Suntrana Coal Mine near Healy, Alaska is just a memory
Suntrana, near Healy, takes its name from an Athabascan word meaning “burning hills,” denoting the smoke rising from smoldering coal seams nearby. Besides Usibelli Coal Mine, the area is best-known for the old Suntrana townsite and underground coal mine in the narrow Healy Creek valley, just upstream from Suntrana Creek and 2.5 miles east of Healy. The Healy River Coal Corporation opened its mine there in 1921.
In the mine’s first year of operation, coal was hauled by tractor-drawn wagons to the Nenana River and by tram across the river to the Alaska Railroad (ARR). In 1922, the ARR built a bridge over the river and a spur line to the mine. In addition to coal trains, the mine ran a “doodlebug” (an automobile equipped to run on rails) to ferry people between Suntrana and Healy.
In 1922, Austin “Cap” Lathrop began investing in the mine, and by 1924 he was its principal stockholder and president. Under his management, the mine grew into the largest coal producer in Interior Alaska.
The mine’s portal was just north of Healy Creek, and all mining activities were restricted to that side of the creek. Initially, most workers lived in bunkhouses at the mine site. Later, log cabins were built on company property south of the creek to house families of married workers. From those log cabins sprang the town of Suntrana. Over time, Suntrana expanded to include numerous wood-frame residences, a few mobile homes, a one-room school, company store, recreation hall and commissary, and two churches.
According to the “Dictionary of Alaska Place Names,” in 1930 Suntrana had a population of 69, and by 1950 had expanded to 150 residents. A 1950s map shows about two-dozen structures in the town and about a dozen across the creek at the mine.
Cap Lathrop died in an accident at the mine in 1950, and a group of Anchorage investors bought the Suntrana mine in 1953. Usibelli Coal Company, interested in Suntrana’s coal loading facility, bought the operation in 1961. A year later, they closed the underground mine.
In 1967 Usibelli constructed a new tipple (shown in the drawing) at Suntrana to load coal into railroad cars. That same year, the railroad bridge over the Nenana River was planked, finally allowing workers and their families to drive themselves across the river.
Mine workers continued living at Suntrana, but by the end of the ’60s Usibelli’s expanding operations forced it to find alternative housing for employees. With completion of the Parks Highway in 1972, workers, began migrating toward the highway. Usibelli leased state land near the highway and subleased lots to its workers. The townsite at Suntrana was shuttered, and some of its buildings, including the two churches, were moved to Healy.
Rolfe Buzzell’s report, “Mining the Burning Hills,” states that Usibelli relocated all its Suntrana operations to the Poker Flats area, near the Nenana River northwest of Suntrana, in 1983, and the old Suntrana coal lease was transferred to the State of Alaska. In 1986 the surviving structures at the Suntrana townsite were removed as part of a mine reclamation project. A year later, in the manner of the proverbial farmer closing the barn door after the horse had escaped, the state legislature declared the area a State Historic Site.
The tipple and a few associated buildings were all that remained. In 2000, the Alaska Office of History and Archeology determined that the tipple was not eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Coupled with the tipple’s deteriorating condition and site contamination from industrial pollutants, the state removed the remaining buildings in 2008.
Now, where once a vibrant little community stood, nothing is left but dusty, overgrown roads.
- “Alaska’s first Homegrown Millionaire, Life and Times of Cap Lathrop.” Elizabeth Tower. Publication Consultants. 2006
- Conversations with McKenzie Johnson, archeologist; and Jo Antonson, State Historian, at the Alaska State Office of History and Archeology. 2018
- “Mining the Burning Hills: a History of Alaska’s Suntrana Coal Mine and Townsite.’ Rolfe Buzzell. Office of History and Archeology, Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. 1994.
- “Site Report: ADNR Suntrana Mine Site.” Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. 2017
- “Usibelli Coal Mine History.” Usibelli Coal Mine website, http://www.usibelli.com. 2015