Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ambitious Davidson Ditch brought water to Fairbanks dredges

Davidson Ditch inverted siphon across U.S. Creek

“Ditch” is such a mundane word and certainly doesn’t accurately describe the Davidson Ditch, the 90-mile long system of open earthwork canals, steel pipe and tunnel that carried water from the upper reaches of the Chatanika River to the Fairbanks Exploration Company's gold dredges near Fairbanks. The open canal section (83.5 miles total), with a width of 12-feet and depth of almost four-feet, was as large as some of the early tow-boat canals on the East Coast. But whoever coined the name for the system evidently liked alliteration and Davidson Ditch had more panache than Davidson Aqueduct.

Large-scale placer mining operations weren’t considered feasible in Fairbanks before the 1920s because of the huge volumes of water needed and inadequacy of local streams. For instance, Gold Dredge No. 8 used 9,000 gallons per minute, and five of the FE Co.’s dredges were supplied via the Davidson Ditch.

However, the same factors that allowed the FE Co. to move into the Fairbanks area (opening of the Alaska Railroad and development of the Healy coal fields) also allowed mining engineers to develop large-scale waterworks necessary to make dredging profitable.

James Davidson, the mining engineer responsible for the 50-mile long Miocene Ditch on the Seward Peninsula, designed the Davidson Ditch. We talk about “green” technology now, but in 1925 the proposed aqueduct was as green as you could get. The entire system was gravity fed — no pumps.

From the containment dam just below Faith and McManus Creeks (southwest of 12-mile Summit) open ditches gradually descended along ridge lines.

When the ditch reached a stream valley, inverted siphons made of 48- to 56-inch diameter pipe (15 siphons total) channeled the water down across the stream and back up the opposite slope. Thus was water brought to the Cleary Creek dredges at Chatanika. But the water was also destined for the Goldstream Valley and the final obstacle was the ridge at the head of Vault Creek just north of Fairbanks. Too high to bring a ditch across, a 3,700-foot long tunnel was blasted though the ridge’s crest.

According to John Boswell's book, "History of Alaskan Operations of United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company," work on the ditch began in 1924 and ended by 1928. Construction required steam and diesel shovels, tractors and graders, and plenty of handwork. (The steam shovels used came from the Panana Canal project.) The FE Co. operated the ditch until 1958 when it began reducing its Fairbanks operations.

Photographs and supporting information in the Archives at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks indicate that ownership of the ditch was transferred to the Chatanika Power Company (CPC) in 1958. The CPC built a small hydroelectric plant at Chatanika and provided electricity to Fairbanks during summers from 1959 to 1967. In 1967 the same torrential rains that flooded Fairbanks also caused extensive damage to the Davidson Ditch’s containment dam and the system was abandoned.

Much of the project’s steel pipe has been removed, but portions of the ditch still exist within the Bureau of Land Management’s White Mountains National Recreation Area north of the Steese Highway. A few of the siphons are easily visible, such as the one (shown in the drawing) that crosses U.S. Creek at Mile 57.5 of the highway.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Red rocks - lots of lichen - Sourdough Creek

When we were up at Sourdough Creek a week ago we found a large pile of very red rocks (at least that's what my wife tells me). The rock pile had obviously been there quite a while and was covered with lichens, which is the main reason I took these photos.


Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Fairbanks Lacey Street Theater, grand building on a budget

Architectural historian Alison Hogland, author of “Buildings of Alaska,” writes that the Lacey Street Theater, “is the finest Art Deco building in Fairbanks.” The theater has graced the corner of Lacey Street and Second Avenue since Cap Lathrop built it in 1939.

The Lacey is a two-story concrete building with a small four-story stepped tower at the corner. The building has horizontal banding stretching the length of its facade, with incised geometrical designs between the windows. The design elements are repeated on the tower. My drawing shows the side entrance on Lacey Street, but the main entrance (with theater marquee) is on Second Avenue. There is also a door at the corner, but that entrance originally led to a bank occupying the corner space.

Benjamin Priteca, a leading architect in the Pacific Northwest, designed the Lacey. Priteca was one of the premier theater architects of his day and designed over 150 theaters. Some of the theaters he designed include the Coliseum in Seattle, the Pantages in downtown Los Angeles and the Orpheum in San Francisco.

Austin E. “Cap” Lathrop hired Priteca to design the Lacey Street Theater and the Fourth Avenue Theater in Anchorage. Priteca lived in Seattle where Lathrop had connections, but Lathrop might have been more influenced in selecting Priteca because of Alexander Pantages, the vaudeville and theater mogul. Pantages had numerous theaters across the United States and Canada, and Priteca was Pantages’ favorite architect.

Lathrop was an Alaska industrialist and entrepreneur. He began his Alaska ventures in 1895 when he and several partners bought a small two-masted auxiliary sailboat (a boat rigged as a sailboat but also having an inboard engine) and sailed it into Alaska waters just in time to take advantage of the lucrative Klondike gold rush. He went on to invest in coal mines, banks, radio stations and other commercial enterprises, including a string of theaters in Cordova, Valdez, Anchorage and Fairbanks.

In addition to the Lacey Street Theater, he also constructed the Empress Theater just down the street. In 1924 Cap produced the first motion picture filmed entirely in Alaska, “The Cheechakos.”

The Lacey operated as a movie theater for over 40 years, but it finally closed its doors in 1983. The building sat vacant for several years but was purchased in 1992 by Dick and Hoa Brickley. They reopened it as the Fairbanks Ice Museum, which is still in business.

Pantages supposedly liked Priteca because the architect could create the appearance of opulence without spending exorbitantly. Pantages is supposed to have said, “Any fool can make a place look like a million dollars by spending a million dollars, but it’s not everybody who can do the same thing with half a million.” I don’t know how much Lathrop spent to build the Lacey, but it certainly looks like a million-dollar building to me.

For more history about Cap Lathrop check out these posts:

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

1958 Studebaker Silver Hawk in Anderson, Alaska

Several years ago I saw this Silver Hawk in a yard along the main street in Anderson. When I went back last summer to take more photos the car was gone. Oh well...

Monday, June 25, 2012

Drawing of ground dogwood - Fairbanks, Alaska

Since I posted the photos of the ground dogwood a few days ago, I thought I would also post a drawing I did.

Ground dogwood (Cornus canadensis), also called bunchberry, is one of my favorite plants, especially in early summer when it is flowering. The flower are actually tiny--"bunched" up in the center of the plant and surrounded by four white bracts (specialized leaves). Sometimes the plants carpet the clearings in the woods nearby.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Labrador Tea and Bunchberry blooming at Sourdough Creek

Here are some photos I took on my recent excursion to Sourdough Creek. 

Bog Labrador Tea
Bog Labrador Tea
The hills had been burned over within the last ten years and were covered with a vibrant growth of bog Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum--a so known as Ledum groenlandicum), willows, and other low shrubs. 

Ground Dogwood
   There were also some open areas of birch
    that had been untouched by the fire where the gound was covered with 
    bunchberry, also called ground dogwood (Cornus canadensis).
Ground Dogwood

Friday, June 22, 2012

Old mining camp on Sourdough Creek


On Monday of this week we drove to Sourdough Creek, about 70 miles up the Steese Highway. We have friends whose family owns an old mining camp up there. Borough land records say the buildings were built in 1913, but the book, “Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough,” says the buildings date from about 1930. They were built by miner, Tony Zimmerman.

1. Left building in panorama
2. Center building in panorama

3. Right building in panorama
4. Cabin in trees to left of panorama

There are four old cabins there. Three are shown in the panorama. The fourth is in the trees to the left of the large cabin in the panorama foreground. There used to be a garage but it burned about 15 years ago.

Cabin No. 4 can be seen from the Sourdough Creek Road, but the camp is private property. If you go tramping through the hills please respect people's property.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Fate of Fairbanks' historic Masonic Temple in limbo

One of the iconic buildings along the Fairbanks riverfront is the old Masonic Temple at 809 First Ave.

Fraternal organizations were extremely popular in Alaska's fledgling towns. The Arctic Brotherhood,
Eagles, Elks, Freemasons, Moose, and Odd Fellows were all represented. I'm surprised that there was never an E. Clampus Vitus chapter in Alaska.

According to a 1921 edition of "Mackey's History of Freemasonty" there were seven chartered Masonic lodges in Alaska by the 1920s. Freemasonry arrived in Fairbanks soon after the city’s founding, and although the local chapter (Tanana Lodge) did not receive its charter until 1908, it is certain that the men who started the lodge were active Masons long before the local chapter was officially recognized.

The nomination form submitted to the National Register of Historic Places for the Fairbanks Masonic Temple states that the building that would become the Freemasons' home was constructed in 1906 as the Tanana Commercial Company store, but two years later the Masonic Lodge purchased the structure. The Masons added a basement and also constructed an extension to the rear and a second story. 

In 1916 the lodge undertook a major renovation and installed a pressed metal façade to the front of the building, giving it a Renaissance Revival appearance. (Renaissance Revival is an artistic style that draws its inspiration from a variety of classical Italian styles.) 

Pressed metal ornamentation and facades were extremely popular during the early 1900s, and there used to be thousands of buildings across the U.S. and Canada with pressed metal exteriors.The facades were an easy, quick and inexpensive way to add style to otherwise plain buildings.  Pressed metal could mimic brick, stone and concrete, as well as intricate floral and other decorative motifs.

According to old catalogs, a metal façade for the Masonic temple would have cost about $665 (plus shipping) in 1916. The inflation- adjusted price today would be about $13,000.

Some buildings in Skagway, Juneau and other older Alaskan towns have pressed metal decorative elements such a cornices and windows, but as far as I know, this Fairbanks building is the only one in Alaska with an entirely-metal front façade. (The Masonic Temple in Dawson City also has a pressed metal façade.) 

The Masonic Temple was one of the centers for activities in early Fairbanks, and numerous community events were held there. When President Warren Harding visited Fairbanks in 1923 to celebrate the completion of the Alaska Railroad, he spoke from the front steps of the Temple.

Local Masons were justly proud of the building, and the temple was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.  However, the cost to bring it up to modern building codes eventually became too expensive for the lodge to bear and the Masons decided to sell the building. Local businessman Harold Groetsema (owner of Big Daddy’s BarB-Q across the street) purchased the building in 2009 with the hope of turning the first floor into a banquet hall.

Harold told me that after beginning renovations he uncovered some interesting architectural details. For instance, ceiling sprinklers had been installed in the main hall and a suspended ceiling put in to hide the pipes. Tearing into the ceiling he discovered the original pressed metal ceiling tiles still in place. Unfortunately, Harold has also found the cost of renovating and bring the building up to code is pretty much cost prohibitive.

He, like the Masons, would love to preserve the Masonic Temple, but at this point its fate is in limbo.

Vintage crawler tractors at Central, Alaska

Caterpillar Thirty
Here are two crawler tractors I saw at the Circle Mining District Historical Museum in Central.
McCormick Deering T40

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dwarf Monkshood along Sourdough Creek Road

Yesterday I was up at Sourdough Creek, about 15 miles south of Twelve Mile Summit on the Steese Highway. I was taking photos of historic buildings, but I also spotted a small patch of dwarf monkshood (Aconitum delphimifolium ssp paradoxum) along the Sourdough Creek Road. This is a much smaller version of Aconitum delphimifolium D.C. (another Alaskan wildflower), which can grow up 5 feet tall.  Dwarf Monkshood usually doesn’t grow taller than a foot or so.

There are over 200 different species of monkshood. The plant, also called wolfbane, contains significant amounts of psuedaconatine, a very deadly alkaloid poison. All parts of the plant are poisonous, especially the root, seeds and new leaves. Psuedacontaine can be absorbed through the skin so even handling the plant can cause health problems.

Kodiak Island Natives used to grind up monkshood root to prepare aconitine, a poison they used for hunting sea mammals. The hunters would use poison-tipped arrow for hunting sea lions, and poison-tipped lances to hunt whales.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Old steam dragline at Central, Alaska

Here is a photo of an old steam dragline at the Circle Mining District Historical Museum in Central, Alaska.  I couldn't find a manufacturer's name or model number anywhere.  I'm thinking maybe it's an Erie?  Anybody out there know for sure?

That's an old churn drill in front of the dragline.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Fishwheels at Nenana

Here are two fish wheels on the bank of the Tanana River just outside Nenana, ready to be put in the water. Fishwheels, which can often be seen along Interior Alaska rivers, actually were developed in the Lower 48 in the late 1800s. They began appearing in Alaskan waters about the time of the Klondike and Alaska gold rushes. The wheels are so efficient at harvesting salmon that the states of Oregon and Washington banned them in the early 1900s. Their use in Alaska is  regulated by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Copper River Delta root art

My family lives in Cordova, on the eastern edge of Prince William Sound. One of out favorite summer activities was driving out to the middle of the Copper River Delta about 30 miles to the east. There are sandy areas on the islands there that are a great place to picnic and just wander around.

Some of the plants there send out long tendrils along the ground's surface and take root elsewhere.  (Either that or the wind scours the sand away from the roots.) The tendrils form fascinating patterns. Here are a few photos.

You may have seen the episode in the old "Northern Exposures" television show where Joel plays golf along the river. Well, we used to play croquet out in the middle of the river delta.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Gold Dredge No. 8: A giant that helped save Fairbanks

The Fairbanks Exploration Co.’s Gold Dredge No. 8 at Fox (shown in the drawing) is perhaps the most visible and well-known dredge in the Fairbanks area, but the FE Co. actually operated eight of these giants near town. No. 3 can be seen at Chatanika.

Four others are tucked away from sight: No. 2 on Fairbanks Creek, No. 5 at Dome Creek, No. 6 on Sheep Creek and No. 10 at Cripple Creek. Dredge No. 4 (operated on Pedro Creek) was dismantled in 1959 and moved to Chicken, and No. 7 (at Fish Creek) was demolished when Fort Knox gold mine was developed.

The Fairbanks dredges were not the first ones in the North. Dredges were operating in the Canadian Klondike by 1900 — eventually about two dozen worked there. On the far western  side of Alaska, ancient tundra-covered beaches containing rich gold deposits were discovered in the Nome area in 1905, and by the mid-1910s there were at least a dozen dredges in that area. All told, there were about 50 dredges scattered across the territory before World War II.

These gold dredges were immense structures, and their use predicated the availability of relatively inexpensive and reliable means of freighting heavy equipment into the country. The Klondike dredges came by ocean to Skagway, were shipped via the White Pass and Yukon Railroad to Whitehorse, and then transferred to steamboats for the final leg to Dawson City. Dredges on the Seward Peninsula were shipped the entire way via ocean-going vessels. With the opening of the Alaska Railroad in 1923 large gold dredges finally arrived in Fairbanks.

Dredges are essentially floating gold processing plants. Most in Alaska were “bucket-line” dredges that used a continuous line of heavy steel buckets (the digging ladder) to scoop goldbearing gravel from the bottom of a man-made pond.

The gravel was dumped onto screens and washed — the heavy gold being separated and the waste rock (tailings) dumped into tailing piles out the back of the dredge. These dredges could economically work ground with extremely low gold concentrations and recovered about 96 percent.

The Oakland Museum of California (gold dredging was a huge industry in California) reports that on average it took 250 giant dredge buckets filled with gravel to produce one ounce of gold!

Gold Dredge No. 8 is a five-story, 1,065-ton structure. The bow gantry is 43 feet tall and supports a belt-driven bucket line containing 68 steel buckets. Each bucket holds six cubic-feet and weighs 1,583 pounds.

The bucket line could tear gravel from 35-feet below water level. As impressive as that sounds, No. 8 was one of the smaller dredges in the FE Co.’s fleet. The largest dredges in Fairbanks sported 10 cubic-foot buckets and could reach down 60-feet.

No. 8 was constructed in 1928 and operated until 1959. During that time it traveled 4.5 miles and recovered 7.5 million ounces of gold. It was listed as a National Historic Site in 1984 and as a National Historical Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1986.

Beautiful bearberry blossoms

 When I was out traveling earlier this week I found some large mats of kinnikinnik or common bearberry that were in bloom.  Kinnikinnik  (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is a low trailing evergreen shrub found on sandy and rocky hillsides throughout Interior Alaska. Its stems are often several feet long and one plant can cover several square yards.

 It has tiny  white or pink flowers that develop into dull red berries. The berries are mealy and not very appetizing, but bears love them (hence the name). They can be mixed with other wild berries as an extender.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Day trip to Tanacross

St. Timothy's Church
I just returned from a day trip to Tanacross, which is about eight miles west of Tok. Tanacross (formerly known as Tanana Crossing) is an Athabascan Indian village. I went there to take photographs of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, which is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. (While the church is Episcopalian, it is operated under a cooperative agreement by Lutherans.)

The village is on the south bank of the Tanana River. Up until 1972 it was located on the north bank, but water contamination forced the village to move. I guess it made more sense to move to the same side of the river as the Alaska Highway and Tok than to move to a different location on the north side of the river.

Head-frame at Tanana River
Tanacross is where the old Valdez-Eagle Trail crossed the Tanana River. The river was shallow enough here for horses to ford. This second photo shows a head-frame at the location where the pack trains used to cross. There are old utility lines attached to these poles, and this is where the lines crossed the river to the old village site. Although the head-frame looks similar to those used for guiding ferries across other Alaska rivers, residents who grew up in the old village assure me that there never was a ferry at Tanacross.

Well-house at YACC camp

 About a mile from the current village is the remains of a Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC) camp. (It closed in the 1980s.) This is a photo of the old well-house. It’s hard to see in the photo, but there is a small stand of spruce growing on top of the well-house roof. The biggest spruce on top of the well-house is about ten feet tall.