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Vol. 12, No. 43 Week of October 28, 2007
Providing coverage of Alaska and Northwest Canada's mineral industry

MINING NEWS: BLM scraps historic Chicken dredge

Regulator condemns deteriorating Gold Rush relic in Fortymile country as public hazard; locals mourn loss as passing of bygone era

The Associated Press

A rich piece of Alaska’s gold mining history is sitting in a dump in Tok after being demolished because the Bureau of Land Management deemed it dangerous.

The Jack Wade Dredge at Mile 86 of the Taylor Highway was dismantled last month. The abandoned dredge sat on the bank of Jack Wade Creek for 72 years and was a popular tourist attraction on the 160-mile road from Tok to Eagle.

“People loved to camp at it and to pan for gold there,” said Robin Hammond, the postmaster in the small mining town of Chicken a few miles south of where the dredge sat.

One of the first bucket-line dredges in the famed Fortymile mining country, the Jack Wade Dredge was freighted up the Fortymile River from Dawson in the winter of 1906-07.

Gold dredges were used to mine gold in rivers in Alaska on a large scale during the first half of the 20th century by scooping gravel up in front of the dredge and dumping it into sluice boxes.

Water was pumped in to separate the gravel from the gold and the gravel was dumped out the back, leaving massive piles of tailings along the banks of creeks that were dredged 100 years ago.

Dredge had venerable history

The Jack Wade Dredge was first operated on the Walker and South forks before being moved to Jack Wade Creek in 1935 on sleds pulled by gas-driven tractors. The creek was named for the two miners who staked the first gold claims in the stream in 1892 — Jack Anderson and Wade Nelson.

But the dredge, one of several that was used to mine in the Fortymile country, was shut down and abandoned in 1941, shortly after its steam engines were replaced by diesel ones. It has sat empty ever since.

BLM officials said the dredge had deteriorated to the point where something needed to be done, and it was just a matter of time before someone got hurt. The timbers used to build the dredge were rotting, public affairs specialist Doug Stockdale said.

“It was done for safety purposes,” Stockdale said of the decision to dismantle the dredge.

From help to hazard

An 8-foot-high chain link fence built around the dredge in 2000 did little to keep people out, he said.

“People crawled all over it and didn’t pay attention to signs or fencing,” Stockdale said.

Given the condition of the dredge, moving it would have been impractical and restoring it too expensive, Stockdale said. “We decided the best idea was to demolish it,” he said.

A contractor from Anchorage, MACTEC Engineering and Consulting Inc. was hired to remove the dredge.

Several large pieces of the dredge, such as the boiler, gearing and winching machinery, trammel, hand levels and buckets, were saved and will be put on display with some interpretive signs near the post office in Chicken to highlight the historical significance of the dredge and gold mining in the region. The rest of the dredge was hauled to a landfill in Tok. There is no sign of the dredge where it used to sit.

The state and Fortymile Mining Association worked with BLM to negotiate a memorandum of agreement to preserve parts of the dredge, Stockdale said.

Mining era passes with dredge

For residents who live in Chicken, the loss of the dredge represents a missing page in the Fortymile region’s rich mining history.

“How many bucket-line dredges are visible from a major highway?’’ wrote Dick Hammond in an e-mail. “We most definitely lost a piece of history. It was like one more ‘old-timer’ passing away.”

Mike Busby, co-owner of the Chicken Creek Mine, said the Jack Wade dredge was the oldest dredge left in the district. “It’s dismantling really marks the passing of the era of early mining in the district,” Busby told Mining News.

Busby said Alice Bayliss of Copper Center, who died in September, was the last living Fortymile miner of the early 1900s. “She was raised on Franklin Creek where her family mined and ran a roadhouse. She also cooked for an early operation on Jack Wade Creek. Her husband, Howard Bayliss, and her brothers (Bob, Ellis and Dick Roberts) mined on Franklin Creek, Chicken Creek and Stonehouse Creek,” Busby said. “I was fortunate to mine with her as a partner after her husband passed away and got to know the family. They would not have wanted the dredge to disappear the way that it did. They were part of a generation that did not waste much — not the throw-away generation of today,” he said.

The Baylisses moved the building that houses the Fortymile District (the building where the dredge parts will be displayed) from Jack Wade Creek to its present location in Chicken in the 1950s for a schoolhouse, Busby said.

“They were a very capable generation, and I feel they would have moved the dredge rather than bury it in a dump,” he added.

Rose Ragsdale contributed to this report.

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