Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Emil Usibelli and the early years of Usibelli Coal Mine

Bucyrus 20-B steam shovel at Usibelli Coal Mine in 2014

In 1907, at the age of 14, Emil Usibelli emigrated from Italy to the United States. Settling in Washington state, he worked a variety of jobs, doing stints as a miner, logger, and foundry worker before buying a coal distribution business. With economic hardships brought on by the Great Depression, Usibelli moved to Alaska in 1935 to start afresh.

He hired on as a coal miner at the Evan Jones mine just outside Sutton, about 15 miles northwest of Palmer, and a year later moved to Interior Alaska, working at “Cap” Lathrop’s Healy River Coal Corporation mine at Suntrana, just east of Healy. Laid-off due to a work-related injury, he fell back on his other work skills and established a logging operation supplying timbers to the coal mines.

Between 1940 and 1941 the United States built military installations at Kodiak, Unalaska, Anchorage and Fairbanks, and this military presence greatly increased Alaska’s market for coal. During the early years of World War II the Healy River Coal Corporation supplied most of the coal used in Fairbanks by Ladd Field (now called Fort Wainwright) and the civilian population, but was hard-pressed to keep up with the increasing demand.

The book, Mining the Burning Hills, A History of Suntrana Coal Mine and Townsite, states that the Federal Coal Commission began looking for additional operators to increase Alaska’s coal production. Emil landed a federal contract to explore for coal east of Suntrana. In 1943 he and his friend, T. E. Thad Sanford, obtained a lease on coal lands just upstream from Suntrana, and signed a one year contract to supply Ladd Field with 10,000 tons of coal.

Coal mines in Alaska up until then had been underground operations. Emil and Thad used a much simpler technique—scraping overburden off surface seams with a tractor and then pushing the coal into the bed of a truck. Their methods were primitive but successful. They met their contractual obligations, and from then on gradually expanded and improved the operation. Emil eventually did some underground mining, but concentrated on strip mining since it was safer and more efficient.

The steam shovel shown in the drawing was used during the early years of the mine. According to the “Steam Shovel Registry,” it is a Bucyrus model 20-B, weighing 20 tons and having a ¾ cubic yard bucket. Promotional literature called it a “universal” excavator, since it could be converted from a basic shovel to a dragline, crane, or clamshell shovel with minimal alterations. Retired many years ago, it now sits outside the company’s office near Healy.

In 1945 Emil, who handled mine operations, began experimenting with hydraulic stripping (removing overburden with high-pressure jets of water). The sandstone capping the coal seams was too solid to simply be worked hydraulically and had to be drilled and blasted before being washed way.  Emil eventually gave the process up and went back to mechanical stripping. However, during the time he did use hydraulicking his workers make a little extra pocket money. Emil set up sluice boxes to catch the small amount of gold washed out with the overburden, and his workers were allowed to keep whatever gold they recovered.

In 1948 he bought his partner out, and during the 1950s output from the mine surpassed that of his competitors. In 1961 he bought out his main rival, Suntrana Coal Mine (successor to Lathrop’s Healy River Coal Company).

Emil was killed in a mine accident on March 24, 1964. His son, Joe, took over management of Usibelli Coal Mine, and he in turn was succeeded by his son, Joe Usibelli, Jr.. The mine is still in operation, managed by the same family for 70 years. It employs about 140 people, and provides coal not only to local utilities, but ships it abroad to customers in Asia and South America.


  • Bucyrus, Making the Earth Move for 125 Years. Keith Haddock. Motorbooks International. 2005

  • “Emil Usibelli (1893-1964).” Charles B. Green & Becki Phipps. From Alaska Mining Hall of Fame Foundation website. 2000

  • Mining the Burning Hills: A History of Suntrana Coal Mine and Townsite. Rolfe G. Buzzell. Alaska Office of History and Archaeology. 1994

  • Steam Shovel Register website. Information provided by H. Keith Walters.

  • “The Usibelli Story.” From Usibelli Coal Mine website

  • “Usibelli Coal Mine celebrating 60 years in Alaska.” Christy Caballero. In Alaska Business Monthly. November 2003

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