Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Blustery October wind strews birch seeds and catkins across landscape

Today was a mellow winter day. The temperature was up in the low 20s (Fahrenheit), and a blustery wind cast about all day for things to toss around. Twigs were scattered along the street, and birch catkins, scales and seeds filled hollows in the snow and spilled over from boot and tire tracks. A lovely day for stomping around the neighborhood! By the way, the catkin scales are less than a 1/4" long.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Snowy Spiny Pine

I was up at the university at dusk (which is coming earlier and earlier these days) waiting for my son. There is a little mugo pine (not native to Alaska by the way) by the bus stop there. I've seen that tree probably hundreds of times, but the fresh snow on it made a lovely picture.

Pioneer Home residents entusiastic about history

I gave a presentation at the Pioneer Home yesterday afternoon and had so much fun. I showed a bunch of my drawings and talked about historic resources in the Fairbanks area. Many of the residents at the home have lived the history that I draw and write about, so I thought it was only fair that I share some of my work with them, and give them a chance to talk about their experiences.

There was a small but enthusiastic audience, and I enjoyed some excellent give and take with the residents. For instance, I was talking about the old Pioneer Hotel that was destroyed by fire in 1952, and one of the ladies piped up that she had been an eye witness to the hotel burning down! I also had a nice conversation with Florence Collins (mother of Miki and Julie Collins) about living next to the F.E. Company on Illinois Street during the early years when the dredges were operating.

I’ve been invited back to the Pioneer Home after the holidays to share more with the residents, and am really looking forward to it.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Old pair of hand-forged scissors is a work of art

I am fascinated by old tools. The ingenuity of yesteryear's toolmakers was amazing, and I also think that many old tools are much more aesthetically pleasing than their modern-day counterparts. The photo above is of an old pair of hand-forged scissors that came from my father-in-law's shop.

The next pair of scissors is a pair of modern sewing shears I borrowed from my wife. Functional, but not overly pretty.

Next is a pair of modern office scissors. More streamlined, but the overall design seems not very well balanced. The old pair of hand-forged scissors may not be as ergonomically correct as modern scissors, but it is much more beautiful. And it also cuts pretty well too.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ester Gold Camp a reminder of the town's heyday

The Ester Gold Camp hotel, constructed in the 1930s, was originally a mess hall-bunkhouse for the
Fairbanks Exploration Company. The structure is at the center of Ester Camp Historic District, located in Ester, Alaska.

There are 11 buildings in the district, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. The buildings include the hotel, blacksmith shop, assay office, storage buildings (one of which became the Malemute Saloon), and  several smaller bunkhouses and wanigans (A wanigan was a small portable building usually on skids—the equivalent of the modern Atco unit.) 

Ester Camp once housed workers for the massive gold dredging operation that tore millions of dollars worth of gold from Ester and Eva Creeks. It was sold by the F.E. Company to private individuals in 1957, who developed it into a resort. The resort closed in 2007.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Shakes and Snow

I have a small shed with a cedar shake roof. I thought the snow formed interesting patterns on the shakes as it settled in the afternoon sun a few days ago.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Yearling moose grazing at Birch Hill

I've been so busy with other activities that I've been forgetting to post photos. Here are two photos of yearling moose grazing up at Birch Hill Cemetery on a frosty morning before the snow started flying.

I'm not sure what kind of winter we are in for. Usually the moose head for the hills before the snow flies and don't come into town until late winter when the snow starts getting deep. Today there was a cow moose and her calf in the vacant lot next to our house. Guess I'll make sure my wood pile is well-stocked.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Samppi Mine near Chatanika typical of old drift mines that dot Interior Alaska

The giant dredges scattered along the creeks around Fairbanks are testament to the decades when dredging dominated local gold production, just as the headframes and mill buildings in the hills are reminders of hard-rock mining.

However, there are few reminders of the drift mines that initially supported Fairbanks and the mining camps surrounding it. The major reason so few of these operations still exist is because the dredges reworked much of the creek bottoms, tearing up any evidence of previous mining activity.

The drawing is of the above ground portion of the Samppi drift mine on Ruby Creek, about two miles south of Chatanika near the old Tanana Valley Railroad right-of-way. Dredges never made it to this area.

Placer miners in the Fairbanks area had to deal with the thick layers of frozen “muck” that covered the gold-bearing gravels. Miners burrowed down to those gravels, and then followed the “paystreak” by digging horizontal tunnels called drifts.

According to the book, Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the initial step was sinking vertical exploratory shafts. (Where I grew up in California, these were called “coyote holes.”) Frozen ground was first thawed with a fire or hot rocks (later with steam points), and the thawed soil excavated. This process was repeated until bedrock was reached. If miners were lucky, they found gold in sufficient quantity to mine. If not, they started over again elsewhere.

If gold was discovered the miners drifted along the paystreak, thawing the ground, excavating the gold-bearing gravel and hauling it to the surface. All this had to be done while the above-ground air temperature was below freezing. Miners foolish enough to excavate in frozen ground during warm weather ran the risk of collapsed tunnels.

The simplest drift mines used hand-cranked windlasses to lift gravel to the surface. Larger operations like the Samppi mine used steam-operated winches and a “gin pole” system. A gin pole is a pole standing to the side of a shaft. (In the case of the Samppi Mine, it was two poles lashed together.) The pole is held in position with guy wires.

Most operations also used three additional cables: a “high line” fastened to the top of the pole on which a “carrier” rode to move the ore bucket; a hoist cable to lift the bucket out of the shaft and pull the carrier up to the gin pole, and a trip cable. The chain on the front of the ore bucket was looped over the trip cable, and would automatically dump the bucket when the carrier reached the winter dump site. In this way gold-bearing gravel was stockpiled until summer when it could be sluiced out. (For more information on drift mining and other gold recovery techniques used by Alaska miners click here.)

The Sampii Mine was operated by Melvin Samppi. I couldn't find any mention of the mine in old issues of the "Fairbanks Daily News-Miner," but there are ample references to Melvin and his wife, Devina, who were active in Fairbanks during the 1930s and 40s.

The last time I visited the mine there were still three buildings standing: a bunkhouse, the boiler and hoist shack, and an outhouse. (Actually, the boiler house was barely standing — the boiler’s stack had collapsed onto the roof, and there was asbestos insulation everywhere.) The gin pole was still standing and the ore bucket (with attached carrier) was sitting in the trees. Ruby Creek runs between the gin pole and the mine shaft, and just upstream was a containment dam to stockpile water for sluicing.

If you do go out tramping in the hills, always check land ownership before you go. I crossed private property to get to Ruby Creek, but had permission from the property owner. Also, in most mining areas there is always the danger of abandoned shafts, often concealed by vegetation. Look before you leap.

      Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Janet Matheson & F. Bruce 
          Haldeman, 1981 
       Alaska Mining History and Techniques, National Park Service, no date
      Placer Deposits of Alaska, Edward H. Cobb, 1973, Geological Survey Bulletin 137 
       Tanana Valley Railroad, the Gold Dust Line, Nicholas Deely, 1996

Monday, October 15, 2012

Snow, Stones and Leaves

We had several more inches of snow today. Before it started piling up I took some photos of that initial dusting, when the stones and leaves in the front yard still showed through. I thought the effect was quite striking.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

I think the snow is here to stay

Temperature last night was in the teens and only got up to the mid 20s today. We woke up to a scattering of snow on the ground and I think it is here to stay for a long while.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Old 19th century pocket level more aesthetically pleasing than many new ones?

I have had an old 19th century pocket level sitting on my desk for the past few months. It used to belong to my father. I can’t help but admire its simple but beautiful design, its functionality, and its durability.

It’s about 3.5 inches long and each of the dots on either side of the bubble glass is ¼ inch apart. The lipped loop on the side of the body is for attaching the level to a square to make the level longer. (The set screw is missing.) The body is also made of iron and brass. The glass is still intact and the level still works beautifully.

Compare that to the other pocket level I have—a contemporary plastic affair that is functional, but hardly pretty. Its only extra is is a pocket clip. If I am lucky it might last five years. That’s about how long aluminum-bodied pocket levels (ugly as sin) that I have owned have lasted.

I bet the old 19th century pocket level is around for another hundred years—if not as a functioning tool, then because someone treasures it for its looks.