Tag Archives: Davidson Ditch

The Davidson Ditch

borderedThe January-February, 2020 issue of Alaskan History Magazine featured an article about the Davidson Ditch, a combination pipeline and actual ditch or channel which winds through the hills northeast of Fairbanks. Built in the 1920s, it begins just below the confluence of Ruby Creek and Sourdough Creek, just north of the Chatanika River, and runs 90 miles to the old FE Gold mining operations, more or less paralleling today’s Steese Highway. Abandoned in the 1960’s, it was the first large-scale pipeline project in Alaska, and lessons learned in its construction were applied to building the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline System from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay half a century later. 

The entire system was gravity fed, utilizing no pumps or mechanics. A containment dam fed water into open ditches which gradually descended along ridge lines. Fifteen inverted siphons channeled the water down hillsides, across intersecting streams, and back up to the grade level. A 3,700-foot long tunnel was blasted though a ridge between Chatanika and Goldstream Valley.

DD pipeline 420

Mining engineer Norman C. Stines, an unusual man with an equally unusual history, had worked abroad with some of the preeminent mining engineers in the world. He had observed the success of the huge gold mining dredges near Nome, and he believed the same technique would prove profitable in the Fairbanks area, but the lack of available water presented a problem. 

Dredges, which work from barges, require tremendous amounts of water to float the barges, thaw the permafrost, and remove the overburden, exposing the gold-bearing ground. In their research document The Davidson Ditch, produced for the cultural resource consulting firm Northern Land Use Research, Inc. in 2005, Catherine Williams and Sarah McGowan wrote, “Only by moving millions of cubic yards of the muck overlying gold-bearing gravels …. could the low-grade placer gold deposits be mined profitably.”

Chatanika RiverIn the 1930s the famed musher Leonhard Seppala, who had braved blizzard conditions in the 1925 Serum Run to Nome, lived at Chatanika and patrolled the Davidson Ditch with his dogteam, ensuring the steady flow of water to the gold dredges was not interrupted. 

Today the rusty red pipeline is visible from several places along the Steese Highway, and a Davidson Ditch Historical Site at milepost 57.3 tells of the history and construction. Abandoned in the late 1960s, the remains of the conduit are partially protected by its inclusion in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. It is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, but to date it has not been listed. 

Resources:

Davidson Ditch: Huge aqueduct boosted Interior Alaska’s gold rush, maybe saved Fairbanks, article by Ned Rozell, Anch. Daily News, Sept. 27, 2013.  

Alaska Mining Hall of Fame  – Biography of James M. Davidson

• Wikipedia – A detailed history of the planning, surveying, construction, technical details, and more.

 Davison Ditch Pipeline Display, Pioneers of Alaska Fairbanks – photos of the pipeline display, related historic photos and history

 

Jan-Feb 2020 Alaskan History Magazine

J:F 2020 CoverLARGEThe Jan-Feb, 2020 issue of Alaskan History Magazine features a look at the history of Chilkoot Pass and the ages-old trail which crossed it, not only in the Klondike gold rush era, but long before then as a vital trade route for the coastal Tlingit Indians, and later as an access route for the earliest gold prospectors, along with a large number of scientists, military expeditions, explorers and adventurers. 

The cover image is an 1897 theatrical posted titled “Across the Chikoot Pass,” by American playwright Scott Marble, created by The Strobridge Lithograph Co., Cincinnati & New York, part of the theatrical poster collection of the Library of Congress. Scott Marble (1847 – April 5, 1919) also wrote the stage melodrama The Great Train Robbery (1896), which would become a beloved movie classic. 

The first article in this issue is a look at the famous writer, Ella Rhodes Higginson, who became Washington State’s first Poet Laureate. Mrs. Higginson made four trips to Alaska just after the turn of the century,  researching and gathering material for her book titled Alaska, The Great Country, published in 1908. Her flowery detailed descriptions of the land, the people, the towns and villages and much more made her book a popular reference on Alaska for many years.

Tanana Chiefs book 420Also in this issue is a look at the great Davidson Ditch, a 90-mile aqueduct which channeled water from the Chatanika River over hills and across valleys to the rich gold diggings at Fox and Dome Creek, north of Fairbanks. And Fairbanks was the site of another article in this issue, the historic meeting of the Tanana Chiefs in 1915. An excellent book on that gathering was published by the University of Alaska Press in March, 2918: The Tanana Chiefs: Native Rights and Western Law, edited by UAF Emeritus Professor William Schneider, who wrote about the meeting, “It was one of the first times that Native voices were part of the official record. They sought education and medical assistance, and they wanted to know what they could expect from the federal government. They hoped for a balance between preserving their way of life with seeking new opportunities under the law.”

Esther B Darling and dogs 420To the north and west, at Nome, an unusual lady was making a place for herself in the history books as one of the great authors of children’s books, writing classics such as Baldy of Nome and Navarre of the North, beloved by not only children, but by anyone thrilling to a well-told tale about sled dogs and life in the north country. But Esther Birdsall Darling was also a high society lady from a wealthy California family, and her husband, Charles Edward ‘Ned’ Darling, not only founded the farthest north hardware store, but in 1906 he set a world’s record for long distance mushing when he drove his dog team from Nome to Seattle.

This issue concludes with an article about the great Bard of the Yukon, Robert Service, who penned the immortal lines of favorite northern ballads such as The Spell of the Yukon, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and The Cremation of Sam McGee. From crossing the Canadian prairies in his Buffalo Bill cowboy outfit to canoeing the dangerous “back door” to the Klondike, Robert Service’s life was filled with adventures which matched anything in his beloved poetry.

Also in this issue: Governors of Alaska 1867-1959, antique maps of Alaska, and classic books on Alaskan history, both old and new!


The Jan-Feb issue can be ordered via PayPal or Amazon (I’ll add links here when the issue is available), or you can subscribe to Alaskan History Magazine at this website.