Alaskan Cripple Creek shows plenty of color

Dredging operation near Fairbanks complex, expensive

Rob Carrigan
Dredge buckets like this one from Dredge #10 in Cripple Creek, Alaska, were used to efficiently work the placers.
Hydraulic placer gold mining dredge, known as Dredge #10. Built by the Fairbanks Exploration Company (a subsidiary of the U.S. Smelting, Refining & Mining Co.) in 1940. Date June 22, 1950, Western History/Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library.
Rob Carrigan
Early dredges were somewhat crude operations.
Rob Carrigan
Gold was not the only mineral wealth discovered in interior Alaska, as evident from this table-sized piece of Jade.
Rob Carrigan
Some equipment had to be driven overland through the Alaskan bush for miles to reach mining sites.
Rob Carrigan
Plane, dogsled, and sternwheelers or other boats on the river, were the main methods of getting equipment to the mines, as there were not many roads.
Rob Carrigan
Cripple Creek as it feeds into the Chena River.
Rob Carrigan
Steam shovels, like this Bucyrus shovel that first dug part of the Panama Canal were used to free gravel for dredging operations.
Rob Carrigan
Water 'Giants' were used to remove overburden.
Rob Carrigan
The Chena Pump House was once used to pump water up Chena Ridge to supply dredge and hydraulic mining operations along Cripple Creek. Today it is a popular bar and restaurant with National Historic designation.
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Rob Carrigan
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As it turns out, there are about 15 different streams in Alaska that are called ‘Cripple Creek,’ but as usual, the one most remembered — is the one where the gold was.

That one, first recorded in 1904, was very rich and flows down Chena Ridge into the Chena River, not far from Fairbanks.

The mining at the Cripple Creek mine covered about one square mile beneath and south-southeast of the town of Ester, Alaska.

The Cripple Creek pay channel was described as an ancient channel of Ester Creek which branched from the present course of Ester Creek roughly opposite the mouth of Ready Bullion Creek.

“The auriferous gravels at Cripple Creek are very deep; they are overlain by several hundred feet of barren gravel and reworked loess or so-called muck that washed into valley from the surrounding hillsides. Beds of clay several feet thick were found at various elevations. Subsequent to deposition of the gravels there had been considerable faulting and tilting that has resulted in grades of 5 to 8 percent on the surface of the gravel as well as the bedrock The gravels vary in thickness from 60 to 167 feet; these are overlain by muck that varied in thickness from 100 to 187 feet. There was almost certainly deep, early drift mining on Cripple Creek in the early days of mining in the Fairbanks district but it was probably attributed to Ester Creek mine (FB034) or simply Ester,” according to J.C.. Boswell, in his book “History of Alaskan operations of United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company published by Mineral Industry Research Laboratory, University of Alaska, (1979).

United States Smelting, Refining, and Mining Company (U.S.S.R. and M) consolidated most of the property in Ester and Cripple Creeks in 1930, and this was one of the major centers of placer mining in the Ester area until the dredges stopped mining in the late 1960’s. U.S.S.R. and M. began extensive churn drilling on the Cripple Creek pay channel in 1933; they began stripping muck in May 1935 and barren gravel in September 1939. Dredge No. 10 started digging in August 1940 and, except for a closure during World War II, it continued on working Cripple Creek until 1964. It was the last dredge U.S.S.R. and M. operated in the Fairbanks area and remains in its pond south of Ester, says Joylon Ralph, founder of Minedat.org.

There was almost certainly deep drift mining on Cripple Creek in the early days of mining in the Fairbanks district, but it was probably attributed to Ester Creek mine or simply Ester. In the 1930s, United States Smelting, Refining, and Mining Company (U.S.S.R. and M) consolidated most of the property in Ester and Cripple Creeks, and this was one of the major centers of placer mining in the Ester area until the dredges stopped mining in the late 1960s. U.S.S.R. and M. began extensive churn drilling on the Cripple Creek pay channel in 1933; they began stripping muck in May 1935 and barren gravel in September 1939. Dredge No. 10 started digging in August 1940 and, except for a closure during World War II, it continued on working Cripple Creek until 1964. It was the last dredge USSR and M. operated in the Fairbanks area and remains in its pond south of Ester, according to Boswell.

There is no record of the amount of gold produced by dredging on Cripple Creek but it was undoubtedly large. Dredge No. 10 was a large, modern dredge when it was constructed, and it operated every year from 1940 to 1964, except for two years during World War II.

One interesting aspect about the Cripple Creek, Alaska, mining operation was the role that water and hydraulic mining played.

The Chena Pump House is emblematic of the engineering expertise and expense expended to make hydraulic mining work in the region.

Around 1930, the chief engineer of the company (Fairbanks Exploration Company, a subsidiary of U.S.S.R. and M) derived a scheme of mining Cripple Creek by pumping water from the Chena River up over Chena Ridge.

“This provided enough pressure to operate the hydraulic giants which were used to strip the overburden. The pump was completed and began operation in 1933,” according to the Pump House application to National Historic Record.

“Inside the building were 10, 14”, double suction centrifugal pumps rated at 6000 gallons per minute against 220 foot head and direct connected 400 hp electric motors. These pumps were mounted in a series, with tow each unit, through three, 26” pipelines against a total head of 440 feet. Water was delivered from there through a three mile ditch to the site of the mining operations where it was used for stripping and thawing and for make-up water for the dredge pond when needed.”

According to Register application, The Fairbanks Exploration Company ceased operation about 1958, and the building set empty, surrounded by junk pipe, and rusting equipment, overgrown with willows, until 1978. It was reconstructed by its present owners as a restaurant and bar.

“The basic structure of the building remains unchanged, and the original corrugated siding has been retained. On the interior, the main portion of the original building remains as an unbroken space housing the restaurant and bar,” according to 1982 Register application that was subsequently approved.

In describing the significance of mining in this location, the Register information goes on:

“The dredging of the Cripple Creek drainage was one of the most complex undertaken by the company. The time, effort, and equipment put into developing the prospect suggest that it was probably one of the richest area mined. The huge Dredge No. 10, constructed for the project in 1940 was the largest ever operated by the company, and the walking dragline, specially constructed for the stripping of barren gravels unique to the area, was the largest in North America at the time of its construction.”