UA Journey

Mining Students Undertake 1922 Field Trip

A vertical mine shaft similar to the one Loftus was lowered down. Photo: 2DrX Explorations

From the University of Alaska Archives, Loftus Collection. By Ted Loftus

Ted Loftus attended the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines during its first year. Here, he tells about fall field trip he took to a placer mine.

Located on the brow of a hill, overlooking the great Tanana river valley and approximately three and a half miles from Fairbanks, the first Alaskan institution of higher learning opened its doors to students for the first time in the fall of 1922.

Six were enrolled the first day, among whom was my older brother Arthur, and from that modest beginning a great university eventually evolved. My brother Jule and I agreed it would be a good place to spend the winter, so with some misgivings and only $85 between us, we enrolled about 10 days late. This was contingent, however, upon the president of the school assuring us that we could earn some money by cutting wood on the weekends for the heating plant boiler. We both chose mining as a course of study, but shortly after starting, my brother shifted to some studies directed towards veterinary medicine.

We three brothers lived in a cabin in Fairbanks the first year, which meant walking to and from school each day, regardless of the weather. Had we had money, we could have ridden on the gas car, which operated three times daily on the railroad from town.

My courses in mining and geology proved to be difficult, but extremely interesting, so for the time being, I felt like I had made a good choice. Class study was augmented with field work, which is of imminent value for the budding engineer.

I shall never forget our first field trip, however, to an underground placer mine on Ace Creek, near Ester Dome, where a Mr. Cosgrove was operating. Our problem was to evaluate the project and make a report on the value of the venture and recommend its expected mining life.

The primitive nature of the surface layout was much like all small mining endeavors, consisting of a small steam boiler with a steam hoisting engine. All gravel which had been removed thus far had been dumped nearby for sluicing in the following spring when water would be available. A shaft 65 feet deep had been sunk seven feet wide, the walls of which appeared to "stand up" very well. There was no timber, however, to prevent a caving, which to my untrained eye seemed utterly foolhardy to occupy. ( I had helped dig a deep well on the farm back in Wisconsin, but we protected the walls from caving by placing solid planking throughout. )

Our instructor had us light our carbide lamps, which were carried on soft canvas miner's caps. Modern hard hats were unheard of at that time. We were given very little time to worry about our fate, as two by two we students were lowered by bucket down the shaft. I had been scared many times before, but now as I started down the shaft, I had a feeling that I was close to the end. This was the first time since starting school that I asked myself what a fool I had been to choose mining as a profession, and I swore that if I got out alive, I would certainly consider a change. A little fine sand kept sifting down and occasionally a small pebble which kept my nerves on edge and, as I looked at my bucket mate, I could see his thoughts must be the same as mine.

Upon reaching the bottom of the shaft, I knew crying would not help, so I braced my shaking knees and presented a bold front. There were several small tunnels to sample which required one to stoop, and towards the farthest ends, these were only crawl heights. While taking a sample on hands and knees, a small amount of sand and gravel dropped on my neck. For a few fleeting moments, I just about panicked, thinking I was about to be buried alive. Upon backing out of this small crawl space, I found the others had completed their work, and you cannot imagine my happiness upon stepping out of the bucket when I reached the surface. Somehow, that was the only untimbered and thawed gravel mine I ever occupied.