FAIRBANKS — Tools of the Trade
When I visited Fairbanks Creek in the 1990s there were several old churn drills sitting on the tailings, obscured by trees. These drills, used to obtain ore samples, were essential for successful gold dredging. Dredges in Fairbanks operated on a slim profit margin — made even slimmer since the gold-bearing gravels were covered by varying thicknesses of overburden (up to 150 feet of silt and frozen “muck”) that had to be stripped away.
In his book about the Fairbanks Exploration Company, John Boswell (retired manager of the FE Company) wrote that a rule of thumb was than any ground that had been good enough for drifting could be dredged profitably. However, that did not mean the dredges could indiscriminately plow up the land. The dredges followed predetermined paths based on drilling results. Systematic drilling provided data to estimate the amount of overburden to be stripped, the volume of gravel to be dredged, and the amount of gold that could be recovered.
Fairbanks Creek, 20 miles northeast of Fairbanks and just east of Cleary Summit, was the site for two separate dredging operations. It also had more gold camps than most creeks in the Fairbanks area. Ester and Cleary Creeks each had two camps, but Fairbanks Creek boasted three.
The main camp was Meehan, which grew around the claims of three brothers: Matt, Pat and Tom Meehan. Communities also sprang up at Alder Creek Camp (one mile west of Meehan) and at Fairbanks Creek Camp (a mile to the southeast). In reality, mines, cabins and businesses were located all along the creek so the camps blended into each other. By 1910 there were about 500 people living along Fairbanks Creek.
In the mid 1910s, about the time drift mining played out, activity on the creek was re-invigorated when one of the earliest dredging operations in the Fairbanks area began. The Fairbanks Gold Dredge Company (FGDC), also called the “English Company” since it was English-owned, subleased some of the Meehan brothers’ claims. It built a support camp (add one more camp to the list), moved in a small dredge, and in 1919 began dredging.
The FGDC’s first dredge originally operated on the Stewart River above Dawson City in Canada, but was disassembled and shipped via river to Chena, thence on the Tanana Valley Railroad to Gilmore, and then packed overland and reassembled. The company also built and operated a second dredge on Fish Creek (the present location of the Fort Knox mine). A third dredge was constructed in 1928 to replace the first one which had worn out. The FGDC dredges ran until 1931 when the company went into receivership.
The Fairbanks Exploration Company bought the FGDC assets and in 1949 moved its gold dredge No. 2 from Goldstream Creek to Fairbanks Creek. This dredge operated until 1963, which was the year the FE Company permanently closed down its remaining dredges. These unique circumstances meant Fairbanks Creek hosted one of the first dredges and one of the last dredges operating in the Fairbanks area.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist and writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.