Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Fairbanks Creek Camp was one of F.E. Company's final ventures in Fairbanks area

North side of blacksmith shop at Fairbanks Creek Camp in early spring of 1994

Gold Dredge No. 2, located about 20 miles northeast of Fairbanks at Fairbanks Creek, was one of Fairbanks Exploration Company’s (F.E. Company) last operational dredges. The dredge was constructed on Lower Goldstream Creek in 1927-28, but was moved to Fairbanks Creek in 1949.

The move was accomplished during winter. A trail between Goldstream and Fairbanks Creeks was cleared in early winter, and snow allowed to accumulate. Dredge No. 2 was disassembled and in March was moved in sections with each section positioned on sled tracks and towed by four D-8 tractors.

In his book on the history of the F.E. Company, John Boswell stated that the dredge’s weight plus the friction from the sled runners melted snow under the runners so they actually ran on a thin layer of water. This eased transport, but when the tractors stopped, the runners immediately froze to the ground. This problem was remedied by laying spruce and cottonwood poles crosswise across the road (called “corduroy”) underneath the runners. This necessitated either advance planning for stops, or jacking the dredge section up to put the corduroy under the runners.

The move was completed on schedule and the dredge re-assembled and put into operation. Except for one incident, Dredge No. 2 labored uninterrupted (taking into account winter shut-down, of course) until 1963, when the F.E. Company shut it down permanently.

The incident that marred the dredge’s career was its accidental sinking in April 1959. The accident occurred when a deckhand tried to dislodge a chuck of ice from the stacker (the long tunnel-like apparatus at the back of the dredge used to discharge rocks and gravel). Instead of breaking up the ice with a pike pole, he used a stick of dynamite and ended up sending the dredge to the bottom of the pond. The dredge pond had to be drained and the dredge repaired and re-floated, which wasn't completed until September 1959.

Fairbanks Creek Camp was constructed to support F.E. Company’s dredging operations, which included exploratory work, clearing and thawing of ground, and the dredging itself. According to the book, Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the camp originally included 12 buildings: several small single-story bunkhouses, a laundry, two-story combination bunkhouse and mess hall, food cache, cook’s residence, blacksmith’s shop, garage, and sheds.

All of the buildings at Fairbanks Creek Camp were of wood-frame construction. Their construction and appearance were similar to other F.E. Company support camps like those at Ester and Chatanika. Many of them were sheathed with metal siding. Most of the buildings were just set on wood sills so they could be easily moved. (In fact, many of them had been moved from the Lower Goldsteam area.) The blacksmith shop and garage, however, had dirt floors.

The drawing shows one of the outside walls of the blacksmith shop, and the turnbuckles and other items stored there. The camp smithy fabricated or repaired many of the simpler implements used in dredging operations. More complicated items (anything requiring machining or with intricate parts) were worked on at the F.E. Company machine shop in Fairbanks. It’s hard to envision what some of the metal pieces we found stored at F.E. Company shops were used for, however, one of those strange pieces now supports our mailbox.

When I visited the camp in the early 1990s, the buildings had been sitting empty for 30 years. A few of them had already collapsed. John Reeves bought the property in the late 1990s, and as part of the sale he was required to remove most of the camp buildings, which were on un-patented mining claims. Many went to Gold Dredge No. 8, but the two-story bunkhouse/mess hall was hauled to Cleary Summit and is now the Mount Aurora Lodge. The few buildings left at Fairbanks Creek Camp are on private property and the access road is gated.

For more history of the Fairbanks Exploration Company check out these posts:

 
Sources:

  • Conversation with John Reeves, owner of Fairbanks Creek property
  • Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Janet Matheson & F. Bruce Haldeman. Fairbanks North Star Borough. 198
  • History of Alaskan Operations of Unites States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company. John C. Boswell. Mineral Industries Research Laboratory, University of Alaska. 1979
  • The Northern Gold Fleet: Twentieth-Century Gold Dredging in Alaska. Clark C. Spence. University of Illinois Press. 1996

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