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Getting Gold In Alaska By Bearfoot Travel Guides: Through Panning, Sluicing, And Dredging.

Panning gold in Alaska.
There's GOLD in that thar pan!
"I've traveled all over this country, prospecting and looking for gold... I've tunneled, hydraulicked and cradled... and I nearly froze in the cold!"

     Gold Mining In Alaska Was Tricky Business

 Gold Panning Was Cheap & Relatively Easy

Trying his hand at gold panning in Alaska.
Gold panning.
When the first gold miners came to Alaska, there had been rumors that there was gold everywhere. All you had to do was show up.  Once small-town men got to Alaska, they would be magically turned into "miners." Poor townsfolk and farmers from the Midwest, East and South fully believed that you could find a stream, pick up a rock, turn it over -- and gold would be stuck to the bottom. As thick and sticky as butter on the bottom of a piece of bread that had fallen to the floor.

Panning for gold in Alaska.
Gold Rush Days in Valdez.
Gold panning was the easiest way to look for "color" or gold flakes. Water and dirt were swished around, and the gold sank to the bottom. Today, gold pans have built in riffles and are made of plastic. Then, the standard gold pan was metal.

Apparently, early "miners" knew little about mining, or geology. Basically, they came north because they literally believed you could pick gold up off the ground. As Captain W. R. Abercrombie, who was sent on a rescue mission to bring scurvy-ridden miners home to America after a year of hardship and lack of gold, noted (with scorn): " should be remembered that most of the men located in the various camps had probably never been out of sight of the smoke from a factory chimney..."

Of course, in some places, there actually was gold. And the miners accidentally ran across it. Notable spots included Hope, on Turnagain Arm. And Fairbanks.

Today, there are local tourist-oriented businesses that can take you gold panning -- where there really is gold. Or that can show you how it's done with a "salted" outfit, where you can pan for gold flakes, which are then often turned into jewelry for you as you wait.

Tourists view "cradling" for gold with a rocker in Alaska.
A "rocker" demonstration in Fairbanks.

Cradling For Gold With A Rocker

A "rocker" allowed for more soil to be processed all at once than was possible with a gold pan. In some ways, a rocker looked like a baby cradle. (Which is why the song at the top of this page mentions cradling for gold.)

The rocker is made of wood. It uses a washing box, and a screen, and riffles, to collect the gold. You move it with a rocking motion, on a rounded base -- like a baby cradle.

The Sluice Box Is A Step Up From The Rocker

Picture of sluice box with riffles, in rural Alaska on the Parks Highway.
A sluice box display, showing the baffles and slope.
The sluice box was something like a rocker, but longer, and capable of handling even more mining material in the quest for gold. (By the time you were working with rockers and sluice boxes, you were pretty sure to be actually onto something in the way of precious metals in your mining vicinity.)

Sluice boxes were longer than rockers, or cradles. They have riffles on a carpet to collect gold. They're set at an angle, and there are baffles, so water can be poured over and gold will drop down and be trapped. To help the process, water is run over the sluice box today with plastic hoses.

Hydraulic Mining With Blast-Hoses

Hydraulic mining looks like mining for gold with a fire hose. Huge pressure hoses are used to break up rock, sand and sediment, and direct whatever you are looking for toward a sluice box, where it can be separated out. The mining is used to get all sorts of minerals, not just gold. You can also mine this way for coal.

Unfortunately, hydraulic mining is pretty damaging. It tears of hills and mountains.

Dredging For Gold

Gold dredging was a very popular way of processing large quantities of Alaskan gold in an area where gold was known to be found, such as the areas near Fairbanks. The dredges were something like a boat, something like a huge tractor, and something like a bulldozer. They crawled around the territory, floating on ponds,  tearing up creeks, and hauling dirt (and gold) into conveyor belts with heavy buckets.

Actual Alaska dredge buckets in Fairbanks.
Dredge buckets are commonly used as flowerpots in Fairbanks.
Once inside the dredge, the rocks and gold were mechanically separated, in a deafening roar. Mercury was sloshed through the gold to help the process. The mercury had a high density. Hundreds of pounds of mercury were typically used in dredges.

Chicken gold mining equipment from the early 20th century.
Pedro Dredge in Chicken, Alaska.
The gold dredge was the ultimate gold pan and sluice box -- taken to the point of no return. There were once over 40 dredges in Alaska. In many ways, the arrival of the huge, 2-story dredges, in the early 1900's, reflect Alaska's basic story. Panning, rocking and even sluicing were often processes used by individual miners, working on their own or in groups. Hydraulic mining and dredges were operated by major Outside companies that came into Alaska, and took over with huge amounts of money.

Actual gold dredge in easy to view spot near Fairbanks.
Gold Dredge #8 has tours a few miles north of Fairbanks.
Eventually, all the dredges were abandoned. On the road system, you can see Gold Dredge #8 north of Fairbanks, and the Pedro Gold Dredge in Chicken.

There's an old gold dredge out on the tundra, up near Nome, too. You can frequently tell when a dredge has come through, because they left mounds of gravel, like a gravel pit, on the ground behind them.

In the past few years, two gold dredges have disappeared. One of them, the Chatanika Dredge (Gold Dredge #3) operated between 1928 and 1958 on the Steese Highway.  It burned down in August 2013. The other, the Jack Wade Gold Dredge, on the road to Chicken, was torn down by the Bureau of Land Management.

Jack Wade Dredge on the Taylor Highway was destroyed by BLM.

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Bearfoot Travel Magazines A Division Of Northcountry Communications, Inc. Jeremy Weld Linda Weld Tim Weld 2440 East Tudor #122 Anchorage, Alaska 99507 907 320-1145 Fax: 1 800 478 8301