Alaska, the Final Frontier
We rolled into Fairbanks’ Gold Dredge #8 where we parked alongside other tour buses. Linda and I tumbled out and were hustled with dozens of others into a huge room lined with long tables filled with utensils, Mason jars, and pitchers of iced tea. Waiters in prospector costumes sat us on benches. Before we could count our blessings, cast iron buckets of miners’ stew were chunked down in front of us. Baskets of fluffy biscuits flew up and down the tables followed by jars of Pistol Pete’s Hot Sauce and Honey Bear Honey. In spite of the chaos, the food was excellent.
“It is 12:20. At exactly one o’clock you will be given a tour of the 1905 Drift Mine, the Fairbanks Creek Camp buildings, and short videos of the dredges in operation. Afterwards, you are encouraged to wander through our Bunk House, Bath House, Dredge Master’s House and the Supply Center in order to learn more about dredges and the operations of the Fairbanks Exploration Company,” a voice dictated over a scratchy PA system. “In the meantime, you are free to visit our gift shop and ice cream parlor.”
As I lockstepped along, I learned that gold was discovered near Fairbanks in 1902 resulting in the quick extraction of $7 million worth of gold. It was gone by 1920. In 1927 Bethlehem Steel built the 250–foot–long Dredge #8 and shipped it to depleted mines near Fairbanks.
With its huge buckets operating like a giant escalator, the dredge chewed up tons of slag from hand–dug mines, washed it inside drums, spit out useless gravel, and screened gold nuggets that had been cast aside by earlier prospectors. By 1959, the remaining gold had been removed and the dredge shut down. It is now a National Historic District and a thriving tourist attraction.
We moved onto the El Dorado Gold Mine, an exciting hands–on experience. Once again we were hustled along by guides in period dress. A narrow–gauge train took us through an extinct mine tunnel where dusty “miners” explained how the old mines operated. The train deposited us at the foot of a huge mountain of slag where Dexter, his wife Yukon Yonda, and his son Clyde demonstrated how to pan for gold.
In conclusion, each of us was given a poke (canvas bag) of “pay dirt” dug out of the mountain of slag and sat down with a pan at a bench facing a sluice box of running water. A little instruction led to great expectations. “Place your pay dirt in the pan. Shake it gently. Pour off the dirt and water. The remaining gold is yours to keep.” Linda knew she would strike it rich and never have to work again.
Voila! The shaking and sloughing revealed little flickers of gold in our pans. We put it in the little vials they provided and rushed it to the Cook Shack where the assessor weighed it and announced, “14 grains. You can sell it to me for $40 or have it fashioned into a memorable keepsake.”
We decided to keep our gold as a souvenir of Alaska then boarded our motor coach pleased with our success at gold mining. That night was spent at the Regency Fairbanks Hotel where I slept easily with visions of Denali National Park dancing in my head.