PRECIOUS-METAL mining districts are the most fascinating places in the world to live, if one is interested in either human nature or Mother Nature. Here you see her at a work that’s always going on, for this earth we build so solidly upon is not by any means a dead thing. Its hardened crust-cakes are most like a pavement built of stone setts, always tilting, grinding, shifting, eroding, settling here and rising thereas the miner who works below ground best knows of all Earth’s children, for he is most earth wise. That’s what geology means!
Here in Alaska we have not only to watch the daily everywhere miracle of sterile granite mountains being transformed by soft rainfall and scratching frost fingers into the mantle of earth; but here the prospector, like Ariel, has come “To do me business in the veins o’ the earth, when it is baked with frost.” The Alaskan prospector is a partner of geologic pasts; he thinks in their terms and tries his best to trace the meaning of their ancient land-writings. Only thus his pot of fortune may be found, for there is always the element of chance and uncertainty about any mining. Any day the vein or pocket may peter out; but on the other hand, any day one may strike a bonanza! Each hole sunk to bedrock, each adit in the hill, is just another chance shot to a fortune: a hundred-to-one shot, perhaps, but worth the work and taking.
Whole libraries of books have been written about gold mining in Alaska, books of every stripe and colortrue, untrue, and partly true. Some have been written by men who’ve never been north of Seattle, and some by men who have devoted the best years of their lives, in Uncle Sam’s Geological Survey and Bureau of Mines, to scientific study of Alaska’s truly vast mineral resources. From one point of view, then, it seems utterly foolish to add even the sketchiest chapter to a subject which has been so thoroughly covered, while from another point of view it seems equally foolish to attempt to press into any small space any adequate suggestion of that great industry which has stamped Alaska as one of its richest producers.
I have to beware, too, because mining is the “why” of our coming to Alaska. In fact, most early Alaskans came here for the very same reasons that brought Captain John Smith to New England in the spring of 1614: “To Take Whales and make tryalls of a Myne of Gold and Copper ” ! Mining is my husband’s chosen profession and my own long-ridden hobby. ” Much have I travelled in the realms of Gold.” And so it will prove a real test of self-control if I can confine my hobby-riding here to the short course of one lone chapter. If mining terms and thought in mining cast pop up all over through this Alaskan journey of ours, please do for-give me. For we all have our bents, and you have seen by now, I know, that mine are turned to mining and its ways. What we attend to, shapes us, and all Alaska’s past and present are golden stamped in pattern.
Our own approach to Alaska as a mining field was both peculiarly impersonal and personal, as I think I should explain to make the background clear. We were not interested in any one district or any one mine, because Uncle Sam had sent my husband here to establish a Bureau of Mines Station for all Alaska, and, by the rules of our Department, no one in its civil service may own or operate or exploit a mine on which he may have occasion to advise or report. For us, that meant every mine and prospect hole in all Alaska; and therefore, although many opportunities of course offered, it was always necessary to keep the general and impersonal view-point. In this we had a unique outlook and one which was fortunate in many ways. Personal interest did not pull us to look more favorably on one section than another; and because we were ” outsiders,” for that very reason I think we often saw more of the game, as outsiders sometimes do. Then, too, we had both of us lived long in other mining districts of many types, from coal to radium ore, and so we knew other ways and methods and could come here without golden dust in our eyes, to study Alaska’s special problems with freshness and perspective. For this reason we especially appreciated the racy and peculiar qualities of Alaska’s pioneer sourdough prospectors, whom we soon found to he the cream and essence of the early population. And so I think I’d like to speak here of the human side of mining, instead of its mechanical or economic phases. In that way I’ll indeed be speaking of a thing that’s very near my heart.
In his problem of gold finding the prospector has two unknown quantities to resolveunless he goes by mere dead luck or other people’s say-so. But most old prospectors are far too keen and too individualistic to think of doing that, for most are either amateur geologists or-having learned in a long, hard, practical schoolare very observant and ” figurin’ ” in their calculations of likely prospects. A prospector knows that he must answer two questions in his mind : ” Where does gold come from, and how? ” If he can do this, he has a very fair chance of success.
Gold is an ” old ” metal, old in earth time and old in value in the eyes of men. It has long been sought, because it possesses properties of such great usefulness. It is not affected by dry or moist atmosphere and so ” doth not rust nor corrupt ” ; it is extremely ductile, the most malleable of all metals when pure, and hence one of the most workable and sought in manufacture, so that from earliest days artisans have joyed in its use and shaping. It has a permanent and very lovely color and lustre, so that it does not tarnish, even though it may lie for centuries buried in Egyptian tombs or lava-bedded cities of antiquity; and it can be welded cold, a practical side of its quality which the worker in gold best appreciates. Also, no other metal lends itself so beautifully and fittingly to processes of coinage; all of which, together with its relative rarity, have made of gold a symbol of the highest purity and value and the world’s standard of exchange among civilized nations. No won-der men for years have sought it, and that few tangible things are ” more to be desired than gold than much fine gold.”
The mother goose who lays this golden egg is the Mother Lodemetal from the hot primal core of earth forced by the constant earth shifts and long successive aeons of geologic changes, up through the veins of rocky flesh to show as fine flecks on her surface, in rare places. ” Quartz,” ” hard rock,” ” lode,” ” reef,” or ” banket ” mining is a search for and a laborious digging out of these ” veins in place.” One man found such a place near Nuka Bay not long ago, where a vein of gold-bearing quartz, many inches wide on the surface, fairly glittered with the precious metal. This was found by pure chance, while burning off the ground for other purposes, and it lies in block slate formation similar to the deep Mother Lode mines of California. This native gold is well sealed within the granite hills, however, and is usually to be found only after long and most tedious labor. ” Hard rock ” means hard work and takes hard money to finance, for the mountains must be disemboweled to make them fruitful, and ” spots sticking out as big as a horse-blanket,” such as the old prospectors joy to speak of, are about as findable as roc eggs within the bossy beaten work of mountains. The great mines about Juneau are quartz or ” hard rock propositions ” of this nature, requiring vast expenditures of capital to develop at their peak efficiency but yielding golden returns when so organized. The truly remarkable thing about the Alaska-Juneau mine, for instance, is not its rich outflowing of gold but the fact that, through expert organization and technical efficiency in concentrating methods, ore worth less than ninety cents a ton is mined and milled and made to pay a handsome profit. This is real engineering skill.
Placer mines such as those of the Klondike, Nome and Fairbanks districts are of a different type entirely. The word ” placer ” comes through the Spanish plaza and means: a ” place ” where surface de-position is washed for valuable minerals, as gold. The a in placer is short and is pronounced like the a in fat; it is not the long a of ape, as so many who are unfamiliar with mining technology or old California tradition insist upon mispronouncing it.
Through a succession of years too numerous to reckon as men count, tiny streams slipping through the fingers of Time have pulled and worn at old and highly-mineralized metal-impregnated hills. Through epochs back of history, great Nature her-self has been slowly rocking this peninsula of Alaska like a titanic miners’ cradle, with infinite patience washing out the gold values from the rocks of a vast district and concentrating them into small ” placers ” or places: at the bottoms of favored creek beds, on the floors of gulches, on gravel bars in rivers, on sandy sea beaches, below the sodden tundras, or on high benches that mark the streamline of most ancient water coursesaccording to ” the formation ” that can be read by knowing ones. The poorest man, with only his two hands, a miner’s pan, a slab of bacon and a sack of flour for grubstake with his sourdough crock, may if he’s wiseor merely luckystrike a bonanza, i. e. a surface placer gold deposit, rich and workable ” from the grass roots down.” This alluring possibility has made placer gold the lure of ages. The cleverest geologist can do no more than say, ” This place is favorable.” No one can say with certainty, ” It’s hereit’s there.” As the old miners’ saw goes, ” Gold is just where you find it! ” For no human eye has watched the foundations of the world being laid, or seen the mountains rear their shapeless bulk from sea-bed, in the hiss and flame of that great forge-room.
The source of Klondike gold seems to have been the small stringers of quartz in the schists which form the bed-rock there. No important quartz veins have been discovered near, so that (unlike most other noted placer regions, such as the California gold fields) there was no present source or Mother Lode to work back to and unearth, after the first rich gravel washings had been made. That’s why, to-day, after the golden fleece of Argonauts has been carried off and great dredges and hydraulic nozzles have been at work for years, there is now no further Klondike development, and some of the massive ” gold boats,” as the dredges are called, have already been shipped on to the Malay Statesto dig up tin there! This move is typical of the world-thinking of great mining companies, who are the true internationalists of our present all-metal age.
Fairbanks is more fortunate than her older sister in that she has several lode mines now developing near by; so that when the placers are exhausted and the present big companies at work dredging the en-tire creeks (and not just the ” high spots,” as was done by hand methods) have finished their work, as dredges always do in time, then there will still be the hill mineral sources left, even though no new placers or other minerals are meanwhile discovered. Also we have here all our wide and fertile valley, with agricultural and grazing lands to fall back on, just as California found her real richness after ’49, when climate was discovered after the gold was gone, or going. That’s why we think our founding fathers here were very wise in choosing this Golden Heart for their ” last big camp.”
This is always the cycle of the gold camp : first the lone prospector with his dogs in winter or his crudely homemade boat in summer; then the gold rush, when he strikes it rich and the good word spreads; next come the groups of miners who work the richest gravels only, with simple pick-and-shovel man-power methods, for, as old Herakleitos wrote long centuries ago, ” Those who seek for gold dig up much dirt, and find a little;” and then, when high-grade ground has all been worked over, the great gold boat or dredge will come, built and operated by some wealthy mining company. ” Gold Boat ” in the miner’s parlance does not connote a Roman emperor’s barge on Nemi, marble paved, bronze beaked, and silk pavilioned! Far from it. It means instead a large scow with heavy machinery and housing on it, floating in a little pond of water which it opens ahead by digging in, and closes up behind as it edges slowly along a creek bottomlike some pre-historic monster reaching out its long neck of chainand-buckets, rooting in the earth with its metal snout, and drawing in enormous daily meals of golden gravels. One of the dredges operating near Fair-banks on Chatanika weighs 2,000 tons, can dig down 80 feet, handles daily between 7,000 and 8,000 cubic yards of dirt, and requires only four men to handle it, each shift. The very last speck of nature’s precious metal deposit is sucked up, digested, and the refuse gravels are spewed out in unsightly tailing piles along the creek bottoms, to make ideal road metal for our many motors.
About Fairbanks, as about Dawson, there is a net-work of little streams each with its tributary ” pups.” This is the placer ground-plan. And here centuries of dripping water, the pull of gravity, with constant cross erosion of drifting winds that scatter and rains that leach and frost and ice that grind and nibble, have patiently been at work. ” As there is a constant tendency for all weathered material to move down the slopes,” the geologists say, ” most residual gold soon becomes eluvial,” with concentration of heavy material. In general, a stream will carry coarse gold one or two miles from its source, and the richest pay usually lies either on bed-rock or in the lower ten feet of the gravel resting on bed-rock. That’s why ” to get down to bed-rock ” means business to the placer miner, for that’s where the gold will lie, if any.
The geologist, casting his eye over the Fairbanks creeks, sees that one type of placer here occurs in deep channels lying on the bed-rock floor, in what were formerly broad valleys with gentle slopes. But time has changed the faces of the hills, and this ancient topography has been obscured and written over by the valley’s filling with talus from adjacent hill walls. A second type, the bench placer, is the result of archaic erosions and deposits, and may have small relation if my to the present valley formation. Water and wind and slipping time have smoothed and massaged the contours and the face of nature until the question which the prospector must always ask and answer, “Whence came the gold, and how? ” is indeed a puzzle worthy of real wit.
Except in the rare cases of bonanza gold, exposed and lying right at the grass roots, he must read the ancient story of the hills with all his canny wisdom and then shape his guided guess from what best evidence he finds there. He stakes his claim upon a likely ” place,” and then he digs a shaft to bed-rock down through the heavy overburden, perhaps thirty feet of it if he is near to the head of an old valley, perhaps nearly three hundred feet if near its mouth. When the depth to bed-rock is less than twenty feet he can mine with open-cut, scraping off the skin-deep tundra if the place is a flat bed, or ground sluicing if there are both grade and water sufficient to wash and carry off the overburden. Around Fairbanks most of the placers lie in flat open valleys, stream gradients are low, and the annual precipitation is so slight there’s little flow of water to be had; so hydraulicking as done at Dawson and at Nome is seldom practiced here. In fact, on some creeks, such as Liven-good, a season sometimes comes when there is scarcely enough water even to sluice all the gravels that could otherwise be profitably mined. That occasional lack of sluicing water is one of our inner Alaskan problems. As one Livengood friend wrote me, after reading an article I had published in Scribner’s on ” What Does Alaska Want? ” : ” Please tell Mr. Hoover that what Alaska wants is rain in summer, snow in winterand transportation at all times! That’s all I’ll ever ask of Uncle Sam!”
If the winter snowfall is light, the spring freshets on the creeks may not suffice to wash all the auriferous gravels accumulated by all the hard work of underground deep winter mining; for the deeper gravels have to be worked by drift mining in cold weather, sometimes 200 or 250 feet below the surface. And that’s no fun! If the summer rainfall is too light, then the open-cut gold production may be low that year, for the little streams will not furnish sufficient water for the needed sluicing and cold-water thaw.
Except for the practices of thawing frozen gravel, and occasionally of freezing thawed gravel to hold back a flow of water, mining methods in Alaska are very much the same as elsewhere. But here Frost is, in many ways, the miner’s best friend, incongruous as that may seem. Deep ground-frost enables him to remove larger blocks of ground without using ex-pensive mine timbers to support his drifts. Frost is a rigid force and holds tight for him his winter mine walls, even although they may be composed merely of loose gravels. All he needs is timber for his hoist-shaft and those tunnels which have tracks for ore-cars; for exposure to the outside air, combined with the jar of constant vibration, will loosen even frost-solid walls.
At and near Fairbanks the alluvium in many places is frozen down to bed-rock, and beautiful, crystalline, gleaming ground-frost can be seen upon the black walls of mine tunnels 200 feet below the surface, the year round. Unless the moss is stripped, in summer the ground will thaw but two feet at most. In all this Yukon basin permanent frozen ground is the rule, due to the heavy overburden of moss which holds the cold but will not admit the sun’s heat; so that in drift mining the stratum of gravel which contains the pay, lying down close to bed-rock, must be thawed either by steam or water. In the old days steam thawing was the custom; but with wood costing from ten to twenty dollars a cord, and a cord of wood thawing less than two hundred square feet of bed-rock, steam thawing proved too expensive for any but the very good ground. Recently cold-water thawing has been used with very good results. The ground is stripped and laid open to the sun and to innumerable streams of water, forced down into it through about a thousand half-inch, ten-foot, strong, steel pipes driven in at a time. With a pressure of about 25 pounds per square inch, and the points spaced from 4 to 16 feet apart according to the nature of the ground, a large area can be thawed in one season, and for roughly half the cost of steam. This method, which has been perfected only within the last ten years or so, has proved a great boon to miners on certain medium and low-grade grounds. To-day these bristling forests of thaw pipes, planted like thick-set, grotesque, branchless trees, are to be seen in many places pouring their constant streams down into ground which, loosened thus and thawed, is soon removable and workable.
Modern science has been defined as the under-standing and employment of natural forces, to control natural forces; and we Alaskans are always hunting new methods to use our great God-given cold-storage plant to our own advantage and make the cold work for us. We housekeepers do it in countless ways. We let the deep cold of winter make our ice-cream, preserve our meat, keep handy and always on tap our stacks of frozen mince pies for the holidays, and perform a hundred other useful housekeeping jobs for us, in our ” land of the Golden Freeze.” The miners have a trick or two of their own in putting ground-frost to work. Not only do they utilize it in place of mine timber, but they also employ frost as a tool in sinking shafts down to a gold-bearing river bar or sea-bottom, which could not otherwise be reached. In Germany, at great cost, clever engineers are opening up potash mines to-day by a reversal of the steam-thawing method, ammonia pipes being sunk in quicksands and the ground frozen around them, so that a shaft can be dug and brick-walled and rich deposits tapped that are otherwise unworkable.
But there are places in Alaska where miners have for years let nature do this for them, and at no cost at all but just a little time and patience! At Unalakleet, for instance, a shaft was cut in the ice almost to the water, but not quite. The very cold outside winter air quickly froze the water lying next this hole, and soon the shaft could be cut a few inches deeper, and again the water next the thin ice-floor was frozen thick and solid. This process was repeated until a shaft with solid ice walls was opened from the surface to the sea floor. The same procedure has been used effectively on river bars.
One thing always deeply impresses newcomers to our gold camps, especially if they are lucky enough to strike one of the creeks on the day of a ” clean-up,” and see with their own eyes the heavy yellow gold catching in riffles like wheat grains. They say: “You are so careless about gold! You treat it as though it had no value! You leave it lying around loose, almost. You never seem to think of thieves.”
We don’t, for several reasons. One is, there just aren’t many thieving-minded people in Alaska’s heart. The court records show thatI don’t need to prove it. The second is that gold in quantities that would make stealing worth while is a mighty heavy metal. It’s hard to ” get away with.” The third isAlaska is a ” long way from nowhere.” The Outside can be reached only by certain definite routes and ports, and any suspected person would find it well-nigh impossible to get out of the country. And where would he sell his gold, if he did go ” outside ” ? While gold dust in a ” poke ” may be worth a lot of money, it isn’t money. It has to be turned into money before it can be spent. And who does that? The U. S. Mint, and it is only at the Mint that dust finds ready saleor at banks in gold-producing regions, which sell directly to the Mint. Here it is assayed for its ” fineness ” or relative content of other metals, for placer gold always contains some other metal such as silver or platinum.
If you have stolen some one’s gold and go with it to a bank or mint, you have to prove who you are and where you got that gold before you can sell it. And if you swear falsely, there are a score of ways the assayer can and does check up on you before you ever get paid one cent in coin-of-the-realm. If you should take Alaskan gold to Denver, for instance, and swear it came from some Colorado creek, you’d be arrested as a thief inside of five minutes. You see, there are such differences in the appearance, shape, size, color and texture of gold in different auriferous districts, a clever person knows at a glance the distinction.
My husband employed a chemist who had assayed Alaskan gold for years, and Paul Hopkins could not only tell in a moment whether a certain pinch of ” dust” came from the Fairbanks district or from Nome or Dawson, but with a little careful scrutiny he could almost invariably tell you from which one of our score of creeks it came. Often he could even name the exact claim on that particular creek from which it had been takenor which ” pup.” This is because, to an observant mineral-wise eye, all that glitters is not gold. Virgin gold before it’s touched by fire, or changed in shape and color and texture by the process of refinement, has grades and types and classifications. Alluvial gold is associated closely with other minerals of great density and hardness, representing the most durable constituents of the rocks whose disintegration has furnished the detritus whence it came; and the supposedly characteristic yellow color of gold is notably affected by small quantities of other metalssuch as copper, lead, or silver–occurring with it. ” Raw” gold is almost al-ways silver-bearing, and silver generally contains some gold, so that they are truly sister metals; and the complex problems of ” parting ” and purifying them are of greatest antiquity. Virgin gold, placer gold, water-washed and cleaned gold, before it has known the refiner’s furnace may be reddish, whitish, greenish-lemon tinted, as well as all the ordinary shades of ” golden ” yellow. Also, the native crystallization will be different, the edges will be rough or worn, and the size of grain or nugget will have been determined by the length of its journey from the Mother Hills to the creek where it is found. That’s how the knowing assayer is able to say, off-hand, ” It’s from Tony’s claim, on Chatanika.”
And so we ” gold-crazed Alaskans,” living in the land we call ” God’s Pocket,” really take small thought about our precious metal of the hills. I think an experience which my husband had will show you how this works out. Long before the rail-road came he was making a trip Outside in late fall, over the Richardson Trail. The snow was already deep on the mountain passes; and while he had left Fairbanks in a motor, when the foothills of the range were reached the stage passengers were transferred to sleds, each drawn by one horse which followed the foremost sled and driver in line, up on the summit trail. There was no need of reins, for there was no need of driving. The horses were honest and trained and knew their business.But let him tell the story.
” Each sled contained one passenger and some mail sacks or express. The slow walk of the horse and I could see nothing past him, of coursemade me sleepy. I was all bundled up and as comfort-able as the proverbial bug, in all my wolf robes, and I thought I’d take a nap. Well, the express box I was using as a back-rest, sitting up, was too high for a pillow. So I pushed it down and used it for a foot warmer! I thought at the time it was mighty heavy, for I couldn’t lift it. Felt like lead. But finally I got fixed and slept all afternoon, until we got to the roadhouse for the night.
“When the horse stopped, I woke up. It was pitch dark, and just as I was crawling out of the furs, sort of dazed, Beckett the packer came up and ran his hand along the sled. All of a sudden he yelled: ‘ Good God, Daviswhere’s the bank’s gold? There was a hundred thousand of a mint shipment I put on your sled and fixed for your back-rest, and it’s gone!’
“0that!’ I said. ` Don’t get all het up over that. It hurt my back and I just shoved it forward. Here it is!’
” Well, he breathed easy then and helped me unwind myself, and after we’d unhooked Old Dobbin for the night I said: ‘ Say, don’t you want me to lend you a hand with that box? It’s pretty hefty.’
H__ no, she’s all right, here. We never bother to fetch in any little thing like that. What’s going to harm her?”
Well, what was? And nothing ever did. But now, we send out gold by plane. Time flies in our High North, but so does gold dust. The old generation of prospectors is a vanishing race, but some type of prospecting for the precious dust is an ever-continuing pursuit, as it has been since time’s golden dawn. The search must continue, for the business of the nations is done in terms of yellow gold; and though Uncle Sam’s credit is of the best, and he has goods galore to barter, to keep his self-respect he must also have some minted money to jingle when he thrusts down his hands into the pockets of those long striped trousers of his!