Photos courtesy of Jane Haigh. Chatanika Gold Dredge No. 3, outside of Fairbanks, is seen before being scorched in a fire in August 2013. The dredge is co-owned by Jane Haigh, of Soldotna, who bought it to try and preserve this 70-year-old, 300-foot piece of gold mining history.
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.
The dredge had a significant effect on the topography of the Chatanika valley, dredging out a pond covering the valley floor, scooping up buckets full of gravel and depositing the tailings into huge new mounds. Even though the dredge was damaged in a fire, the area itself still has value as a peek into Alaska’s early industrial gold-mining era, said Jane Haigh, co-owner of the dredge.
“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.