Friday, February 3, 2012

Fairbanks coal bunkers were the last of their kind in Alaska

Coal bunkers as they looked in 1994

Fairbanks was never a coal-mining town, but coal did help Fairbanks recover from the lean times of the late 1910s and early 1920s. In 1910 about 11,000 people lived in the Fairbanks area (the city had 3,541 residents) but after the drift mines were played out, most miners moved on. By 1920 the city had shrunk to about 1,100 residents and most mining camps were virtually deserted.

The opening of the Alaska Agricultural College and Schoolof Mines in 1922 began to revive Fairbanks. However, John Boswell, in his book on the history of the Fairbanks Exploration Company (F. E. Co.), shows that the company’s gold dredges (which began operating  in the late 1920s) were what really returned prosperity to the area. And the F.E. Company’s operations would not have been possible without the completion of the Alaska Railroad in 1923, coupled with the nearby and readily accessible coal mines at Suntrana (present-day Healy area).

Coal provided power for the dredges, but also found a ready market elsewhere in Fairbanks. Nearby hills had been denuded of trees to provide timbers for mines, lumber for construction, and cordwood to fire boilers and heat buildings. People readily converted to coal since wood was becoming scarce.

In 1932 the Fairbanks coal bunkers (shown in the drawing) were built at 270 Illinois Street by the Healy River Coal Corporation.  Of heavy timber-frame construction, the bunkers were 54 feet tall and over 180 feet long.  Originally, a long inclined wooden railroad trestle led up to the bunkers and a locomotive would push loaded coal cars up the rails to dump their loads inside the top shed. Storage bins were located beneath the top floor and there were 13 chutes on either side of the structure for dispensing coal.

During the early 1960s the trestle was replaced by a steel conveyor system. With that system, coal was dumped into a pit about 70 feet from the bunkers, and the conveyor lifted the coal to the bunkers’ top level. There it was transferred to a horizontal conveyor and dropped into storage bins.

Oil gradually replaced coal as the fuel of choice for most individuals and businesses, and by the 1990s the bunkers were selling little coal. The owners of OK Lumber (their store was beside the bunkers) bought the structure in 1996, planning to dismantle it to expand their store operation. In December of that year the last load of coal was sold.

Hearing of the plans to dismantle the bunkers, the “Friends of the Coal Bunkers” organized in an effort to save the structure. Randy Griffin (one of the group’s organizers) told me that unfortunately, even with the support of many Fairbanks residents, the group was unable to secure a place to move the bunkers to, or the funds necessary to save even a small portion of it. Eventually, most of the timbers were salvaged and used for other construction projects. A small section of the bunkers was donated to the owners of Gold Dredge No. 8 and now sits on its side at the gold dredge parking lot in Fox. Other bit and pieces of the bunkers, like the ventilators that used to sit atop the roof, are lying in people’s back yards.

Bunkers also used to be located in Anchorage, Cordova, Nenana and Skagway, but those disappeared years ago. The Fairbanks coal bunkers were the last of their kind in Alaska.

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