Thursday, May 30, 2013

Old Gilmore/McCarty stamp mill near Fairbanks may soon disappear

Gilmore McCarty mill as it tooled in the 1990s

Fairbanks Creek, 20 miles northeast of town, was one of the most productive gold producing areas around Fairbanks. Genevieve Parker Metcalfe, who was the first woman graduate of the Alaska School of Mines (now the University of Alaska), lived along Fairbanks Creek from 1914 to 1921. She noted that several different types of gold mining took place while she lived there.

The Alaska Mining Hall of Fame quotes her as saying, “At the head of the creek the McCartys and, just below them, Tom Gilmore, tunneled hard rock. His ore was processed by a stamp mill. Well below, a very small dredge was owned and operated by an English company. Next came the Parker’s open-cut scraper mine at the mouth of Crane Gulch. At the lower end of the creek, underground mines were needed to reach gold bearing gravel lying under deep gravel and muck.”

Tom Gilmore, whom Genevieve mentioned, was Felix Pedro’s partner. He was one of the many “gumboot” miners (the sourdough term for placer miners) who after chasing alluvial gold for years, decided to trace it to its source and try his hand at lode, or hard-rock mining.

He had a lode mine and stamp mill at No. 13 above Discovery (the 13th claim upstream from the discovery claim). Lew McCarty, along with his sons Lawrence and Bill, tunneled at No. 16 above Discovery, about as far up Fairbanks Creek as you can go.

Stamp mills are necessities in lode mining, crushing ore so minerals can be extracted. They accomplish this by pounding the ore with heavy vertical pistons, or stamps, which are raised and then allowed to fall.

The Citizens Mill on Garden Island (near downtown) was the first stamp mill in the Fairbanks area, opening on Feb. 24, 1909. The day was so momentous that the mayor declared it a holiday. The town of Chena, not to be outdone, soon built its own mill.

The drawback to these mills was that miners had to freight ore to them. As lode mining developed, many owners built stamp mills next to their mines, eventually putting the Citizens and Chena mills out of business. At the peak of lode mining, there were about 10 stamp mills operating in the Fairbanks area.

The Gilmore/McCarty Mill (shown in the drawing) was built by Gilmore, and used by himself and the McCartys to process their ore. Eventually the McCarty’s purchased the mill. The three story wood-frame structure is built on the side of a hill and has cascading shed roofs, typical of many other stamp mills. I’m not sure what sort of sheathing and roofing the building had originally, but in later years it was covered with tarpaper held in place with furring strips.

Much of the building’s machinery has been removed, but it still houses two stamps. According to a 1941 report by the College of Mines, each stamp weighs 1,600 pounds and when in operation the stamps could strike 72 times per minute, allowing the mill to process 10 tons of ore each day.
At first, the mill was powered by a coal-fired boiler, but after the mine was acquired by the Fairbanks Exploration Company, electric lines were strung from the company’s power plant in Fairbanks.

The mine and mill closed down in 1942 and never re-opened. I’ve visited several times.
When I hiked in last year the mill was choked by surrounding trees, the lowest level’s roof had caved in, and the walls were in danger of collapse as well. It looks like this piece of mining history will not survive much longer.

For additional history of Fairbanks Creek check out these posts: Fairbanks Creek--mining camps, churn drills and gold dredges, and Meandering mining camp? Where is Meehan, Alaska?


  • “Genevieve Alice Parker Metcalfe,” By Vieve Metcalfe, Thomas K. Bundtzen and Earl H. Beistline, 2004, Alaska Mining Hall of Fame 
  • “Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough,” Janet Matheson & F. Bruce Haldeman, 1981, Fairbanks North Star Borough 
  • “History of Lode Mining, Fairbanks District,” parts 1 and 2, Curtis Freeman, 2002, in “Alaska Miner,” vol. 30, nos. 8 (August) & 9 (September) 
  • “McCarty Mine, Fairbanks District,” no author listed, 2011, Mineral and Locality Database,
  • “The McCarty Mine, Fairbanks District, Alaska,” Henry R. Joesting, 1941, Department of Mines, Alaska College of Mines

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Denali Highway still closed 5-17-2013

The photo above was taken this past weekend from a gravel pit at about Mile 95 of the Denali Highway (about 40 miles from Cantwell). That dark line snaking across the middle of the photo is the road. As you can see, it is still surrounded by plenty of snow.

Last week we made it in about 70 miles, but we heard from a co-worker who tried to drive in the Denali yesterday and was stopped only 20 miles from Cantwell because of wind and drifting snow. Looks like DOT will have to re-plow the road yet again.

Conditions are even worse on the Paxson end.   The snow is over the tops of the snow removal equipment. Crews have to tunnel into the snow, then retreat until the snow roof collapses, then dig it out again. S-L-O-W going.

Brushkana campground (30 miles from Cantwell) is still covered with snow. Who knows what Tangle Lakes campground on the Paxson end is like. Don't plan on camping out along the Denali any time soon.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Caribou along Denali Highway 5-12-2013

This past weekend we drove in on the Denali Highway from the Cantwell side about 70 miles before being stopped by unplowed road. We saw this lone caribou about 10 miles from Cantwell, merrily munching on roadside lichens. Most of the caribou have retreated back into the mountains already. We also saw a lynx cross the road right in front of us.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Tisha's schoolhouse and old town of Chicken, Alaska still attract visitors

Old Chicken schoolhouse as it looked in the 1990s

The first time we visited Chicken in the 1990s there was little you could see from the Taylor highway.  Downtown Chicken (adjacent to the highway) had a saloon, cafe and small store. There may have been a gas station—I don't remember.

The highway skirts the south edge of the old townsite, and if you didn't know old town was there, you might drive by and not notice.  However, we had read Anne Purdy's book, “Tisha,” about her first year as a teacher in Chicken, had even gone to college with one of Anne's daughters, and knew of old Chicken. One our goals was to find the old schoolhouse, shown in the drawing.

Chicken is in the heart of a mountainous, isolated region through which the Fortymile River tumbles from its headwaters in Alaska to its confluence with the Yukon River in Canada, forty miles downriver from Fort Reliance, near Dawson City. A combination of rough trail and wagon road from Eagle to the north (only 55 miles by air, but 90 miles by pack train) was the community's primary surface link for almost 50 years.

The region, home to Han Kutchin Athabascans for thousands of years, began to attract prospectors in the late 1800s. Gold was discovered along the Fortymile River in 1886 and the town of Fortymile sprang up at the river's mouth (which miners thought was in the U.S.).

Pierre Berton, in his book “Klondike, the Last Great Gold Rush,” said the men attracted to the region appeared to be chasing their fortune, but “…seemed more like men pursued than men pursuing, and if they sought anything, it was the right to be left alone.” Berton goes on to describe Fortymile as “…a community of hermits whose one common bond was their mutual isolation.”

Prospectors found gold along Chicken Creek (on the U.S. side of the border) in 1891 and a town formed around the claims. In her book, Anne relates two possibilities for how Chicken got its name.  The first is that miners wanted to name the community after the abundant Ptarmigan in the area, but no one was sure of the spelling so they settled on calling the town Chicken. The other possibility is that gold found in the area was commonly about the size of kernels of corn—i.e. chicken feed.

A post office was established in 1903 and three years later the two-story Chicken Creek Hotel was constructed.  The town's heyday was between 1910 and the mid 1920s, when, according to census data, about 100 people lived in the immediate area. During this period Chicken served as a supply center for surrounding creeks.

Alaska’s territorial government took over the Chicken Creek Hotel building in 1924, tore the second story down and converted the building into a schoolhouse. There were two rooms in the front of the 25’ x 32’ squared-log structure. One of the front doors led to the teacher’s quarters, and the other opened into the classroom.

Chicken's population had started to decline by 1927 when Anne (called Tisha by a young Native student who couldn't pronounce teacher) arrived to teach school, and shrinking enrollment forced the school to close the next year. 
After the school closed it became a roadhouse for a number of years. The Fairbanks Exploration Company bought up the land and buildings in and around the community in the 1940s, and in 1959 it
moved a dredge to the area. The dredge operated until 1967, using the old town as a support camp.

When the F.E. Company stopped mining, it sold the camp and dredge, which are now tourist attractions. A handful of people still live in Chicken year-round, and the area's population swells during summer when miners come to work their claims, and tourists (bound for Eagle, Dawson City, and Tok) drive through. And there are still more than a few who come specifically to see the old town and Tisha's schoolhouse. The old townsite, which is private property, was declared a Historic District in 2001, and tours are conducted in the summer.


  • “Chicken Historic District, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form,” Rogan Faith, 2001, National Park Service
  • “Cultural Resource Survey of the Taylor Highway, Rolfe Buzzell, 2003, Alaska Department of Natural Resources
  • “Klondike, the Last Great Gold Rush,” Pierre Berton, 1958, McLelland and Sewart
  • “They didn’t come in Four-Wheel Drives, An Introduction to Fortymile History,” Terry Haynes, 1976, Bureau of Land Management
  • "Tisha,” Anne Hobbs Purdy, 1976, St. Martins Press
  • “Yukon, the Last Frontier,” Melody Webb, 1985, University of Nebraska Press

Monday, May 13, 2013

Environmental art along Parks Highway

So...any ideas what it is in the photograph above? I found it along the Parks Highway at about mile 160. I did adjust the contrast slightly to bring out the design.

Click on this link to see the full image.

Trumpeter Swans along Denali Highway in early May 2013

We drove in the Denali Highway as far as Alpine Creek Lodge on Saturday. That is about half was across the road. Because of the late spring the highway is still not plowed all the way. On the way back to Cantwell we saw a pair of trumpeter scans (Cygnus buccinator) in a small pong right next to the road.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Old College depot (an example Fairbanks hidden history) torn down

Once upon a time (80 odd years ago) there was a tiny depot by the railroad tracks near what was then the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (now the University of Alaska). College Road then was not the thoroughfare it is now, and the railroad was the only dependable transportation between the college and Fairbanks.

About 50 or 60 years ago the building was disposed of by the Railroad, and ended up on a residential lot off of College Road. Gradually added on to over the years, it was virtually unrecognizable as a depot. Well, time has finally done it in. The owner is tearing down the structure to put up a new home. For a brief time, you could see the original structure. Oh well, you can't save them all.

As evidence of the building's original location, there was a roofing board just to the right of the dormer window with writing indicating where the depot sign was supposed to be attached.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

UAF Experiment Farm history reflects saga of Alaska agriculture

Pictured in the drawing are the two oldest buildings at the University of Alaska Experiment Farm: the manager’s residence and the barn, both built in 1940. The farm was originally part of the Federal government’s agricultural station project in Alaska, which was begun in 1897 in response to the gold rushes at the end of the 1800s, and the incumbent need to increase Alaska’s agricultural industry.

The first agricultural station opened in Sitka in 1897, and the number of agricultural stations rapidly expanded, with stations being started at Kodiak (1898), Kenai (1899), Rampart (1900) and Copper Center (1903).  The city of Fairbanks (established in 1902) had the benefit of being situated in an area of great agricultural potential (the head of Alaska’s agricultural station program estimated that over 100,000 acres in the Tanana Valley could be developed), and the local Chamber of Commerce lobbied the federal government for its own station. In May, 1906, the U.S. government set aside 1,400 acres of land near the present site of the University of Alaska for a station.

Congress approved funds and a land transfer in 1915 to establish the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines adjacent to the agricultural station at Fairbanks. Additional funds were appropriated by the Alaska Territorial Legislature several years later and the college opened in 1922.  In 1931 all of the experiment station facilities were transferred from the federal government to the college. Much of the land that the university’s West Ridge facilities now sit on was once experiment station fields. There were even a few fields on the far side of the ridge near Smith lake.

In a 2006 “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner” article, Pat Holloway, professor of horticulture at the University of Alaska, said that the station was primarily meant to be a demonstration farm.  But, as with the other stations, it also worked to develop crops and livestock suited to Alaska’s conditions. Its work in developing crops for Interior Alaska and close proximity allowed it to help Fairbanks in times of need.

The book, “Like a Tree to the Soil,” relates that during the winter of 1915-16 there was a serious shortage of horse feed, and by spring, farmers had had to use their grain seed to feed livestock. The Fairbanks station, which had been raising grain for five years, had 1100 bushels of wheat, rye, barley, oat and buckwheat seed stockpiled by the spring of 1916, and it advanced seed to area farmers, on the condition that they repay in kind after the fall harvest. The loans were a lifesaver, and every farmer who received seed repaid their loan by January of 1917.

The station also worked with animal husbandry, raising its own horses, cattle and sheep. Not all of its experiments were successful though. Old photos in the UAF archives show yaks at the station. One of the photo captions states that they tried crossing yaks with Galloway cattle from Scotland to get an animal that could winter outside in Alaska. The experiment was disappointing, with “meat tough as ****!” Other photos show a similar disappointing experiment, crossing domestic sheep with wild mountain sheep.

The farm still provides research and demonstration projects in forest management, agronomy, animal science, horticulture, and resources management, and although recent budget cuts have impacted the farm’s programs, Alan Tonne, the farm’s manager, told me he was confident that it will survive.

Located on West Tanana Drive on the lower edge of the UAF campus, the farm has 260 acres of cropland and 50 acres of forest land used for demonstration projects and research. Farm facilities include two residences, a visitor center, barn, greenhouse, grain handling facility, small saw mill, feed mill, maintenance shop, and several storage facilities. The Georgeson Botanical Garden is located adjacent to the farm.


  •  "100 years of Agricultural Research in Alaska," in "Agroborealis," Vol. 3, No. 1, 1998
  • “Alaska History of Agriculture,” National Preservation Program for Agricultural Literature
  • Conversation with Alan Tonne, experiment farm manager
  • “Experimental farm celebrates a century,” Robinson Duffy, 6-25-2006, “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner”
  • “Like a Tree to the Soil, a history of farming in Alaska’s Tanana Valley, 1903-1940,” Josephine Papp & Josie Phillips, 2007, University of Alaska