From Fairbanks to Chicken, a long road for the FE Company’s Dredge No. 4
|Chicken dredge in 1999|
The Fairbanks Exploration Company’s (FE Co.) Dredge No. 4 (also called the Pedro dredge) in Chicken originally operated along Pedro Creek just north of Fairbanks.
Built by the Yuba Manufacturing Company in California for the FE Co., it was shipped from Oakland to Fairbanks in the spring of 1938. Assembled at Pedro Creek, it began churning the creek’s gravels on July 11, 1938. Specifically designed to extract gold from the shallow gravels along Pedro Creek, it was the FE Company’s smallest dredge, utilizing 3-cubic-foot buckets. (Most of the company’s dredges used 6- or 10-cubic-foot buckets.)
By the 1950s the FE Co. realized Dredge No. 4 would soon exhaust Pedro Creek’s gravel and made plans to move the dredge to new ground. Back in 1939-40, the company had acquired claims about 200 miles to the east, along Mosquito Fork and Chicken Creek (tributaries of the South Fork of the Fortymile River), as well as a small steam-powered dredge on Mosquito Fork that had been operated by the Alaska Gold Dredging Company.
According to the 1996 U.S. Geological Survey publication, Gold Placers of the Historical Fortymile River Region, the Mosquito Fork dredge had been shipped in pieces from Skagway to Whitehorse on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, and then transported by riverboat down the Yukon to the mouth of the Fortymile River. From there it was skidded during winter behind caterpillar tractors up the Fortymile to Mosquito Fork. And after all that effort it only operated about a year and a half.
The FE Co. contemplated renovating the Mosquito Fork Dredge for use on Chicken Creek, but with the opening of the Taylor Highway in 1953, decided instead to move its No. 4 dredge from Fairbanks to Chicken. No. 4’s hull design of welded steel pontoons allowed it to be transported in sections, and coupled with the dredge’s compact design, it was less costly to disassemble and truck it from Fairbanks to Chicken than to renovate the Mosquito Fork dredge.
No. 4 was disassembled and trucked to Chicken in 1958, re-assembled, and put into operation in 1959. The dredge had originally been supplied with electrical power from the FE Co.’s Fairbanks power plant. At its new remote location two diesel engines were installed onboard to provide electricity.
The dredge operated until 1967, when diminishing gold recovery and operational problems forced the company to permanently shut down operations. The dredge was “parked” on a ledge of bedrock, its buckets removed, and its doors and windows shuttered. The book, The Northern Gold Fleet: Twentieth-century Gold Dredging in Alaska, relates that No. 4 recovered more than $2 million in gold and silver during its nine years at Chicken.
There it sat on the tailings along Chicken Creek until 1998, when Alaska Gold Company (the successor to the FE Co.) sold the dredge to private investors. No. 4 had been sitting north of the Taylor Highway, and its new owners owned property south of the highway, so (in a not-so-simple operation) they jacked up the dredge, put huge trailers under it, and inched it a mile south across the highway. The drawing shows the dredge a year after the move (notice the still-shuttered windows).
After being moved, the dredge’s principal owner, Mike Busby, fixed up No. 4 and opened it to the public. The dredge was relocated again in 2009, but this time movers constructed and filled a pond around the dredge, floating it to its new home.
Busby and his partners also acquired all the equipment and parts associated with the dredge’s operation, including the dredge’s buckets. Because of this, and the fact that its remote location discouraged souvenir hunters, it is one of the most complete dredges in Alaska. Busby told me that it would actually take very little to make the dredge operational. Dredge No. 4 is open to the public every summer.
- Correspondence with Mike Busby, owner of Dredge No. 4
- “F.E. Company Dredge No. 4 National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Michael Busby. National Park Service. 2006
- Gold Placers of the Historical Fortymile River Region, U.S.G.S. Survey Bulletin 2125. Warren Yeend. U.S. Geological Survey. 1996
- History of Alaska Operations of Unites States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company. John Boswell. Mineral Industries Research Laboratory, University of Alaska, Fairbanks. 1979
- The Northern Gold Fleet: Twentieth-Century Gold Dredging in Alaska. Clark C. Spence. University of Illinois Press. 1996