Thursday, July 31, 2014

Native cemetery at Circle - Summer 2014


I took this is a photo on a recent trip to Circle. It is a small Native cemetery beside the Steese Highway just outside of town.  Circle began in 1894 as a supply center for the Circle Mining District about 50 miles to the southeast. It was predominantly non-Native to begin with, but as the town's role as a supply center and winter refuge for miners diminished, the proportion of residents who were Athabascan Indians increased until they now represent almost 90 % of the population.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Blueberry picking trip - 7-27-2014

Betsy and I tromped to our secret blueberry place yesterday. With all the recent rain I expected to find multitudes of berries, but there were no more than usual, perhaps ever a bit fewer. (Other people have reported finding lots of berries so I suspect our berry patch is no longer secret.) The ones we did find seemed a bit plumper than normal, though.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Larkspur-leaf monkshood in my front yard

 For several years I have thought there were a few larkspur plants lurking among my high-bush cranberries. Those plants actually bloomed this year and I discovered that instead of wild delphinium among my cranberries, I have larkspur-leaf monkshood (Aconitum delphiniifolium D.C.)

The flowers are beautiful, and I have been thinking that monkshood would make a nice addition to my native species garden and ta-da! Here they are.

All parts of the plant are poisonous, However, I have been assured by our local Cooperative Extension office that casual contact probably isn't hazardous unless sap gets into a  cut or wound, and the taste is so bitter no one could accidentally ingest it.

This summer has been unusually wet and monkshood is a moisture-loving plant. That may have something to do with the monkshood finally blooming.

For more photos of larkspur-leaf monkshood click here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Mining remnants still visible in Nome Creek Basin

Dredge buckets sinking into muskeg along Nome Creek

The footprint left by mining on the Nome Creek Basin north of Fairbanks appears minimal at first glance. It’s obvious that the creek has been worked, but no buildings remain from the historic mining period and only scattered pieces of mining equipment are left. However, the paucity of physical evidence belies the fact that two gold dredges once worked the creek’s gravels. The dredge buckets shown in the drawing, slowly sinking into the muskeg, are a few of the relics left from one of these dredging operations.

Nome Creek is a 22-mile long tributary of Beaver Creek located in the White Mountains north of Fairbanks. It is within the White Mountains National Recreation Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and is accessed via the U.S. Creek Road at Mile 57.5 of the Steese Highway. (A section of the Davidson Ditch can also be seen from U.S. Creek Road.)

According to the BLM report, Beaver Creek National Wild River Cultural Resources Inventory, the region’s original inhabitants were Birch Creek or “Tennuth” Kutchin Athabascans. Tragically, the Birch Creek Kutchin were decimated by a scarlet fever epidemic.

Gold was discovered along Beaver Creek shortly before 1900, but the actual date of discovery is unknown. (When the mining district’s first recorder left the country, he took the minutes and books for the district with him).

In 1900 the discovery claim on Nome Creek was staked near the creek’s lower end, just across from the mouth of Ophir Creek. During the next decade a few score miners trickled into the area.  That changed in the summer of 1910, with a major discovery along Ophir Creek. Lured by exaggerated tales of diggings richer than the Iditarod, several hundred miners from the Fairbanks vicinity stampeded into the Nome Creek Basin. The U.S. Geological Survey report, Placer Deposits of Alaska, states that by the end of 1910 all the ground in the Nome Creek and neighboring basins had been staked.

Extracting gold from the frozen gravels of the creek bottoms was laborious. Most miners earned only meager profits (if they earned a profit at all), and by 1912 the area’s population had dwindled to about 25 hardy souls. The gold was still there, but it was beyond the resources of most individuals to economically wrest it from the ground.

In 1925 the Nome Creek Dredging Company was formed, and built a small dredge on Nome Creek in 1926. It was originally powered by a wood-fired steam boiler (a real problem considering the scarcity of timber in the area), but the dredge’s owners replaced the boiler with diesel generators in 1930. The dredge operated until 1932 when it was destroyed by fire and never rebuilt.

Seven years later the Deadwood Mining Company moved its dredge about 40 miles from Deadwood Creek near Central to Nome Creek. Photographs from this period show a structure very similar to the Fairbanks Exploration Company dredge now at Chicken.

The Deadwood Mining Company reorganized as the Nome Creek Mining Company and operated its dredge from 1940 to 1942, when gold mining was closed during World War II. The dredge worked again from 1945 to 1947 before permanently shutting down, and then sat rusting in Nome Creek for many years before being dismantled for salvage.

One very visible remnant of the gold dredging era is a two-mile section of Nome Creek called the “Maze.” Nome Creek wanders down the center of the valley for most of its course, but through the Maze (located a mile or so below the bridge) the creek zig-zags back-and-forth across the valley floor between tailing piles.

The BLM has improved the roads in the area, built a bridge across Nome Creek, and constructed two campgrounds: Mt. Prindle Camground about two miles above the bridge, and Ophir Creek Campgound about 12 miles downsteam. In between is a stretch of Nome Creek open to recreational gold panning (hand-tools only). There is also a put-in at Ophir Creek Campground for boaters floating Beaver Creek.

If you do visit the area, remember that the historical artifacts you see are part of our cultural heritage. Leave them in place for future visitors to find and enjoy.


  • Beaver Creek National Wild River Cultural Resources Inventory. Susan Will. U.S. Bureau of Land Management. 1986
  • “Campgrounds rise up from mountains of mining tailings.” Jeff Krauss. in Alaska Frontiers. BLM. July/August 1998
  • Film of Woodchopper and Nome Creek in the 1950s. Ramsey Collection, University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives
  • “History of Gold Mining on Nome Creek.” Sarah McGowan. BLM. 2011
  • Photos of Deadwood Creek dredge in 1930s. Lawrence Collection. Circle District Historical Society
  • Placer Deposits of Alaska, Geological Survey Bulletin 1374. Edward H. Cobb. U.S. Geological Survey. 1973
  •  “Placer Mining in the Yukon-Tanana Region.” C. E. Ellsworth & G. L. Parker. in Mineral Resources of Alaska. U.S.G.S. 1911


Monday, July 21, 2014

Tiny Beetle Bulldozer in Fairbanks Golden Days Parade

The smallest bulldozer I have ever seen was in the Golden Days Parade on Saturday. It is a Beetle, built by Western Gear Works of Seattle in the late 1940s. The Beetle was developed by the U.S. Forest Service Equipment Development Lab in Portland, Oregon in 1945. The USFS gave the designs to Western Gear for production. The Beetle was produced in a narrow-gauge version for building trails and fire breaks for the Forest Service, and a wide-gauge version for general use. It was produced until 1948.

From the front of the dozer blade to the back of the seat the Beetle is 105 5/8” long. The seat is 30 1/2” off the ground, and the tops of the control levers are 40 1/2” off the ground. The blade is 18” high and 51” wide. It runs on a 4-cyclinder gasoline engine, develops 15 HP, has a top speed (in reverse) of 5.14 MPH, a turning radius of 55”, weighs a little less than 1 ton and can fit in the bed of a pickup.

 (The  specifications listed above are from an original sales brochure found on the Rokon World website  . Other information on the Beetle is from the Rokon World site as well.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Birch Hill Cemetery established to honor a wife's last wish

Minnie Slater's grave at Birch Hill Cemetery
Antone “Tony” Zimmerman was a well-known miner in early Fairbanks.    He is perhaps best-known, however, for developing and donating Birch Hill Cemetery to the Fairbanks community in the late 1930s.

Clay Street Cemetery in Fairbanks was beginning to fill up, but Zimmerman's motive for starting the facility at Birch Hill was in large part due to the wishes of his first wife, Serina.  Before she died in 1938 Serina expressed her desire to be buried there. 

Zimmerman, who owned 47 acres at the base of the hill fronting on Lazelle Road and the Steese Highway, interred her in a reinforced concrete crypt on a rocky outcropping overlooking Lazelle road. (Tony and his second wife, Ester, would later be buried beside Serina.)

Zimmerman’s intention was to develop the entire 47 acres as a cemetery. According to an article in the November 8, 1938 issue of the Alaska Miner newspaper, the original Birch Hill ski area and cabin were located on the upper part of the tract. Zimmerman planned to relocate the cabin and ski area, building a mausoleum at their location. The cabin was moved, but the mausoleum never materialized.
Zimmerman cleared part of the hillside, and put in a road and drainage ditches. He also offered to “donate a plot free of charge to every church and lodge in Fairbanks that might desire the same, and the balance to the City of Fairbanks or to the general public, also free of charge.” A 1938 plat of the land shows cemetery sections for most of Fairbanks’s civic groups.

The Birch Hill Cemetery Association was formed to administer the new cemetery, but
debate about the suitability of the land for a cemetery slowed its transfer. Some residents cited erosion problems with spring run-off, and the fact that no water was available for irrigation. However, these arguments did not sway the community, and the Cemetery Association accepted the cemetery in 1939.

The grave shown in the drawing dates from this period. It is the burial site of Minnie Starr Slater, who died in December, 1939. She was the wife of Charles Slater, who, along with Minnie, homesteaded across the river from Fairbanks. (Their homestead became Slaterville, with Minnie Street named after Charles’ wife.)

The cemetery association donated the cemetery to the City of Fairbanks in 1957. Under city management the cemetery continued to inter people, however, the cemetery was not set up as a “perpetual care’ facility, and the interment fees never covered the continued upkeep of the graves. In later years groundskeeping was a low priority for the city and the cemetery deteriorated.

In 1994 annual volunteer cleanups began in order to improve the cemetery. The City, unable to keep the grounds adequately maintained, transferred the cemetery to Fairbanks Funeral Home (FFH) in 2007.  One of the accomplishments of FFH was setting aside a portion of the cemetery for Native burials. In 2011, the cemetery was sold to Leo and Kirsten Rasmussen.

Over the years the Pioneers of Alaska has become involved with the cemetery. In 2003 the Pioneers’ Igloo No. 4 Foundation began placing and replacing markers on the graves of pioneers around Interior Alaska. Erica Miller, a member of the Pioneer’s Fairbanks chapter, told me that to date they have placed 149 markers at Birch Hill Cemetery, and another 121 at the Clay Street Cemetery in Fairbanks. They have also placed markers at the Livengood, Manley, Circle Hot Springs, Deadwood (near Central), and the Nenana city cemeteries. Volunteers from across the state (including one from Nome) have also recently participated in a Pioneers of Alaska project to clean up the cemeteries at Chitina and McCarthy.

Cemeteries are often the only evidence left from early settlements, It is gratifying that some individuals and groups are working to keep these important historic sites alive.


  • “Birch Hill slope site favored,” in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 12-10-1938
  • Conversation with Doug Ketterer, current caretaker for Birch Hill Cemetery
  • Conversation with Erica Miller, member of Fairbanks Women’s Igloo No. 8, Pioneers of Alaska
  • Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
  • “First Burial on Birch Hill,” in Alaska Miner. 11-8-1938
  • “Legion not yet for hill cemetery,” in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 12-14-1938
  • “Place to remember.” Cynthia Rinear Bethune. in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 9-19-1999