Fairbanks Creek–mining camps, churn drills and gold dredges
|Churn drill on Fairbanks Creek
When I visited Fairbanks Creek in the 1990s there were several old churn drills sitting on the dredge tailings, obscured by trees. They had probably been sitting there for 30 years. (Look closely at the tree in front of the drill.) 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 (silt and frozen “muck”) that had to be stripped away.
In his book about the Fairbanks Exploration Company (FE Co.), John Boswell (the company’s retired manager) wrote that a rule of thumb was than any ground that had been good enough for drifting (underground mining of placer gold deposits) 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. One of the deepest holes drilled on Fairbanks Creek showed 152 feet of overburden and 144 feet of gravel.
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 earliest camp was Meehan, which grew near the claims of three brothers: Matt, Pat and Tom Meehan. Communities also sprang up at Alder Creek Camp (one mile to the east) and at Fairbanks Creek Camp (three miles to the southeast). In reality, mines, cabins and businesses were located all along the creek, and in the 1910s there may have been about 1500 people living along the creek.
It may be that the different camp names just represent different times periods. According to the Fairbanks North Star Borough Planning Department, Meeham began around 1905 and mining activity there petered out in the early 1930s. Next came Alder Creek Camp, established in 1939. Finally, Fairbanks Creek Camp came into being in 1949.
During the “Meehan period” and about the time drift mining played out in the late 1910s, 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 The Yukon and Tanana Rivers to Chena, near the confluence of the Chena and Tanana Rivers. Then it was transferred to the Tanana Valley Railroad and shipped to Gilmore, a few miles northeast of Fox. From there it was freighted overland by wagon 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 FE Company bought the FGDC assets and in 1949 moved its gold dredge No. 2 from Goldstream Creek to Fairbanks Creek. The company also built Fairbanks Creek Camp to support the dredge operations. Dredge No. 2 operated until 1963, which was the year the FE Company permanently closed down its remaining dredges. The old dredge still sits in its dredge pond at the lower end of the creek, with the remains of Fairbanks Creek Camp about a mile away.