Friday, April 20, 2012

Ester’s assay office: A little building that survived

Ester Assay Office in 1993

Many people are familiar with the hotel and Malemute Saloon at Ester Gold Camp. But how many have paid any attention to the small frame-building on the northeast corner of the gold camp property? Most other buildings on the property were built after 1930, but this little cabin was probably constructed about 1906, soon after Ester, Alaska was established.

Thousands of miners flooded into the Fairbanks area after the 1902 discovery of gold on Pedro Creek. Gold was found on Ester Creek in 1903 and the small community of Ester City sprang up in 1904. Within a few years Ester had three hotels, five saloons plus other businesses, and a population of several hundred people.

As with most small towns around Fairbanks, the richest diggings around Ester began to play out fairly quickly. Ester’s population dwindled in tandem with gold production, but the little town hung on.

The Fairbanks Exploration Company began acquiring claims and doing exploratory drilling along Ester Creek in the mid-1920s in preparation for large-scale dredging. The company moved its Dredge No. 6 from Goldstream to Ester Creek and began dredging in the early 1930s. It built a mess hall/bunkhouse and related buildings in 1933 to support its Ester operations, and also acquired existing buildings such as the one shown in the drawing (which was used as an assay office).

Dredges float in their own little ponds, and the dredges (plus their ponds) slowly move along as the gold-bearing gravel is excavated. In this manner Dredge No. 6 gradually moved from Ester to Eva Creek, and then floated to Gold Hill via a specially constructed canal. In the winter of 1959 a stripped-down Dredge No. 6 (still weighing 680 tons) was pulled overland to Sheep Creek by 18 tractors.

With the dredge relocating to Sheep Creek, the Ester facilities were no longer needed. The camp was sold in 1958 and the new owners turned the property into a resort. The bunkhouse/mess hall was converted to a hotel, and one of the other camp buildings (also believed to date back to 1906) was refurbished as the Malemute Saloon.

The saloon’s special attraction was that half the bar counter came from the Royal Alexandra hotel in Dawson City. The other half of the bar was stored in a nearby building. This was fortuitous, since the saloon burned down in 1969. The Malemute was rebuilt and the other half of the bar was installed.

Ester Gold Camp is still much the same as it was when the FE Co. sold it. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. The little building that served as the company assay office is still there. I can’t find records of what its use was before the FE Co. acquired it, but it was probably moved to the site from another location. Since the camp passed into private ownership, the assay building has seen many different uses, including snack shop, ticket booth and gift shop. I think it’s a lovely little frame building, typical of the early 1900s when construction materials were in short supply.

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