By Jenny Neyman
It was a quintessential impulse buy: completely unplanned, wholly unpractical, outside the bounds of discretionary spending, yet completely irresistible.
“I’m, like, ‘Gotta have it,’ you know?”
That was the response of Jane Haigh, of Soldotna, upon seeing a classified ad in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in 1997.
The object of her desire? Not a snowmachine, nor a fish smoker. Neither a hot tub, backcountry cabin, sport boat or any of the myriad other items for which Alaskans develop itchy spending fingers.
Here’s a hint: At the time, she was a mining historian, living in Fairbanks since 1970 (and now is a history professor at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus).
Here’s another: It’s bigger than a breadbox. Much bigger. Possibly bigger than the manufacturing machinery that made breadboxes, and was employed in significantly altering miles upon miles of Alaska’s landscape and hydrology.
“I’m a mining historian, so I knew about gold mining in Alaska and I’d been fascinated with gold dredges for years. And they had an ad in the paper,” Haigh said.
For sale: One ginormous, intact but inoperable, metal-and-wood hulking hydraulic relic at Mile 29 Steese Highway, complete with 50 acres of scraped-out pond and machine-made corduroy tailings mounds, a testament to the power and prevalence of the 1920s industrial gold mining boom in Alaska.
Or something like that. Whatever the wording, even if simply, “Chatanika Gold Dredge No. 3 for sale,” Haigh was intrigued and mentioned it to another history-minded friend, Patricia Peirsol. They marshaled the finances to purchase the dredge and surrounding property.
In terms of monetary value, it wasn’t much of an investment, and they had no particular plan for the dredge. They weren’t hoping to open a tourist attraction, make it into some kind of TV show-worthy extreme home or sell it off piece by piece. Exactly the opposite. They bought it to do nothing with it, so no one else would try any of those things, and the history would remain just as it was.
“I didn’t want anybody to turn it into a restaurant or RV park, which is what people were talking about. We didn’t want that to happen, so we thought, ‘We’ll just protect it by buying it.’ It was kind of a thing of, ‘Well, if we owned it, it wouldn’t be lost,’” Haigh said.
Or moved, or massively transformed, which, to a historian, is another kind of loss.
“I just like to preserve historic buildings, and it would be nice if they could be preserved where they are. You kind of lose something when you’re living in this environment where everything is new,” Haigh said. “I’ve done a lot of trying to preserve things, I think that was part of it.”
Trying more than succeeding sometimes, it feels like. Haigh can rattle off physical reminders of Fairbanks’ gold-era beginnings that are now gone — historic cabins, coal bunkers, the Northern Commercial Co. general store downtown that dated back to the turn of the century.
“Nordstrom bought it,” she said. “Not so surprisingly they just decided to up and tear it down, and we got really upset. But by the time you hear about these things it’s too late. People were saying, ‘They can do whatever they want, it’s their property.’ So someplace in there it occurred to me that if you want to save something, you’re going to have to buy it.’”
They approached prospective partners and mined some potential funding veins, but none panned out.
“I guess in this new world of the millennial generation they sort of wait for these angel funders, and they have all these new things that they can do — Kickstarter or whatever,” Haigh said. “They seem to be able to raise millions of dollars at the drop of a hat. I don’t really know how that happens. Sometimes if you want to do something, you have to just do it — you can’t wait around for someone to fund it.”
So they just did it, bought 50 acres of tailings mounds and a nearly 70-year-old, 300-foot industrial mining relic. Sixteen years later, on Aug. 3, 2013, their aspirations of preservation went up in smoke.
By the 1920s, gold fever in Alaska had escalated to an industrial level. Beyond individual miners feverish to strike it rich, companies were amassing claims and investing in mechanical means to mine more efficiently.
Expanding its operations in Alaska, the Boston-based U.S. Smelting, Refining and Mining Co. commissioned seven dredges to be built by Bethlehem Steel at its Union Works Plant in San Francisco. Chatanika was one of two twin dredges built in 1927, each with 96 10-cubic-foot digging buckets, according to Haigh’s research.
The dredges left San Francisco in pieces aboard the Alaska Steamship Company’s Oduna on Nov. 26, 1927, and took 10 days to arrive in Seward.
The recent completion of the Alaska Railroad was fortuitous for the Fairbanks Exploration Company, which would operate the dredges as a subsidiary of the USSR&M Co. The dredge components were loaded and shipped to Fairbanks on two to three trains a week during January and February 1928, then over the narrow-gauge tracks of the Tanana Valley Railroad, at that time still a subsidiary of the Alaska Railroad. At Chatanika the dredge was hauled over a temporary rail spur leading to a newly dug assembly pit at the bottom of a hill.
Dredges were not a new invention, having been used in California and Russia. Just as minerals were greedily sought, so were better means for extracting them.
“What if, instead of digging for gold with shovels, hauling buckets of gravel up one by one through the mining shaft, piling it up in an enormous dump pile, waiting for spring to bring water, shoveling the gravel again into the sluice boxes; what if we could invent a giant mechanical monster that could dig with a line of enormous buckets? What if we could devise a way to sift and wash the gravel in the belly of this enormous beast? What if it could use a long conveyor belt to disgorge the waste rock so we did not have to shovel it again? But how would this beast move across the ground? Maybe it could float, like a boat,” writes Haigh in a historical piece she wrote about the dredge.
The dredges excavated their own ponds, scooping up gravel onto a conveyor belt, where it was brought inside the dredge and sluiced to extract the gold, then the remaining debris was deposited out the stacker. By the early 1930s Dredge No. 3 was excavating along the valley floor. When it was ready to move it was winched along cables. Throughout its operation the dredge moved more than 30 miles back and forth across the valley, Haigh said. Millions of dollars in gold was extracted from the valley.
“It wasn’t particularly unique technology but, of course, the engineers were trying to refine it,” Haigh said.
Alaska posed some challenges to be solved before the dredges could do their work. Namely, how to thaw frozen ground and how to dispose of the tens to hundreds of feet of frozen soil sitting on top of the gold-bearing gravel. The answer? Water, forced under pressure to thaw the ground and wash away the dirt.
Water was lacking at the mine site. But such was the hubris of the miners and lack of prohibitions against drastically altering the landscape and ecosystem that engineers devised a way to change that. The nearly 100-mile-long Davidson Ditch was built — a system of gravity-fed open earthwork canals, pipe and tunneling — connecting the Chatanika River to the dredge sites around Fairbanks.
At the mining site engineers divided the valley into 16-foot equilateral triangles, into which hired laborers — college boys from Boston — spent the summer hammering steel pipes 45 feet into the ground.
Cold water from the Chatanika River ran down each pipe and slowly thawed the ground. Once softened, the overburden was washed away with more water, pressurized through a hose and nozzle.
“Muck, dirt, overburden, silt washed down the Chatanika River, Goldstream Valley into the Minto Flats (and) choked wetlands,” Haigh wrote.
This was common practice at the dredge sites. In Fairbanks the newly built Pumphouse sucked water out of the Chena River and into Ester to run giant hydraulic hoses to wash topsoil out of the valley, down Ester Creek and into the Chena River.
“Just destroying the river, just silting it up,” Haigh said. “You could never do that now.”
It was strip mining at its most efficient, and destructive, of the day, and its impacts can still be seen today. Drive along the Parks Highway, for example, down a steep slope onto gravel coming into Ester and look up.
“There’s couple-hundred-foot cliffs above you — it’s a strip mine. You don’t really perceive that right away, but it is,” Haigh said.
Same thing driving into Fox, or seeing the slopes and tailings hills along the Steese Highway at the Chatanika Dredge site.
At the time, environmental regulations weren’t what they are today.
“Everybody in Fairbanks was really happy,” Haigh said.
The industrial mining boom saved an area that was struggling to survive. The dredges operated on electricity, so more of it was needed than the old wood-fired Fairbanks plant could provide. Coal was shipped in via the railroad and a coal-fired power plant (later taken over by Golden Valley Electric) was built with much greater capacity.
“So they built this power plant, they built all these houses, they built power lines, the people in Fairbanks were ecstatic because they thought the place was going to dry up and blow away, and now here comes all this work. It just kept Fairbanks going for years,” Haigh said.
“If you talked to the people in Minto, for instance, that’s where the Chatanika River flows to, they were really impacted by all that mining,” she said. “But the downriver situations, nobody asked them.
Pay dirt’s diminishing returns
By 1940 the Fairbanks Exploration Company was operating eight dredges. But with the country embroiled in a world war, manpower was in short supply, and in 1942 President Roosevelt shut down mining as unessential to the war effort. After the war, Cold War-era construction projects started up across the state and the mining industry still found it difficult to secure workers, Haigh said.
Nevertheless, the dredges started churning to life again in the late 1940s. But within 10 years the dredges started running out of ground to consume, and large-scale mining in general was losing some of its economic shine, especially since the price of gold had been fixed at $35 an ounce since 1944.
In 1958 USSR&M started shutting down the dredges. No. 3 lasted longer than most, operating until 1963. The company eventually started selling off the dredges, and soon after the associated acreage. Dredge No. 8 was turned into a tourist attraction right outside Fairbanks. Haigh and Peirsol wanted to keep theirs as authentic as possible. They thought about making it an art park, and at one point allowed the site to be used for a contemporary dance performance, as well as a poetry festival.
“Everybody really liked it. It’s really amazing to me how many people liked to go out there and see it. And still do. It was amazing, really, and still is,” Haigh said.
Not all of the visitors were careful, history-minded sightseers, however. Over the years the dredge suffered vandalism.
“A lot of graffiti, and the graffiti was getting worse. People shooting at it, taking stuff off of it and having fires on the beach and the hillsides,” she said.
On Aug. 3, 2013, two men ran into the Chatanika Lodge and said they had been across the Steese Highway at the dredge, had spun a pulley and it kept spinning, throwing off sparks that ignited the old wood of the structure.
Wildland firefighters mobilized to the fire, which was outside the coverage area of the Alaska Fire Service and so not a high suppression priority unless human life, health or homes were threatened. Soon after, firefighters received a report of another blaze about 20 miles east of the dredge, this one threatening a nearby neighborhood. The dredge was left to burn.
Haigh said she and Peirsol had liability insurance on the dredge, but nothing to cover value and no resources with which to finance repairs. Peirsol visited the site immediately after the fire and described it as a mess. Haigh, who moved to the peninsula in 2009, went up to visit in mid-September. She was expecting to be even more dismayed seeing the destruction in person, but instead her mind settled on acceptance.
“I was really upset when I first heard it burned, but after I went up to see it I’m feeling like it’s just the way it is,” Haigh said.
The metal frame of the dredge remains intact and the site itself is unchanged.
“It’s actually still there, it’s just transformed,” she said. “And part of what I really like is the site. The tailings are really quite an interesting place. I think there’s a value in understanding what they did to the land, for sure.”
She still doesn’t know what she’s going to do with it, her piece of Alaska history, now eroded even more from its glory days of manmade mechanical manipulation.
Perhaps they could have protected it better. Maybe they should have found a caretaker or installed a giant fence. Retrospect is always the best lens for examining history. Still, Haigh said she doesn’t regret her participation in Gold Dredge No. 3, neither her impulse toward preservation nor her action to purchase it. The result, at least, stands her in good stead with state history.
“Boom and bust, that’s Alaska,” Haigh said.