Local miner, pioneer and television celebrity John Schnabel passed away Friday at the age of 96. Schnabel owned Big Nugget Mine outside of Haines, served as mayor, and, in his later years, became a national celebrity with a starring role in the Discovery Channel show Gold Rush.
“I came to Haines in 1939 at the age of 19.”
That’s John Schnabel during a community interview recorded by KHNS in the late ‘90s.
“We started a small sawmill here and it was really a small toy rather than a real professional mill. So we went to porcupine and bought the sawmill, and we took a tractor and a lowboy across the river at 33 Mile and we dismantled the mill and brought it down and put it out on Jones Point. So that was my first observation of the town, as it then existed, of Porcupine. And it was intact,” he recounted.
“I actively began to mine the Porcupine in the late 70s and early 80s and it became obvious that the old miners had put a lot of energy into it…”
Among his many family members, Schnabel is survived by his wife Erma, four children and two grandchildren. His daughter Debra Schnabel says he was not an easy man to define in a few words.
“Well it was really interesting when my sister took John’s body to the crematorium; she had to say what his occupation was,” she says. “She stumbled in the same way that you (did) with the question. So she said, ‘He’s a film star’ and the woman said ‘A film star? What film has he been in?’ And she said ‘He’s the grandpa on Gold Rush.’ ‘Oh, he’s the grandpa on Gold Rush, well, he’s a gold miner.’ So, that’s what’s on his death certificate – that he’s a gold miner.
“It’s a very big, impactful chapter, but it is a small chapter in a very big life.”
Debra says she feels far removed from John’s celebrity status, which spans the globe. The show began in 2010.
“I quite honestly was experiencing my father’s death in a very small way. I mean, it’s in my life, in my family, in my hometown. And then I started getting calls from Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Anchorage and Washington, D.C. and I just thought ‘Wow, where is all this coming from?’”
But, she says, if he inspired people through the show, then that’s great.
“And there’s stories out there that aren’t true, you know that John died peacefully in his sleep with his family around him in Haines, Alaska. Well, that’s not true. My father died in Oakland, California, in a rest home with congestive heart failure. He died at night, which we’re all very grateful for because dad always wanted to, as he said, die with his boots on.”
Debra says her father was eloquent and politically active. He was the mayor of Haines more than once and you can’t look down Main Street these days without seeing remnants of his legacy.
“I think that John was very much responsible for creating a blue-collar town because he was in the timber industry and he built a mill that employed many, many people and we were a community of milling families.”
A celebration of life for John Schnabel is scheduled for the public on Saturday, April 2 at Harriett Hall around 4 p.m.
“The entire community is invited and we will eat and enjoy each other, and recall dad’s life and celebrate that. He was a big party guy, you know? So, it’ll be a big party and the Fish Pickers will play and we’ll dance and everyone I hope can bring a story – large or small. And hopefully positive.”
Prior to that, a small, graveside service will take place for family at Jones Point where John’s father, uncle and brother are buried.
John: “So I became somewhat interested in the place and the over the years, I eventually ended up purchasing several of the claims… and I became, for lack of anything else to do, a miner.”