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Underground Alaska and one of the most dangerous jobs in the world

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published July 20, 2017

An Ester Creek mining crew in early Fairbanks working for the partnership of Mitchell and Fallon. (UAF archives)

FAIRBANKS — The Golden Heart City celebrates its Gold Rush heritage this week with Golden Days, though the brutal truth of life in the underground mines is never a big part of the July festivities.

In the decade after Felix Pedro discovered gold in 1902, Fairbanks boomed with one of the greatest gold rushes the North had ever known. Thousands of laborers — many of them foreign-born — went underground for one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs in the world.

“The work in the drift mines is exceedingly hard,” T.A. Rickard, an international mining authority, wrote in 1909 about conditions in the valleys 10-25 miles north of Fairbanks. “A man will average from 80 to 100 wheelbarrows, equivalent to 6 or 7 cubic yards, per day, and it needs an engineer to appreciate what that means.”

In this mechanized age, it's hard to appreciate what it took to shovel and move 8 or 9 tons of rock by wheelbarrow every day, in dim candlelit tunnels anywhere from 20 feet to 300 feet below ground.

The barrow men had to be quick enough to meet the bucket every time it descended for another load of gravel.

"Suffice it to say that it represents the maximum of manual labor," wrote Rickard, whose book "Through the Yukon and Alaska," is one of the finest and most entertaining accounts of the era.

Rickard, 44 at the time of his Alaska trip, once said that until age 14, he "thought in German and spoke Russian better than English." He was born to English parents in Italy and studied at the Royal School of Mines in London under T.H. Huxley.

In his autobiography he expressed annoyance with those who confused him with "Tex" Rickard, the infamous boxing promoter who ran bars in Alaska, built the third version of Madison Square Garden, founded the New York Rangers and was the Don King of his day.

The general public may not have known about T.A. Rickard, but miners did. He had inspected and studied properties from Australia to South America, but what set him apart was his skill as a writer and editor.

"The two chief requisites in writing are to be careful in the use of words and sincere in the expression of thought," Rickard said in a 1922 interview.

'Absurd' mining law

He was careful and sincere in sympathizing with the underground men of Fairbanks.

He said in Fairbanks, a half-ounce nugget represented a day's pay for mine workers, most of them employed by other men who leased the property from the owners, in exchange for 25 to 50 percent of the gross output.

"For this rich tribute the claim holder has usually done nothing beyond locating the ground or having had it located for him," Rickard said. "This is a striking example of the unearned increment and of special privilege under a democracy."

In many cases, he said, the only thing separating the overworked Fairbanks miner from the idle owner was an accident and a "mining law of absurd laxity."

The practice of so-called "drift mining" was to dig shafts, usually near surface streams, searching for ancient creek beds and gold deposited eons ago. Steam-powered hoists lowered men into the mine and raised gold-bearing rocks to the surface.

"We went underground, standing erect on the edge of the bucket and holding the steel rope," Rickard said of his 70-foot descent at a mine about 20 miles north of Fairbanks. "Lighting the candles offered by the manager, we walked along the boarded way over which the wheelbarrows pass."

Decades later, large-scale dredging reshaped valleys north and west of Fairbanks, washing away millions of cubic yards of dirt, ice and muck so that bedrock would be close to the surface and giant dredges could float in temporary ponds.

Lowering the ground level from Ester to Goldstream and beyond transformed the landscape, wiping out most of what remained of the underlying web of tunnels, which at one spot were interconnected for 3 miles.

"The air is like that of a cold storage plant," Rickard wrote about a Fairbanks mine for a 1909 article in the Mining and Scientific Press. "As the visitor goes through the workings he hears and feels the effects of the thawing, for the distant thump of dropping gravel may be accentuated by a tap on his own shoulder as a pebble performs the duty allotted to it by the immutable law of gravity."

"To avoid danger, it is well to keep close to the frozen face and avoid all cavernous spaces," he said.

83 perished in Fairbanks mines

From 1904 to 1916, at least 83 men died in the Fairbanks mines and 400 were injured, with cave-ins the biggest threat, the late Rex Fisher wrote in a book on the subject based on newspaper accounts, "Dying for Alaska Gold."

The men earned $5 a day plus board, a benefit pegged at $3 a day. The U.S. average pay at the time was about $2.25 a day, but in Fairbanks beer was 25 cents, magazines were 50 cents and a "wretched squib of a daily paper" was 25 cents, Rickard said.

He said the best mine results in 1908 came on the discovery claim on Cleary Creek. "In 52 hours, seven men with wheelbarrows extracted gravel that produced $27,500," he said. In current dollars, that is about $700,000.

The haste to become rich had motivated most of the operators,  he said, "but the ambition to do a thing well was a motive power to others. Nor is the evolution complete. It is still in progress."

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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