Rural Alaska

Photos: Historic Chatanika Gold Dredge No. 3

It was a quintessential impulse buy: completely unplanned, wholly impractical, outside the bounds of discretionary spending, yet completely irresistible.

"I'm, like, 'Gotta have it,' you know?"

That was the response of Jane Haigh, of Soldotna, upon seeing a classified ad in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in 1997.

The object of her desire? Not a snowmachine, nor a fish smoker. Neither a hot tub, backcountry cabin, sport boat or any of the myriad other items for which Alaskans develop itchy spending fingers.

Here's a hint: At the time, she was a mining historian, living in Fairbanks, as she had since 1970 (she's now is a history professor at Kenai Peninsula College's Kenai River Campus).

Here's another: It's bigger than a breadbox. Much bigger. Possibly bigger than the manufacturing machinery that made breadboxes, and it was employed in significantly altering miles upon miles of Alaska's landscape and hydrology.

"I'm a mining historian, so I knew about gold mining in Alaska and I'd been fascinated with gold dredges for years. And they had an ad in the paper," Haigh said.

For sale: One ginormous, intact but inoperable, metal-and-wood hulking hydraulic relic at Mile 29 Steese Highway, complete with 50 acres of scraped-out pond and machine-made corduroy tailings mounds, a testament to the power and prevalence of the 1920s industrial gold mining boom in Alaska.

Read more: A piece of Interior history -- preserved for a time -- goes up in smoke.