Saturday, April 18, 2015

Final Weekend for "Interior Sketches II" Kickstarter project

Spritis are high as we go into this final weekend of our Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for publishing my book, "Interior Sketches II, More ramblings around Interior Alaska historic sites." We have met our funding goals, so there will be no gloom and doom last minute appeal for pledges. Just a  note that this is your last chance to pledge for one of the specially signed AND remarqied copies of the book that backers will receive  WHEN (not if) it is published this Fall. It's also your last chance to sign up for one of the special combination rewards being offered.

If you are still interested in pledging please check out the Kickstarter project at this link, . Or go to the Kickstarter website ( and do a search for "Interior Sketches II." Nuff said!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Leaves and Ice - April 2015

The snow is almost gone here in Fairbanks. Still some patches--but those are actually mostly ice granules. Last Fall's leaves that used to lie on top of the snow have absorbed the sun's heat and melted down through the snow.

The first photo is of a small leaf that has melted itself down into a 3" holes.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Emil Usibelli and the early years of Usibelli Coal Mine

Bucyrus 20-B steam shovel at Usibelli Coal Mine in 2014

In 1907, at the age of 14, Emil Usibelli emigrated from Italy to the United States. Settling in Washington state, he worked a variety of jobs, doing stints as a miner, logger, and foundry worker before buying a coal distribution business. With economic hardships brought on by the Great Depression, Usibelli moved to Alaska in 1935 to start afresh.

He hired on as a coal miner at the Evan Jones mine just outside Sutton, about 15 miles northwest of Palmer, and a year later moved to Interior Alaska, working at “Cap” Lathrop’s Healy River Coal Corporation mine at Suntrana, just east of Healy. Laid-off due to a work-related injury, he fell back on his other work skills and established a logging operation supplying timbers to the coal mines.

Between 1940 and 1941 the United States built military installations at Kodiak, Unalaska, Anchorage and Fairbanks, and this military presence greatly increased Alaska’s market for coal. During the early years of World War II the Healy River Coal Corporation supplied most of the coal used in Fairbanks by Ladd Field (now called Fort Wainwright) and the civilian population, but was hard-pressed to keep up with the increasing demand.

The book, Mining the Burning Hills, A History of Suntrana Coal Mine and Townsite, states that the Federal Coal Commission began looking for additional operators to increase Alaska’s coal production. Emil landed a federal contract to explore for coal east of Suntrana. In 1943 he and his friend, T. E. Thad Sanford, obtained a lease on coal lands just upstream from Suntrana, and signed a one year contract to supply Ladd Field with 10,000 tons of coal.

Coal mines in Alaska up until then had been underground operations. Emil and Thad used a much simpler technique—scraping overburden off surface seams with a tractor and then pushing the coal into the bed of a truck. Their methods were primitive but successful. They met their contractual obligations, and from then on gradually expanded and improved the operation. Emil eventually did some underground mining, but concentrated on strip mining since it was safer and more efficient.

The steam shovel shown in the drawing was used during the early years of the mine. According to the “Steam Shovel Registry,” it is a Bucyrus model 20-B, weighing 20 tons and having a ¾ cubic yard bucket. Promotional literature called it a “universal” excavator, since it could be converted from a basic shovel to a dragline, crane, or clamshell shovel with minimal alterations. Retired many years ago, it now sits outside the company’s office near Healy.

In 1945 Emil, who handled mine operations, began experimenting with hydraulic stripping (removing overburden with high-pressure jets of water). The sandstone capping the coal seams was too solid to simply be worked hydraulically and had to be drilled and blasted before being washed way.  Emil eventually gave the process up and went back to mechanical stripping. However, during the time he did use hydraulicking his workers make a little extra pocket money. Emil set up sluice boxes to catch the small amount of gold washed out with the overburden, and his workers were allowed to keep whatever gold they recovered.

In 1948 he bought his partner out, and during the 1950s output from the mine surpassed that of his competitors. In 1961 he bought out his main rival, Suntrana Coal Mine (successor to Lathrop’s Healy River Coal Company).

Emil was killed in a mine accident on March 24, 1964. His son, Joe, took over management of Usibelli Coal Mine, and he in turn was succeeded by his son, Joe Usibelli, Jr.. The mine is still in operation, managed by the same family for 70 years. It employs about 140 people, and provides coal not only to local utilities, but ships it abroad to customers in Asia and South America.


  • Bucyrus, Making the Earth Move for 125 Years. Keith Haddock. Motorbooks International. 2005

  • “Emil Usibelli (1893-1964).” Charles B. Green & Becki Phipps. From Alaska Mining Hall of Fame Foundation website. 2000

  • Mining the Burning Hills: A History of Suntrana Coal Mine and Townsite. Rolfe G. Buzzell. Alaska Office of History and Archaeology. 1994

  • Steam Shovel Register website. Information provided by H. Keith Walters.

  • “The Usibelli Story.” From Usibelli Coal Mine website

  • “Usibelli Coal Mine celebrating 60 years in Alaska.” Christy Caballero. In Alaska Business Monthly. November 2003

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Last week for "Interior Sketches II" Kickstarter campaign!

My Kickstarter campaign for raising funds to publish "Interior Sketches II, More ramblings around Interior Alaska historic sites" is entering its final week. The campaign ends Sunday, April 19th at 9:00 pm. That should give you late tax filers time to get your taxes done AND pledge.

For those of you unfamiliar with my work, this will be my second book. The first was "Interior Sketches, Ramblings around Interior Alaska historic sites," which described 60 historic sites scattered across Eastern Interior Alaska.

This second book will cover an additional 60 sites, with each entry including a detailed pen and ink illustration plus a short essay describing the site and regional history.

Books pledged for during the campaign will be signed and include a special remarque on the title page. Only books sent to Kickstarter backers will have the special remarques. A $20.00 pledge will make you one of the first to get a book.

In addition there are other neat rewards for different pledge levels, from art postcards and note cards, to historical calendars, and also rewards that include a copy of the book plus an original historical drawing. Please check out the Kickstarter project at this link, . Or go to the Kickstarter website ( and do a search for "Interior Sketches II."

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Old Pan American hanger is a piece of Fairbanks' hidden history

Pan American Airways hanger at Weeks field in the early 1940s

The Pan American Airways hangar shown in the drawing is part of Fairbanks’ hidden history. It was once used by Pan Am at Weeks Field (located where the Noel Wien Library is now) which was Fairbanks’ original airport.

According to Dermot Cole’s book, Fairbanks, a Gold Rush Town that Beat the Odds, Weeks Field began as a baseball diamond called Exposition Park. Years before it officially became an airport, however, it was used as a landing field. In 1913 it became the site for the first airplane flight in Alaska when local merchants brought a husband-and-wife flying team and their airplane to Fairbanks for demonstration flights. The plane arrived in Fairbanks in a crate, and after the flights, it was crated back up for return shipment to the Lower 48.

In 1920, the baseball diamond again was used as a landing field when a flight of four U.S. Army bombers, the Black Wolf Squadron, visited Fairbanks during a 9,300-mile round-trip flight from Mitchell Field, New York, to Nome. In 1923, it was the site where Ben Eielson made his first flights in his Curtiss-Wright Jenny.

As the site was used increasingly as a landing field, the city decided serving the needs of aviation should be the site’s primary function and established Weeks Field. The Territory also was realizing the importance of aviation, and in 1925 the Territorial legislature authorized the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) to add airfield construction and maintenance to its list of responsibilities. By 1927, the ARC was maintaining 24 airfields.

Several small regional air carriers were based out of Weeks Field during its earliest years. In 1932, Pan American Airways moved into the Alaska market, buying out Alaska Airways and Pacific International Airways and merging them into a Pan Am subsidiary called Pacific Alaska Airways (PAA). According to a 1991 article in Alaska Business Monthly magazine, the acquisitions provided PAA with facilities in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Nome; and airmail contracts to deliver mail to communities in the Interior, on the Kenai Peninsula and in Western Alaska.

The next year PAA constructed a modern hangar in Fairbanks. As PAA and other carriers expanded and brought larger aircraft into Weeks Field, the airport’s runway was lengthened. A gravel runway eventually extended westward from Gillam Way almost as far as the present location of the Fairbanks Curling Club on Second Avenue. In 1941, the name PAA was phased out as the carrier became the Alaska Division of Pan American Airways.

PAA and Pan American used larger aircraft such as the Lockeed Electra for regularly scheduled service between larger communities. Smaller planes such as the Fairchild Pilgrim 100B (NC 7-42N) shown in the drawing were used for flights to smaller airfields in rural Alaska.

These sturdy little planes sometimes are called American Pilgrims since American Airlines purchased most of them. The planes were well known for their short field capabilities, and many of them eventually migrated to Alaska and the Yukon Territory. Only 26 Pilgrim 100As and 100Bs were manufactured, and the sole surviving airworthy Pilgrim is located in Anchorage at the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum.

By the late 1940s, community expansion in Fairbanks was beginning to envelop Week’s Field. That and the need for even longer runways and expanded facilities to serve newer aircraft brought about the development of Fairbanks International Airport.

By 1951, the new airport was operational and Weeks Field closed. Within months of the field closing, the old control tower burned down. The old Pan Am hanger was acquired by a partnership of Fairbanks residents, and in 1959 was re-purposed into what you see today, the Arctic Bowl bowling alley.


  • “Abandoned and Little Known Airfields in Alaska.” Paul Freeman. Abandoned and Little-known Airfields website. 2003
  • “Alaska’s Heritage: Chapter 4-12: Air Transportation.” Alaska Humanities Forum website. 2015
  • Fairbanks, a Gold Rush Town that Beat the Odds. Dermot Cole. University of Alaska Press. 1999
  • “New Bowling Emporium is one of Largest in Alaska” In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 9-28-1959
  • Photos and information on Pacific Alaska Airways Pilgrim 100Bs, on Ed Coates Civil Aircraft Photo Collection website.
  • “Tales of Pan American World Airways.” Kate Ripley. In Alaska Business Monthly. July 1991

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Kickstarter campaign for "Interior Skeches II" book reaches 50% funding level

We are half way to our funding goal of $2,230.00, which is the amount needed to cover the development and first printing of my book, "Interior Sketches II, More ramblings around Interior Alaska historic sites.

For those of you unfamiliar with the project, this is a follow-up project to my first book, "Interior Sketches, Ramblings around Interior Alaska historic sites.

Both books are based on the historical column, "Sketches of Alaska," which I have been producing for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner newspaper for the past five years. That column was given the "Contributions to Alaska History award by the Alaska Historical Society in 2011.

Each book showcases 60 historic sites scattered across the region, with each listing featuring a detailed pen and ink illustration plus a short essay describing the site and regional history. You can get a feel for the book by looking at the historical posts on my blog, "Sketches of Alaska."

Please check out the Kickstarter project for "Interior Sketches II." The project ends on April 19th, so there is still time to pledge. Rewards offered range from art postcards and note cards for $10.00 and under, a 2016 historical calendar for $12.00, copies of the new book for $20.00, and original historical pen and ink drawings ranging from $150.00 to $400.00.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Old Independent Lumber warehouse representative of Interior Alaska's lumbering history

Independent Lumber's Fairbanks warehouse in 1990

As the town of Fairbanks grew between 1901 and the early 1920s it was not built with brick and stone. The city was far from Outside sources, and shipping space limited. Heavy building materials were generally too expensive to ship, so residents built with local materials when possible.
Wood was the construction material of choice, and Fairbanks had an insatiable appetite for lumber during its early years.

Logs and milled lumber were used to construct buildings, boats and other implements; timbers were needed for bridges and mine tunnels supports; and cordwood was essential to fuel the countless steam engines used at mines, and to heat homes and businesses. Huge wood lots lay scattered about town. One early photo of a cord-wood yard describes it as being 20 acres in size.

The first buildings in Fairbanks were cabins constructed of logs hewn by the builders themselves, but by 1903 local sawmills were supplying lumber. A 1904 photograph shows Fred Noyes’ Tanana Mill at the edge of town, about where the Morris Thompson Cultural Center is now. (The Tanana Mill later moved across the river to “Noyes” slough, where the Golden Valley Electrical Association complex now is on Illinois Street.)

According to a 2003 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article by Candy Waugaman, four lumber mills supplied the Fairbanks area’s needs by 1907. There was Chena Lumber at Chena townsite downriver from Fairbanks, Fairbanks Lumber on Garden Island, the Noyes mill, and Independent Lumber at the east end of Seventh Avenue, on the far side of the city cemetery.

Independent Lumber began as a partnership between Roy Rutherford and Sylvester Widman. A 1909 article in Alaska-Yukon magazine relates that Rutherford came to Valdez in 1901, spent several years there operating a sawmill, and then moved to Fairbanks. Widman stampeded to Dawson City in 1898, moved to Eagle after a couple of years and finally landed in Fairbanks about the same time Rutherford did.

In May 1906 Rutherford bought land on the bank of the Chena River at the edge of town and erected a mill, and in September of that year he partnered with Walker to form Independent Lumber Company. For many years they operated a large lumber yard stretching from the city cemetery at Seventh Avenue to 10th Avenue where the Regency Hotel is now.

Facilities included a saw and planning mill, garage, offices, two residences, numerous sheds and warehouse. Logs for the mill were felled in the upper reaches of the Chena River Valley and floated downriver to Fairbanks. An early photo of the sawmill shows an inclined skidway four-logs wide leading up from the river to stacks of unprocessed logs, with the mill building in the background.
The operation was so successful that it opened an office downtown on First Avenue and had an additional office across the river near the railroad yard.

In 1918, it bought out the Tanana Mill. Independent Lumber remained at its eastside location until the 1960s when the business moved to a new site on south Cushman Street (where Independent Rental is now).

The 50-foot by 84-foot timber-frame gable-roofed warehouse shown in the drawing is the mill’s only surviving building. It is depicted with its original ship-lap siding and corrugated metal roof. Located at the corner of Clay Street and 8th Avenue, it lay empty and deteriorating for almost 50 years. In 1975,the Borough even assessed it as only being worth salvage value.

However, the building was recently rehabilitated, including replacing the siding and roof. It now houses Automotive Concepts. One can hope that the building, visible from the Steese Expressway, will be around for many years to come.


  • Buzby and Metcalf photo album. University Archives. University of Alaska Fairbanks

  • “Fairbanks, A city historic building survey.” Janet Matheson. City of Fairbanks. 1985

  • “In the woods.” Candy Waugaman. In “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 2-23-2003

  • “Men and Endeavor in the Tanana Valley.” B. B. Metheany. In “Alaska-Yukon” magazine. “ January 1909

  • "Mill stood where hotel is today.” Candy Waugaman. In “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 4-23-1995

  • Woodrow Johansen Papers. University Archives. University of Alaska Fairbanks