FAIRBANKS - When you are in the resource development industry, the infrastructure to support your business needs to be in place before your operations begin. If your operations are at the end of a 2,000-mile long supply line, having local warehousing, repair and fabrication facilities is essential.
So it was with the Fairbanks Exploration Co. when it moved into the Fairbanks area in the 1920s. Besides the Alaska Railroad to Fairbanks and Tanana Valley Railroad from Fairbanks to Chatanika, there was a rudimentary road system but not much else in the way of infrastructure.
Before its dredges were brought in, the F.E. Co. had to develop the Davidson Ditch water system, construct a power plant and electrical distribution system, erect support camps and build warehousing and repair facilities.
One of the first support facilities completed was its company machine shop, located off Charles Street behind the F.E. Co. office building on Illinois Street. The machine shop (shown in the drawing) was completed in 1927.
According to “The ‘F.E. Company Industrial Site: Historic Resources and Preservation Potential,” the original portion of the machine shop (the first steel-frame structure in Interior Alaska) was a 64-by-136 single-story building with 20-foot ceilings in the central area. A large garage was added to the south in 1941, and an open storage shed was constructed on the western end of the original portion at a later date. The building has numerous large multi-pane wood sash windows and is sheathed with shiplap siding and corrugated metal (all original.)
This facility was the best equipped machine shop in Fairbanks. It was the repair center for company vehicles and equipment that couldn’t be fixed in the field and for fabricating tools and parts.
A 1931 publication put out by the U.S. Smelting, Refining and Mining Co. (F.E. Co.’s parent) bragged that, “In order to take care of repair work the company has provided very complete repair shops at Fairbanks. The machine shop contains tools of sufficient size to handle all parts of the dredges and power plant equipment.”
The last F.E. Co. dredges shut down in the 1960s, and the company’s successor, Alaska Gold Co., sold its assets in the early 1990s. GVEA bought most of the Illinois Street property, along with the F.E. Co.’s office building, but John and Ramona Reeves (who owned Gold Dredge No. 8 and other historic properties) bought the machine shop and the land it sits on.
The Reeveses renamed the machine shop the Daniel F. Eagan Machine Shop. Talking with Eagan’s son, Pete, I learned that Dan, who grew up at Meehan on Fairbanks Creek, worked at the F.E. Co. for over 40 years as a mining engineer, machinist and master mechanic.
The machine shop still contains most of its milling machines and other equipment, still in working condition. One of the large machining lathes was used to resurface the axles for Engine No. 1 at Pioneer Park when it was restored in the 1990s.
The shop, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, hasn’t seen much use or many visitors in recent years, but it is still there. The building’s first floor windows are boarded up, but it is filled with machines and memories, waiting to tell its story.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist and writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at http://sketchesofalaska.blogspot.com.