The history of industry has long fascinated UAA Professor Paul White, who earned master’s degrees in historical and industrial archaeology in New Zealand and the United States before receiving his Ph.D. in anthropology from Brown University.
Now, the anthropology professor and five of his students are immersed in a field class high above the ruins of Independence Mine in spectacular Hatcher Pass, at a Depression-era compound known as Gold Cord Mine. They’ve spent two weeks there so far, meticulously measuring walls and recording every feature and component of the mine’s mill. In their off time, they live in a structure that had been the mine’s original cookhouse and administrative quarters.
Many of the mine’s buildings still stand, including its mill, which, between 1938 and 1942 and for a period of high gold prices in the 1970s, would break and grind rocks, freeing the gold encased in them. The son of the man who bought the mine in the ‘30s still lives there—Dan Renshaw provides a source of valuable information for White and his students about the mine, its equipment and what it was like to live amid its history.
We visited the mine and talked to White about the field class project:
Why is it so critical to record details of these mining structures?
A textbook can tell you how you establish a mill but can’t tell you about the life of these buildings and how they were run. Operating instructions for a piece of equipment rarely anticipate the spectrum of problems you ultimately might encounter. Some of that is left in the record of the mill.
Describe what you mean by “the record of the mill.”
A lot of these industrial facilities are classic examples of vernacular architecture, meaning that they’re designed but they may not be pre-planned. Sometimes there’s blueprints they work from, other times they would have a carpenter who would just build them a structure. Or even if you did have the plans, buildings like these are very dynamic—there’s changes that occur in the mine and they come to impact what goes on above ground. You might need additional processing; you add on another structure. We’re trying to capture that aspect of Alaska’s industrial heritage, because there are no records of those types of things.
Why is it critical to record mines here in Alaska?
Alaska’s gold-mining legacy is one of its key historical events. This was a major industry not only during the Klondike, but in the 1930s during the Great Depression, as with the rest of the U.S., when there was a revival of gold mining. There were a lot of these mines not only in [the Hatcher Pass] area, but in the state at the time. They weren’t necessarily large producers—most of the lode gold was coming from Southeast Alaska around Juneau—but this was much more representative of the sort of gold mining that was occurring during the 1930s. These sites were smaller, sometimes family owned and operated. There were people who were dabbling around a lot in the 1930s—they might be testing out the ores and it just didn’t pay out. And so they never really developed it any further.
What role did a mill play in a mining operation?
Gold wasn’t always just where you find it; you needed to refine it, too. Underground mining at a small mine like Gold Cord might recover gold on the order of an ounce per ton. If you’re just trying to ship that ton of ore, there’s a lot of weight that’s waste. You could recover gold by relatively simple processes so it often behooved a mining company to set up a mill to process that ore on site, recover what gold they could, quickly, and then ship other metal-rich sediments off to a smelter. This reduced your transportation costs enormously. So it’s costly to build a mill, but you make savings in the long term provided it is relatively productive.
What if the mine wasn’t productive?
One of the problems with a lot of mines is that they developed mills early on before fully testing the ore, and then once they got into the ore body they found it to be shallower and poorer than what they thought. They used a lot of dollars they’re never going to recover. Alaska had its fair share of these, but also many that made a working wage while they lasted. This legacy of these gold-mining endeavors is still around because we’ve got a large state with a small population, and there’s a lot of remote areas. When miners left they didn’t dismantle everything. So that was bad for the miners but maybe good for archaeologists.
Were the Hatcher Pass mines functioning as a community or tend to keep to themselves?
It’s really interesting to think about networks that were created between mines, because they weren’t necessarily all operating in isolation. In many senses they were—you have your 8- or 10-hour shifts and then you go back to your bunkhouse. But then they might be doing some sharing of expertise and there might also be some social connections with the next mine down the hill. Independence [Mine] would have films they would show in their rec hall. I think it might have been open for people up here to go down there to see those things. They might have to pay, but that builds a broader community.
What happened to Gold Cord Mine?
During World War II, in 1942, the federal government declared gold mining a nonessential industry. All mines that were primary gold producers were forced to close and the labor would go into other industries like copper and iron production, which were important for the war effort. In 1945, that limitation order was rescinded, but gold prices were still fairly flat, at 35 bucks a fine ounce. That had been great during the Great Depression, which encouraged a lot of people to go out and try gold mining. Profits for gold mines after the war were really low because prices had increased, but gold prices had not. Gold Cord continued on for a time, but its main period was over.
So when miners left, they expected they’d return?
You didn’t know how long the war was going to last. You just mothballed your operation. You didn’t know conditions after the war meant it was really hard to rekindle these operations. There was a site I documented years ago where there was still the food that miners had: The ketchup was still in the bottles, matches still in the boxes, their clothing, dried apples, flour, the books they were reading—they were reading National Geographics in the 1930s and Last of the Mohicans. It was sort of eerie. You felt like you were intruding because everything was left in place. They just closed the doors and walked away.
What is industrial archaeology?
Industrial archaeology is interested in the paths and consequences of industrialization. One facet involves trying to document places of work we don’t normally think of preserving. They’re not the grand homes, but they are very representative of a facet of American culture that provided backbone for the standard of living we have. There was a move to organize and professionalize how we might best preserve these lesser-known legacies. So, industrial archaeology brings together a bunch of interested archaeologists, historians, engineers and architects who go out to record these structures and workplaces and preserve them in varied ways.
Why does this field of study resonate for you?
There’s aspects of the mines here I really enjoy and the fact that you often combine hiking with work. You’re often in these remote places and suddenly you turn a corner and there’s this tunnel or some industrial facility. It’s impressive to go up to those places when you’re out of breath and you realize this is where people started their day.
How and why did you launch these field classes at Gold Cord Mine?
I met [Gold Cord Mine owner] Dan Renshaw last year. For him, it’s almost a form of insurance because these buildings get vandalized; they get burned. Just below us, the Motherlode building got torched last year. We’re providing a record of this mill that will probably outlast the building itself, and trying to interpret that structure at a detailed level will help explain what this complex structure is, where people were working in it, what were the processes that were occurring, how did this building change over time.
What do you usually see at recording sites?
A lot of the other sites I’ve been to, the deterioration is quite advanced. And there’s sometimes been selective salvage of equipment—certain diesel engines or air compressors or bits of machinery might be taken out, so you have to read the walls very closely to try and understand what was actually in use. There are some clues you can pick up. Sometimes it might be a stray piece of equipment, just one component, and you know they would have had this particular type of mill in this structure. Or there’s patterns in the nails or there might be a little bit of framing left over where you can figure out what sorts of processing equipment they had.
Gold Cord Mine’s mill appears remarkably intact for its age.
This is really an exceptional property—everything is still there. Not only all the machinery, but all the connectors between the machines. Those things very rarely survive. So you can really track the process of not only the ore, of the water, of the power. The most special thing is that the guy who operated the mill is right next door. His earliest memories are as a young kid working in parts of the mill for his dad.
Why is this work relevant now?
The industry often splits public opinion—it’s very polarized about mining and whether it’s valuable. People now when they first hear the word mining they think of environmental hazard. That’s a real shift in perception from, say, the 1930s where seeing things like polluted streams was perceived more as a positive sign of work, of industry, of profit. The other aspect is that mining has always been perceived as dangerous. I think what creates some of those polarized attitudes is that people in the industry, in many senses put their lives on the line in their day-to-day work that many of us don’t if we have a desk job. To say mining is bad…it gets at people’s core, their own identity. It’s a real challenge to navigate between these very different, but equally passionate perceptions of an industry.
Written by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement