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Sourdough Creek mining camp escapes fire to offer a historical visual

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Posted: Sunday, December 9, 2012 12:21 am

FAIRBANKS — Sourdough Creek flows south out of the White Mountains and empties into the Chatanika River at about 66 Mile Steese Highway.

Several miles upstream, along Sourdough Creek Road, lies the old Zimmerman/Carlson mining camp. Tony Zimmerman, who also mined on Pedro Creek, developed the site in the early 1930s. (Zimmerman is a well-known Fairbanks name. Birch Hill Cemetery sits on the old Zimmerman homestead.)

Tony mined along Sourdough Creek and constructed the camp, impressive for both its size and refinements, to support his activities. Four buildings remain today: two large 1 1/2 story houses, and two smaller single story cabins. All of the buildings are constructed of notched logs.

Carl J. Carlson, a Fairbanks resident, (his son Karl owned Music Mart) bought the camp from Zimmerman in 1954, and did hydraulic mining along the creek. Hydraulicking is a method of placer mining where high-pressure jets of water are used to dislodge mineral-bearing material, which is then directed to sluice boxes.

The Carlson family still owns and uses the camp, and Carl’s granddaughter, Barbara Johnson, told me he apprenticed as a carpenter in Sweden before immigrating to the United States, and worked for the Alaska Railroad as a carpenter before buying the camp.

It was Carl who added white frame porches to all the buildings, plus the beveled eave brackets and other detailing that lend a Craftsman appearance to the camp. The Craftsman, or Arts and Crafts movement, refers to a design philosophy popular during the late 1800s and early 1900s. In Craftsman architecture, some typical exterior details are large porches, gable roofs, wide eaves, and exterior roof supports.

Barbara also told me that she thinks Zimmerman had plans for the camp beyond mining. She remembers an old sign (long gone) along the Steese Highway that announced the “Sourdough Camp Resort.”

In addition to the Craftsman styling, the camp’s accoutrements set it apart from your typical mining camp. A spring uphill from the camp provided piped running water, and three of the buildings even boasted indoor plumbing. The only building with working plumbing right now is the main house (what the Carlsons refer to as the “cook house.”) It has a hot water tank with a heat exchanger hooked up to the wood stove, so they even have hot and cold running water.

The building in the drawing is the only structure visible from the road, (the camp is on private property so if you visit the area, please do not trespass.) The Carlsons call it the “big house” and it has a small cribbed basement containing a large wood-burning furnace (now unused), with vents in the floor to evenly distribute the heat. Another of Carl’s granddaughters, Janine Thibedeau, said the problem with the furnace in the basement is that the basement floods every spring.

The camp was almost lost in 2004 when the Boundary Fire swept through the area. Fire essentially surrounded the camp, and it was only through the efforts of firefighters to cut a 50- to 100-foot perimeter around the camp that it was saved. Fortunately, the only building that was lost was a garage on the edge of the property.

It really would have been a tragedy if the camp had been destroyed. It is an excellent example of 1930s construction and shows how log construction can be successfully married to other architectural styles. It also proves that advanced plumbing and heating methods could be, and often were incorporated into log houses of this period, sometimes in remote areas.

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist and writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at

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