Friday, March 9, 2012

Fairbanks Exploration Company machine shop kept the dredges running

FE Company machine shop as it looked in the early 1990s

When you are in the resource development industry, the infrastructure to support your business needs to be in place before your operations begin. And if your operations are at the end of a 2,000-mile-long supply line, having local warehousing, repair and fabrication facilities is essential.

So it was with the Fairbanks Exploration Company when it moved into the Fairbanks area in the 1920s. Besides the Alaska Railroad to Fairbanks, and Tanana Valley Railroad from Fairbanks to Chatanika, there was a rudimentary road system and not much else in the way of infrastructure.

Before its dredges were brought in, the FE Company had to develop the Davidson Ditch water system, construct a power plant and electrical distribution system, erect support camps, and build warehousing and repair facilities.

One of the first support facilities completed was its company machine shop, located off Charles Street behind the FE Company office building on Illinois Street. The machine shop (shown in the drawing) was completed in 1927.

According to “The F.E. Company Industrial Site: Historic Resources and Preservation Potential,” the original portion of the machine shop (the first steel-frame structure in Interior Alaska) is a 64’ x 136' single-story building with 20' ceilings in the central area.  A large garage addition (40’ x 80’) was added to the south in 1941, and an open storage shed was constructed on the western end of the original portion at a later date. The building has numerous large multi-pane wood sash windows and is sheathed with shiplap siding and corrugated metal (all original).

This facility was the best equipped machine shop in Fairbanks. It was the repair center for company vehicles and equipment that couldn’t be fixed in the field, and for fabricating tools and parts. A 1931 publication put out by the U.S. Smelting, Refining and Mining Company (FE Company’s parent) bragged that, “In order to take care of repair work the company has provided very complete repair shops at Fairbanks. The machine shop contains tools of sufficient size to handle all parts of the dredges and power plant equipment.”

The last FE Company dredges shut down in the 1960s, and the company’s successor, Alaska Gold Company, sold off its assets in the early 1990s. Golden Valley Electric Cooperative bought most of the Illinois Street property, along with the FE Company's office building, but John and Ramona Reeves (who owned Gold Dredge No.8 and other historic properties) bought the machine shop and the land it sits on.

The Reeves renamed the machine shop the Daniel F. Eagan Machine Shop. Talking with Eagan’s son, Pete, I learned that Dan, who grew up at Meehan on Fairbanks Creek, worked at the FE Company for over 40 years as a mining engineer, machinist, and master mechanic.

The machine shop still contains most of its milling machines and other equipment, still in working condition. One of the large machining lathes was used to resurface the axles for Engine No. 1 at Pioneer Park when it was restored in the 1990s.

The truck depicted in the drawing is a 1937 Ford 1-ton panel truck and it was an actual FE Company vehicle, still sitting on the property when I took my reference photos. (There was also a 1948 Ford truck there.) I have a friend who used to be a mechanic for the FE Company and he said the company mostly operated Ford vehicles.

The shop, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, hasn’t seen much use or many visitors in recent years, but it is still there. The building’s first floor windows are boarded up now, but the machine shop is still filled with machines and memories, waiting to tell its story.

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