Doug Colp in 2008
Photo: Colp Family
Doug Colp was born October 25th, 1914 in Petersburg, Alaska into a true subsistence family. In his teens, he was involved with fox farming and commercial fishing, worked in canneries and attended fish traps, and hunted deer and bear for meat. In 1935, he traveled north to Fairbanks to pursue a mining engineering degree at the University of Alaska, which launched his 70 year career in Alaska’s mining industry. He lived a multi-faceted life that included a career in mining engineering, land surveying, placer mining, and university-level teaching. He was best known as a one of Alaska’s top experts in all aspects of operating a floating bucketline stacker dredge. With his wife, Marcel, he was substantially involved in non-profit activities, including support for Fairbank area arts and musical events. Throughout his life, Colp was able to link achievement with a great sense of humor. Colp passed away in Fairbanks on December 24, 2010, at the age of 96.
Doug Colp’s story begins in Petersburg, a small fishing community in southeastern Alaska. Doug Colp’s father, Harry, left his Puget Sound home at age 16 in 1898 and joined the gold stampede up the Iskut River, a tributary of the Stikine River. Harry Colp married Wilhelmina (Minnie) Byer in 1912 and the couple settled in Petersburg, Alaska. Named after the Queen of Germany, Wilhelmina was born in 1886 on a ranch in Montana, near the copper mining complex of Butte. Minnie’s family raised cattle and sheep, a rural lifestyle that fit with Harry’s upbringing in Nova Scotia, Canada. After the Colps arrived in Alaska aboard the steamer Humbolt, the couple began a subsistence life style. Doug, the older of two sons, was born October 25, 1914 in Petersburg. His brother Richard was born in 1916. Doug’s father homesteaded and started a silver fox farm on Kupreanof Island, five miles northwest of Petersburg. While Harry was kept busy halibut and shrimp fishing, Minnie maintained a large vegetable garden. Doug and Richard hunted deer and bear in order to provide red meat for the family. Minnie home-schooled her children with a Calvert Course outline through grade 12 and eventually brought in children from other families. Young Doug’s fox farm responsibilities involved feeding the 100 pen-raised silver foxes daily.
Colp Fox farm near Petersburg, circa 1925
Photo: Colp Family Files
Doug’s father Harry remained an ardent prospector his entire life, and he searched for minerals with partners Johnny Sales and Sing Lee throughout the southeastern Panhandle. When Doug was about 6 years old, he began to accompany his father on prospecting forays on Kupreanof Island. Though father and son team never found much gold, Doug learned a lot about prospecting, and how to recognize metallic mineralization in rocks. Those were prohibition days, and Doug recalls going up some creeks in Southeast Alaska looking for gold with a gold pan and a rock hammer for pounding rocks. “In those days, there was nothing but moonshining around.” Two or three times he intercepted a guy with a 30-30 rifle across his arm. Colp told him that he was fishing or prospecting. ‘Well, son,” he’d say, “there’s no fish up here, or gold. Better turn around and go back.” Colp knew what he was talking about, and didn’t question him.
Silver fox farming remained lucrative until about 1925. The Colp family remained on their fox farm until the business declined, and then moved into Petersburg in 1927. Doug’s sister, Virginia, was born that year in Seattle, but came to Petersburg three weeks later with her mother. When Doug reached his teen years, he worked on cannery tenders and fish traps and fished for halibut, herring, salmon and shrimp. He also worked short stints in logging camps.
Doug’s first great mining adventure occurred while he still in Southeastern Alaska. In 1934, hearing that the Alaska Juneau Gold Mining Company was hiring, he traveled up the Inside Passage in a row boat by himself for more than 150 miles to Juneau to get a chance to work in one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. At the famed AJ Mine, he would climb up ladders in underground stopes and light fuses to sticks of dynamite and then get out before the explosion went off. Realizing that this job might not lead to a long life, he began to consider an education at an institution of higher learning.
In 1935, Doug Colp enrolled at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks to pursue a mining engineering degree. During his first winter in Fairbanks, he lived in a yurt hut rented from Charles Bunnell, the President of the University. After that, Colp was able to scrape together enough money to rent a dormitory room. He discovered that he could borrow a maximum of $400 a year from a student loan fund and work in the summer to repay it.
To make school money after his first college year, Doug and two other mining students worked ground on Happy Creek near Ester Dome. The threesome would ski up to the property on Friday night, work through Saturday and Sunday, and ski back home on Sunday night. The property already had about a 100-foot-deep shaft on it, so the three young men would lower a carbide lamp down the shaft to check the air. If the lamp didn’t go out, they judged it was safe to mine. They would get the boiler going and use the steam to flush out the bad air and so they could dig up to the face. At the end of three months. Colp and his fellow students were able to pay the 10% royalty, and pay their bills for the year.
In 1936, there were nine gold dredges operating in the Fairbanks area, and temporary hires were needed for the thawing and stripping crews. Seven of those dredges were operated by the USSR&M Company, known locally as the FE Company. For two mining seasons, Doug worked for the FE Company on the Dredge No. 8 project on Goldstream Creek. He worked on the hydraulic crew stripping overburden, drove cold water points to get the dredge started in the spring, and labored as a dredge deck hand. The USSR&M Company was good to students in those days, and Colp states that he obtained a fine background in placer dredging while working for the firm.
FE Company Dredge #8, on Goldstream Creek circa 1936, where Doug began his dredging career.
Photo: Colp Family Files.
In September, 1938, Doug spent three weeks at the Kennecott copper mine near McCarthy along with several other mining students. He spent one week mining underground, one week working in the mill, and one week laboring at surface jobs. During his underground experience at Kennecott, he had to ride the nearly 2-mile-long ore bucket aerial tram from the mill to the underground mines high above the valley. Riding the tram to the site was no problem; it was empty. But when he rode the tram from the mine site to the mill, the bucket was full of ore. It was a rather hair-raising experience riding the ore-filled bucket to its final mill destination, and it took quick thinking and reactions to jump out of the bucket at the right time to avoid injury.
For the rest of 1938, Colp worked for the American Creek Operating Company at American Creek, about 20 miles west of Manley Hot Springs, where a UA graduate, Ted Mathews, was in charge. AMHF inductee Earl Beistline was also on that crew for part of the three seasons (1938-1940) that Doug worked there. The work at American Creek involved thawing, stripping and dredging. The company only had a TD-40 and a gasoline-fueled tractor for mine preparatory operations. Neither tractor had ripper teeth and, the crew had to gather brush to build dams in order to keep the flume-type dredge afloat. The artificial impoundments, he recalled later, looked like beaver dams.
Doug Colp obtained a BS in Mining Engineering from the University of Alaska in 1940. His education laid the groundwork for his career although international events would soon affect what directions he would take.
In early 1941, the Brinker-Johnson Company built the Caribou Creek Dredge on a 2nd order stream along the right limit of the upper Salcha River basin. During early winter Leo Schlotseldt and Gene Rogge freighted the dredge parts 60 miles from the Richardson Highway to the mine site. Doug Colp, along with Robert Hanson and their hired help, built the dredge “from the pontoons up.” The dredge crew arrived on Caribou Creek in March, 1941, and assembled the dredge from March through August. Upon its completion in August, the dredge began digging pay. Colp helped operate the newly-built Walter Johnson 6 foot3 dredge through October, when it was shut down due to freeze-up.
Walter Johnson dredge on Caribou Creek, circa 1940
Photo: Colp Family Files
In October, 1941, the gold mining industry received word from the War Department that there would be no more placer mining for the duration of the War. The War Act—Limitation Order L-208—was actually declared on October 8, 1942 by the War Production Board, but miners knew it was pending even before it was officially declared. The War Department determined that the war effort required the confiscation of mining equipment, so federal employees took drag lines, dozers and pumps—all the rolling stock that was needed to mine in order to build airstrips and other necessary wartime infrastructure. There was no compensation except for equipment taken directly by the military. Only certain strategic dredges were allowed to continue to operate during the war, like the Goodnews Bay Dredge that mined strategic platinum. Another exception was the Solomon Dredge on the Seward Peninsula that was allowed to continue operations because all of its workers were over age 65. Thus, in December 1941, when Doug arrived back in Fairbanks, the miners were advised that war was imminent and there would be no more gold mining for the duration. Doug Colp found himself out of a job.
Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, and war against Japan and later Germany and Italy was declared by the United States shortly afterwards. Doug attempted to join the army but was rejected because of imperfect vision. He then joined the Army Engineers, a civilian-based branch of service. At Ladd Field in Fairbanks, he was hired as a field surveyor for the Army Engineers with other assigned jobs, including building inspector and as a maintenance foreman. Later during the war, Doug became a PFC in the regular army.
One big project that Doug was proudest of during his army years was locating the future site of Eielson Air Force Base, then called 26-Mile Field. The colonel at Ladd Field told Doug Colp and his crew that he wanted a satellite field within 30 miles of Fairbanks, and to go out and locate one. Doug, assembled a crew of about 100 men and drilled about 5,000 holes between 33-mile Bluff and Moose Creek Bluff southeast of Fairbanks and outlined an area where a large air field could be constructed. The Army Air Corps needed two 5,000 foot long, parallel runways plus warehousing, support buildings and a small powerhouse. After the plan was formalized, Colp took it into the colonel in charge and he looked at it and said, “It looks good to me. Go ahead and contract it.” So that only took about 5 minutes. Morrison-Knutson won the contract for $7,200,000—the same amount that the U.S. paid for Alaska when buying it from Russia.
Colp got promoted to Master Sergeant in a few months, which helped compensate for the fact that the army wouldn't transfer him out into more active duties. He was in runway construction practically all the time during the War and was involved in establishing the runways at Northway, Galena, Mark AFB (Nome) and the Mainland Division in Anchorage—later to become Elmendorf Air Force Base. Though stationed at Ladd Field in interior Alaska when the Japanese attacked the Aleutians, Doug made long-distance inspection trips to those islands, traveling to Dutch Harbor, Adak and Amchitka.
While Doug Colp was working in Fairbanks as a civilian surveyor, he met his future wife, Marcel Silven, who came to Fairbanks from Bremerton, Washington in August, 1941, while on a vacation. Marcel (pronounced Mar - sēl) applied for a two-month job in the Resident Engineers Mail/Records Section at Ladd Field. Marcel met Doug in December of 1941 at the base when he came to apply for work with the Army Engineers. Doug and Marcel were married Feb. 27, 1943 at the First Presbyterian Church in Fairbanks. The couple would have two sons; Larry in 1946 and Jerry in 1948.
When Doug first returned to mining in 1947, he went to work on the South Fork of the Koyukuk River at the Gold Bench Mining Camp owned by Gus Uotila. One story that Doug liked to share over the years involved surveying in a water ditch for Uotila’s placer mine development. Uotila assigned Doug the project of surveying in a 7-mile water ditch. Being very concerned about doing the project correctly, Colp was particularly anxious the day before the water flowed,
“…especially, since I could stand at one point along the ditch and see that the ditch apparently went uphill in both directions from that point.”
But Gus Uotila was a most encouraging fellow to work for. When Doug expressed his concerns about the ditch surveying, Uotila reassuringly patted Colp on the shoulder and said,
“Since you surveyed it in, it’ll work just fine.”And it did.
Between 1948 and 1951, Doug worked for Helcolicon Mines on Klery Creek north of Kiana in the Kobuk area. This was the beginning of a long association working placer gold deposits in this area. That company also had ventures on several creeks on the Salmon River and the Kallarichuk River in the same area.
During the early 1950s, Colp worked for three summers in the Bering River coal field in the Gulf of Alaska region for Jewell Ridge Coal Company of Tazwell, Virginia. This area has been repeatedly explored for oil, gas, and coal. Subsequently, Doug worked with Bruce Thomas on a dredging operation at Livengood for Callahan Zinc-Lead Company. Also involved with the Livengood dredge operation was AMHF Inductee Chuck Herbert. Doug explained:
“The Livengood dredge was a Washington Iron Works diesel electric dredge that was designed for remote areas, where it worked exceptionally well. It had its own diesel power unit right on board”
Colp’s Jewel Ridge Coal Company crew at the Bering River Coal Field, circa 1958 Doug Colp is in the center of the photo.
Photo: Colp Family Files
In 1954, the USSR&M Company purchased the Livengood Dredge from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation along with all camp assets. Howard Bayless was contracted to bring it into Fairbanks, where it was placed on a barge and transported down the Tanana and Yukon Rivers and up the Koyukuk River for a distance of nearly 800 miles. It began digging pay at Hogatza in 1957.
Doug Colp with his mother, Minnie (left), wife Marcel (right), and sons Jerry and Larry with a gold bar at Livengood circa 1953 or 1954
Photo: Colp Family Files
From 1954 to 1964, Doug Colp worked with the Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. at Healy during winter and spring operations—when most of the coal was being mined. In the summertime, he was free to go placer mining or do consulting work. While working at the Usibelli Mine, Doug was present when Emil Usibelli (the mine's founder) was killed in a heavy equipment accident on March 27, 1964—the day of the Good Friday Earthquake in Alaska. Over the years, Doug has recalled the events following the tragedy to many:
“I can never forget it. I brought Emil's body to Fairbanks. Soon, I had a call from the manager of Usibelli, Bill Waugaman, who was over in Tokyo on a Chamber of Commerce visit. We were talking when the strangest thing happened—we were cut off and a sound like the noise of an ocean surf came through the phone. I was sitting in the Usibelli office trying to decide what to do, and I had just gotten to my feet when the whole earth rocked. I could see roads wavering and telephone poles rocking back and forth, and guppies flying out of fish bowls. I realized it was an earthquake, but it was several hours before we got through to Anchorage and received word by Ham radio about the Good Friday earthquake.”
Since Doug's relationship with Usibelli allowed him to work elsewhere during the summer, he helped form the company Exploration Services in 1954, which worked on small jobs throughout the territory. For three years (1961-1963), Doug returned to Klery Creek in northwestern Alaska and leased a bucketline gold dredge. The dredge featured an all-native crew with Larry Westlake being foreman. While working the Klery Creek dredge, Doug would periodically travel into Kiana to stay at his seasonal home.
The Klery Creek dredge operation began successfully but ended unsuccessfully. During the winter of 1962-63, overflow in Klery Creek caused it to glacier up, causing the dredge to be partially submerged in ice. All of the engines, winches, generators, motors and pumps were completely submerged under about eight feet of ice. It was late June before the ice melted and repairs could begin. A talented electrician, Evans Hawk, and Doug spent almost a month drying out the motors and generators with infrared lamps. Finally, when they restarted the dredge, all went well. But then an August flood stopped the Klery Creek dredge again. In the end, the Klery Creek dredge faced the same economic reality of all gold dredges in Alaska—the fixed price of gold. By 1965, nearly all of Alaska’s gold boats, with the exception of the USSR&M Hog River dredge, were mothballed.
Klery Creek dredge frozen-in in northwestern Alaska, circa 1963.
Photo: Colp Family Files
In 1965, the Dean of the School of Mines, Earl Beistline, hired Doug Colp to teach applied, mining engineering curriculum a University of Alaska in Fairbanks within the Mineral and Petroleum Technology program, a part of College of Earth Sciences and Mineral Industries (CESMI). Doug taught in the CESMI program for 10 years. His mission was to provide a hands on type of education that benefited from his many past jobs in the industry. Taking advantage of the seasonality of his teaching contract, Doug became part of Resource Associates of Alaska Inc. (RAA) in 1971. Doug did a lot of consulting work through RAA, with a focus on supplying engineering expertise for the re-emerging placer gold mining industry.
Doug Colp (3rd from left) with mineral technician students as part of CESMI program at University of Alaska, circa 1968
Photo: UAF Archives
For seven years (1974-1981), Colp was actively engaged with Ranchers Exploration and Development Company (Ranchers), which operated a large and modern placer gold mine in the Chistochina district in the Eastern Alaska Range. Doug's association with Ranchers was considered by many observers to be a signature success during his long placer consulting career. Modern sluicing and gravel handling technologies were relatively new to Alaska's placer miners, and many of Doug's innovations would be used by others. He related his efforts with Ranchers to AMA Journal Editor Carolyn Stevens:
“…there [Chistochina area] we did a very thorough job of exploration. In fact, we spent about two million dollars on exploration in 1974-1975. The gold price at the end of 1975 was down to about $134 an ounce. So I told the Ranchers people that they didn't have a mine at that price. But, I said, gold might go up and you have to be optimistic in this business. Sure enough, in 1978 the price of gold started to go up, so I suggested that we put in a plant. So I ordered an LJ 2-deck 4'x10' washing plant with a 5-section sluice box. The 5th sluice section was extra. Each sluice section had a feed-control gate that came out of the distributor. The extra sluice was there so that a clean-up could be done without shutting down the rest of the operation. The plant worked extremely well. And of course during 1979-1981, the price of gold rose and was very high-priced. We were subsequently able to pay back the $2 million exploration cost by 1981.”
Ranchers Exploration washing plant designed by Doug Colp on the firm's Chistochina Property in the eastern Alaska Range.
Photo: Colp Family Files
During the 1980s, Doug Colp was involved in the development of the GHD Resources (GHD) placer gold mine in the Circle Mining District. GHD would become one of the more successful placer gold mining firms active in Alaska during the 1980s. The name G-H-D stands for Grubstake, Henshaw and Davis Creeks in the Koyukuk District. The company owners thought they had purchased a viable gold property on the south fork of the Koyukuk River. But after due diligence was completed by Doug, the deposit was not confirmed. Earl Beistline then told Doug that a property on Eagle Creek (Mile 103 on the Steese Highway) was available for lease. Doug drilled 30 churn drill holes and concluded that the Eagle Creek property could be mined at a large scale. With up to 30 seasonal employees, GHD would subsequently mine Eagle Creek with considerable success. Later the GHD operation was moved to Candle (Seward Peninsula) for three years, and then back to the Tofty area and the Manley Hot Springs area for three years. GHD disbanded in 1994—as gold prices softened, which wouldn’t recover until a decade later.
Long time friends and colleagues Earl Beistline and Doug Colp
at GHD Resources cleanup on Eagle Creek, Circle Mining District, circa 1987
Photo: Colp Family Files
Doug just couldn't retire easily from the profession that he started decades earlier. For more than 30 years, he was an enthusiastic attendee of annual mining conferences held by the Alaska Miners Association (AMA), where many would ask for his advice—which he would give freely. Because of his important contributions to AMA, Doug was elected as an Emeritus life-long Board Member in 2005—a distinguished position that must be ratified by the entire Board of Directors of the Statewide Organization. Only 15 or so AMA members have been given this title in the last 30 years. It is considered to be a great honor to receive it. In 2009, at the age of 95, he visited several mining operations in the Circle Mining district and freely offered his valued guidance to those engaged in placer mining there.
Three distinguished members of Alaska's Mining industry at fall AMA Convention, circa 2003.
Left to right, Doug Colp, Earl Beistline, and George Schmidt. George was
the founder of the AMEREF, now the Alaska Resource Education program.
Doug's wife Marcel spent many mining seasons visiting him in the various gold camps, including the one at Livengood. Otherwise, she stayed home while Doug worked in the field, and raised their two sons when they were young. She later worked as a school secretary at Hunter Elementary School in Fairbanks. The 1967 Fairbanks flood came quick and unexpected and Doug was in the field when the floodwaters rose. Doug arrived home from consulting work after the floodwater had inundated their basement and found, much to his great relief, that thanks to Marcel, only a very few of his business items had been lost.
Doug and Marcel Colp were members of the First Presbyterian Church, where they were married. Their two sons, Larry and Jerry, both live in Fairbanks with their wives, Annie and Myrna. Both Doug and Marcel were members of the Pioneers of Alaska and the Alaska Yukon Pioneers. Doug and Marcel were charter members of the Fairbanks Folk Dance Club, and served as King and Queen Regents of the Pioneers of Alaska in 2002.
Doug Colp accepts distinguished Alaska Miners Association Emeritus Award with his wife Marcel in 2005.
Doug was President of the Pioneers of Alaska Igloo No. 4 in Fairbanks (#V2390) and in 1992, was elected to be Grand President of the +8,000 member Pioneers of Alaska Grand Igloo at an annual convention held in Sitka. Also in 1992, Doug was given the Alumni Achievements Award—the Professional Excellence Category—at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Since Doug's graduation from the institution in 1940, seven more Colps (sons, spouses, and grandchildren) as well as two more grandchildren have become UAF Alumni.
Doug and Marcel have been huge supporters of the civic sides of Fairbanks. Doug served on the Construction Committee of the Fairbanks Hospital Foundation for which he previously served on the Board of Trustees. Marcel also is a past president of several organizations: WAAIME (Women's Auxiliary of the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers), two Beta Sigma Phi chapters and PEO Chapter B. (PEO is a philanthropic and education organization focused on bringing women increased opportunities for higher education.) She is also a member of the Fairbanks Genealogical Society. Being a concert lover, Marcel and Doug supported the Fairbanks Concert Association by selling their season tickets for 30 years.
Over his long career, Doug traveled all over Alaska and has been involved in commercial fishing, placer gold mining, and has consulted for companies engaged in hard rock mining and mineral exploration. His nearly 80 year Alaskan mining legacy spanned the era from the end of the Alaska Yukon gold rush to the present day. He was a hands on mining engineer, a superintendent for Usibelli Coal Mine, and taught at UAF in the CESMI program. Owing to his extensive resume, Doug was unquestionably one of Alaska's top experts on the operation of a conventional bucket line stacker dredge. He later became an equally valued expert on placer gold recovery systems.
Doug Colp passed away on December 24th, 2010 at the age of 96. One more award would be bestowed on him. In 2011, the UAF Alumni Association honored Colp posthumously with the Lenhart J. H. Grothe Resources Award.
Colp was very supportive of the activities of the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame Foundation (AMHF), and frequently made important, constructive comments about many pioneers inducted into the organization—because he knew so many of them. He could recall stories of AMHF pioneers with a unique sense of humor, which enriched his narratives. The AMHF will greatly miss his expertise on those pioneers and on Alaska‘s mining history.
Compiled by T.K. Bundtzen
This biographic sketch benefited greatly from an article written by Carolyn Stevens and published in the Journal of the Alaska Miners Association, Volume 37, No. 3, 2009, entitled: Doug Colp—a Living Alaska Mining Legend. Other sources are listed below.
Cole, Dermot, 2011, "For 96 years, Doug Colp Pursued Golden Opportunities in Alaska:" Article published in Fairbanks Daily News Miner: January, 2011, one page (updated December 26th, 2012)
Doug Colp, personnel interviews with Tom Bundtzen and Carolyn Stevens, 1999-2010.
Don Stevens, personal reminiscences with Carolyn Stevens.
Marguerite Reiss-Kern (1994), "Alaska Miners at War" (Part IV), The Alaska Miner, March, 1994 issue (Vol. 22, no. 3).
Staff, 1972, Minnie Colp Recounts History: Petersburg Press, Thursday, November 16th, 1972, page 3
Staff, 2011, Alumni Awards Luncheon, Friday September 23rd, 2011—Honoring Doug Colp (with biographic sketch) 4 pages.
Photos and Stories by Doug Colp from Igloo #4 and Auxiliary #8 Pioneers' program on April 17, 2000. Tape Reference Number: H2000-15. URL http://uafdb.uaf.edu/jukebox/Pioneers/htm/dougc.htm.
Other Photos used have been provided by Jerry Colp and given to the writer for use in the AMHF Website.