Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Old Fairbanks Exploration Company camp still an important part of Chatanika, Alaska



Chatanika Gold Camp as it looked in 1994

On a southeast-facing hill just north of Mile 27.5 of the Steese Highway sits Chatanika Gold Camp. The camp used to be the Fairbanks Exploration Company’s (FE. Co.) operations base for gold dredging along Cleary Creek.

Cleary Creek is an eight-mile-long stream running northwesterly from Cleary Summit to the Chatanika River. It was one of the richest gold-bearing streams around Fairbanks and supported two mining camps. The town of Chatanika was near the creek’s mouth, and Cleary City sat a few miles to the northeast.

The first mines in the area were drift mines that began petering out in the 1910s when higher-concentration placer-gold deposits were exhausted. However, after the Alaska Railroad was completed in 1923 and heavy equipment could be freighted to Fairbanks, the FE Co. moved into the area. The company began buying placer claims and doing preparatory work for bringing in gold dredges, which could take advantage of what was left in the area — large, low-grade, placer-gold deposits.

One of the first areas developed by the FE Co. was the Cleary Creek drainage. Between 1923 and 1925 it built an operations camp about half-way between Chatanika and Cleary City.

According to National Register of Historic Places documents, the camp at Chatanika was the largest one the FE Co. had in the Fairbanks area. This is understandable since two dredges churned the Cleary Creek gravels.

Gold Dredge No. 3 began operations at the old Chatanika townsite in 1928. That was the same year that the Davidson Ditch, which channeled water from the upper Chatanika River for dredging operations, was completed. Dredge No. 3 still sits about a mile west of the camp, across the highway from Chatanika Lodge.

Dredge No. 5 was put into service a year later to take advantage of placer-gold deposits along upper Cleary Creek. Except for a brief period during World War II when all the area dredges were idled, that dredge worked Cleary Creek until 1947, when it was moved to Little Eldorado Creek and later to Dome Creek.

Dredge No. 3 continued to operate until 1963 when, due to increasing operating costs and low gold prices, it shut down. The camp remained dormant until being sold in 1976 to Robert Galeoto and his wife, who developed the property into a resort, converting one of the buildings into a restaurant.

In 1979 the camp was added to the National Register of Historic places. There were 12 buildings included in the listing. Six of the buildings, including the camp’s office, were small wood-framed and wood-sided structures that were perhaps built before the FE Co. moved into the area.

Five of the structures were built by the FE Co. in 1925. All those buildings were wood-frame structures covered with corrugated metal siding and having corrugated metal roofs. The largest of those metal-sided buildings are a 36-man bunkhouse/mess hall and a 52-man bunkhouse. Both of those buildings are two-stories high.

The bunkhouse/mess hall building (which is the restaurant) is a 36-foot by 72-foot structure with gabled roof. (The mess hall still contains its original eight-foot-long wood-burning cookstove and most of the original furnishing.)  The 52-man bunkhouse is 31-foot by 60-foot with a 16-foot by 26-foot addition to the northeast. Both the 52-man bunkhouse and addition have hipped roofs. Other metal-sided camp buildings include the blacksmith shop, boiler house, and garage.

The drawing shows the 52-man bunkhouse in the foreground, with the bunkhouse/mess hall and garage in the background to the right and left. The view is looking west towards the old Chatanika townsite and Gold Dredge No. 3.

That’s the Old Steese Highway running in front of the buildings. The remains of the Davidson Ditch snake along the hillside above the camp, and the old Chatanika schoolhouse (now a small museum) is about a ¼ mile to the northwest.

The camp is now owned by Marlene and Matt Bach, and Val and Red Scullion. Marlene and Val’s father, Otto Babenicek, once operated the Chatanika trading post (now the Chatanika Lodge). Marlene told me her father also cooked at the FE Co. camp in 1949. How fitting that a family with connections to the FE Company's Chatanika operations now runs the camp.

Sources:


  •  “Chatanika Gold Camp.” National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form. John S. Kaufman. National Park Service. 1979

  • Conversation with Marlene Bach, one of the camp’s owners

  • Fairbanks North Star Borough property records

  •  History of Alaskan Operations of United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company. John C. Boswell. Mineral Industries Research Laboratory, University of Alaska. 1979


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