19 March, 2002
Whining About Mining
The state of Alaska is rich in natural resources. For over a century, people have sought out its great wealth of riches: wildlife, forests, minerals, and petroleum. The isolated and harsh environment failed to dissuade early prospectors and fortune seekers from coming north and establishing camps and trading posts. Hundreds of miners came to what is now Alaska (which didn’t become a state until 1959) in hopes of finding gold.
In 1901, E.T. Barnette headed north on the steamboat “Lavelle Young” in hopes of establishing a trading post at the point now known as Tanacross. Unfortunately for Barnette, the Tanana River could not be passed and the Chena River was far too shallow. Barnette and all of his supplies were dumped on the banks of the Chena River at a point we now call Fairbanks. However, Barnette’s misfortune turned to fortune when the Italian immigrant Felix Pedro discovered gold in the region. Within five years, Barnette’s trading post became the busiest city in Alaska, with a hospital, two newspapers, and a school. By 1906, the city already had ten thousand residents. Even more amazing: that year prospectors in the region extracted nine million dollars worth of gold from the hills around the city! (Trivia Question: The city of Fairbanks was named after a U.S. vice president. Under which president did Fairbanks serve?)
The slow and simple technique of panning gave way to a more mechanized way of extracting gold from ore - the Dredge. Gold dredges (see photo below) were used during the 1920’s and 1930’s. These massive steel vessels (usually 100 feet long, weighing over 1,000 tons) were used to process crushed stone and to separate the more dense parcticles of gold.
Although the “rush” is now over, there is still gold in “them thar hills”. NovaGold in Southwest Alaska (140 miles northwest of Bethel) announced this week that it should be able to produce one million ounces of gold at its Donlin Creek project, which could keep the mine operating for another 20 years.
Even today, the gold mining process requires the movement of tons of rock in order to obtain small amounts of the mineral. Modern day extraction also involves expensive and toxic chemical processes that remove impurities and which separate microscopic bits of gold from the surrounding rock. An ounce of gold is currently worth about $290, but the cost of extracting that gold runs anywhere from $175 to $210 per ounce.
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