle and traveled in steerage to St. Michael, Alaska where the ocean boat terminated," said Miscovich. "From there, he took a sternwheeler riverboat and traveled 2,000 miles up the Yukon and Iditarod rivers to Iditarod, about 8 miles from the gold strike."

In Iditarod, Miscovich's father bought supplies and headed by foot through the mosquito-infested tundra to the Discovery Claim near the town of Flat. He staked out about 40 acres there and thus started his career as a gold miner.

"Alaska was tough country," said Miscovich. "You had to be very resourceful. The winters were like Siberia, six months of dark, dark dreary winter. There were none of the facilities we all take so for granted--no hospital, no indoor plumbing, no electricity. It was all candles and lanterns and dog teams to bring the mail over once or twice a month."

In 1912, another Yugoslav arrived. When Peter Miscovich saw a picture of this man's sister, he asked him to write and ask her to be Miscovich's wife. She accepted, traveled to Flat and married Peter Miscovich in December, 1912.

"He didn't know her, but he liked the photograph," said his son, laughing. "He was a good judge of good-looking women."

Miscovich said during the height of the gold stampede, from 1910 until 1914, about 6,000 people moved into the area. And once the last riverboat left in October, the only way out was to walk.

Everyone came for the gold, he said.

"Practically everyone had the gold fever in one form or another," he said. "But when they saw there was no ground left, they got into other businesses."

Iditarod rapidly grew to an incorporated city with 17 saloons, a telegraph system and three newspapers. Flat had a telephone system, two stores, a hotel, restaurant, pool hall, laundry and a jail. Discovery had saloons and hotels.

"It was all quite busy," said Miscovich. "There were gold robberies and crooked gambling, which was quite exciting in Flat, but it was so remote that it didn't have as many problems as other areas did."

In 1918, many people left. World War I "took a lot of people out of there," he said. "Plus, there just wasn't enough gold for everyone."

By the start of World War II, there were only about 200 people left, Miscovich said. The government took machinery and shut down industries not related to defense. After the war, Flat faded away to about 15 people, including children, he said.

As people dropped their claims, Peter Miscovich took them over. Little by little, the miner acquired 1,400 acres, the entire valley of Otter Creek.

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