William Crawford Douglass

1889-1979

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Photo of William Douglass
Photo courtesy of the Douglass family collection.

William C. "Bill" Douglass was an exceptional athlete, a musician, historian, and a skilled mining technician who also had exceptional personnel skills. At Kennecott he knew every miner and citizen of Kennecott by his or her first name. Bill became the pre-eminent manager of the entire Kennecott-Alaska operation, managing with great efficiency and leading the mines at Kennecott to their height. He finally left looking for other mining challenges.

Bill Douglass was born in 1889 in Plainfield, New Jersey, to John E. and Margaret nee McNellie Douglass. John E. Douglass was born in 1851 in Carlisle, England, and had immigrated to the eastern United States with numerous siblings in 1859. By the time William Douglass was born, John was the owner of a printing company in New York City. He and Margaret were married in 1883. Bill was the youngest of four children. He played varsity football at Plainfield and was courted by eastern colleges for his athletic prowess. Douglass, however, turned down football scholarships in order to enroll at Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, and to prepare for a life in the mining industry. Upon graduation, Bill was hired as safety engineer for Anaconda Copper Company in Butte, Montana.

In 1916, Bill Douglass went to Kennecott, Alaska, as a working foreman. He stayed until 1929, leaving as General Superintendent. His first position at Kennecott was as a foreman working with the men actually producing the ore, which may have required a pay cut from his role at Anaconda as chief safety engineer. At first, Douglass lived with the miners in their bunkhouses, thousands of feet above the mill and the staff houses where the professional engineers lived. But as a mining foreman, he got to know the miners while also gaining operating experience. After only a short time, an opportunity arose for Bill to step up in status and, if he had a wife, he could move downhill into a staff house. Taking his chances, Bill sent for Mabel Dixon, who was a nurse at the Anaconda hospital in Butte. Mabel accepted the challenge and, by herself, left the mature mining camp in Montana for the unknowns of Alaska. Bill and Mabel were married March 14, 1917 in Cordova and moved into one of the staff houses in the Kennecott village. Mabel was twenty-seven when she married; she had lived a somewhat independent life before moving to Kennecott, probably without the best apprenticeship for marriage and housekeeping in the wilds of Alaska. Sheila, Mabel’s second daughter and one of the “younger set” at the time, later thought it was a mystery how they got any laundry dry in the winter, what with her father’s “stiff heavy khaki trousers and jackets, heavy wool flannel shirts and wool socks and, of course, long johns”.

William D., the oldest of Mabel and Bill’s four children, was born in the winter of 1917-1918. To help out with the household, Mabel sent for her friend and nurse associate Loretta (Addy) Hallett. When Addy’s fiancé, one of the young mine engineers, was killed in a rockslide, Addy moved in with the Douglass family to stay. It seems to have been a practical solution to several problems: Mabel disliked cooking and Addy loved to cook; Addy was more outgoing and was a constant help as children were born, Bill, Jean, Sheila, and Nancy. Bill appreciated having Addy there to give support to Mabel, as he had moved to mine engineer, then mine superintendent, and was essentially on the job seven days a week and on demand for up to 24 hours a day.

Bill had arrived at Kennecott in 1916 during the mine’s heyday, Kennecott’s most productive period. In addition to the small Glacier and Slide ore bodies, Douglass found two mines in full operation, the original Bonanza and the Jumbo that was just beginning to mine a high-grade ore body found in 1915. Each mine had a separate tramway. The mature Bonanza mine was tramming about 375 tons of mill ore and 25 tons of high grade per day. The Jumbo Tramway was laden with about 400 tons of ore daily: 225 tons of ore for the mill, and 175 tons of high grade to be shipped directly to the smelter. Mill ore from both mines averaged about 7.5% copper; the 25 tons of high grade from the Bonanza averaged 50% copper; the Jumbo high-grade averaged about 70% copper, reminiscent of the glory days of the Bonanza. During 1916, monthly production averaged about 10 million pounds of copper; that production was never to be equaled again at Kennecott.

Douglass later described the mine at its most productive and contrasted it with copper production at Butte. Butte turned out 30 million pounds of copper every month that came from thirty shafts some as deep as 4,000 feet, each drawing hundreds of horsepower, with a labor force of 15,000 men. In contrast, Kennecott put out one third as much ore (10 million pounds) as Butte from two shallow inclined shafts, drawing less than 100 total horsepower and employing less than 500 men. Douglass recorded costs of 4 ½ cents to deliver a pound of copper to New York. With the uncontrolled early World War I copper price of more than 35 cents, Kennecott’s copper mine was a figurative gold mine.

The push for maximum production came from newly named General Manager E. T. Stannard. The production level reached in 1916, however, could not be maintained. Copper prices dropped in response to war time price controls and in 1917, Kennecott faced its only strike. Stannard proved highly competent technically but was not a good personnel manager and his actions prolonged a difficult labor situation. It took several years for the mine to recover from the strike, especially as copper prices dipped further in response to a post-war copper glut. Bill Douglass was key to morale recovery and the mine’s successful operation for the next decade.

Douglass’s management era included driving long crosscuts to the small but rich Erie ore body and, more importantly, harmonizing production from the declining Bonanza with that from the Mother Lode and Jumbo, the last of three great ore bodies exploited by Kennecott. Shortage of mine process water was a constant challenge in the Wrangell Mountains, as was a complete rebuild of the power plant after the original plant was destroyed by fire. Earlier Douglass had come close to death in the aftermath of the influenza epidemic in the early 1920s. Bill gave credit for his survival to the company doctor whom he had handpicked from the Johns Hopkins Medical School.

Historian Melody Webb and historic Copper Country novelist Ron Simpson both credit Douglass’s exceptional management skills with Kennecott’s successful operation in the 1920s. Stannard, who kept rising in the Kennecott hierarchy, said that Douglass was the best underground man that he ever knew. Webb noted that “Kennecott continued like clockwork during the ten years of his [Douglass’s] stewardship”. The mines continued to produce at copper prices that demanded great efficiency. Douglass made changes that improved operations and added to the quality of life at Kennecott. He added heated lunchrooms to the underground mines; utilidors delivered steam heat to the staff houses. He authorized a lighted ice rink for hockey, contests, and winter carnivals. Webb notes that Douglass himself played on the baseball team that played McCarthy and Cordova, sometimes with pitchers brought from as far away as Seattle. The young Douglass children and other Kennecott kids benefited from some of the improvements. Bill, the son, and sister Jean constituted the “older set” and joined older kids in ice skating, hunting small game, and in generally being more adventurous than the “younger set” of Sheila and Nancy who sometimes played catch-up but ordinarily had sense enough not to compete.

Douglass left Kennecott in the early summer of 1929 to take a job at the Kimberley mine out of Ely, Nevada. The mine was affiliated with Utah Copper, still part of the Kennecott empire. Douglass was hired as Assistant General Manager of the large porphyry copper mine. It was only months before the events of October 1929 that triggered the Great Depression. Like many others, Bill had invested in the stock market with a portfolio valued at about $250,000. Unaware of the impending crisis, the Douglass family planned for a more stable life in Nevada.

Bill bought a seven passenger Franklin car and took driving lessons. Their house at Kimberley was a four bedroom colonial. Mabel found an interior decorator in San Diego to help with the furnishing of the new house. In 1917, Con Kelley, the president of Anaconda Copper Company, had presented Mabel with an oak dining room set in appreciation of Mabel’s nursing skills at Butte. The set had been in storage for more than 10 years before it was proudly displayed at the Assistant General Manager’s house at Kimberley. However, the idyllic placement at Kimberley proved short-lived as the copper price plunged below profitable levels and the mine closed in 1932. Bill retained some dollars and for a while all seemed at least survivable.

Events changed rapidly. Mabel noted severe muscle spasms and a sharp company doctor diagnosed her condition as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Bill took her to the Mayo Clinic and hospitals in New York and San Francisco, but then, as now, the condition is incurable. At about the same time, Mabel's best friend, Addy, developed breast cancer and failed rapidly. The copper market was abysmal, and the only job that Bill could find in 1932 was at small placer gold mine in Downieville, California. Bill had to do most of the cooking and 13-year old Jean and 11-year old Sheila assisted a young housekeeper with the chores and the care of their mother. At one time Bill’s pre-stock market savings were down to $300.

Bill found a better position as Assistant Manager of the Auburn Chicago Mining Company in Auburn, California, and the Douglass family made another move. Art Sweet, the manager of the mine was a Colorado School of Mines classmate of Bill’s. Operating funds were almost assured, as the promoter of the mine was E. L Cord, famed designer of a series of fine automobiles.

On Feb 6, 1934, the Douglass family celebrated their father’s forty-fifth birthday. Mabel died that night. The family stayed in Auburn until the summer of 1934. Bill became friends with a young geologist at the mine, Ken Wilson; the two shared carpooling to the mine. Ken lived with his widowed mother, young brothers and a sister, Madalin, a graduate of San Rafael College who had stayed on to teach there. Madalin had taken first vows to become a nun, but her brothers and mother prevailed upon her to postpone her final vows until more time had elapsed from her father’s death. Douglass married Madalin Wilson in 1935.

In August 1934, Douglass took on the reopening of the Nickel Plate Company gold mine for the Kelowna Exploration Company at Hedley, British Columbia. The balance of his professional career was with the Kelowna Company or with numerous affiliates. At Hedley, Douglass rebuilt the plant and reopened an underground mine—an assignment urged upon him and his new employers by another old Colorado School of Mines friend, Paul Billingsley. At Hedley, Bill was recognized for improved working conditions at the mines and for recreational activities for the community.

In 1943, Bill was transferred to New York where he became General Manager, Vice-President, and a Director of the Kelowna Company and affiliated companies in South America, including the Cotopaxi Exploration Company with operations in Ecuador. In 1949, Bill was honored by his Alma Mater, The Colorado School of Mines, when he was awarded a Distinguished Achievement Medal in Mining Engineering. In 1950, Bill returned to the west - he retained his operating role as Vice-President for Kelowna and began a consulting career advising companies throughout the western United States and Canada.

In Seattle Bill took on an extracurricular project-- writing a history of the Kennecott Mines. The work, first published by the State Division of Mines (now Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys), covers much more than technical matters. It includes accounts of the pre-Bonanza discovery expeditions, the discoveries and acquisition by Stephen Birch, and the construction of the Copper River and Northwest Railway. It stands as a concise and accurate account. With Wesley Earl Dunkle’s 1954 paper, it gives a detailed account of Kennecott operations from 1910-1938 by men who had operational experience during Kennecott’s most interesting years. Historian Melody Webb found Bill’s memory helpful as she began to construct her account of early Kennecott, Alaska.

Bill Douglass died in 1979 just short of his 90th birthday. He was an exceptional miner, but also an exceptional man and, in the view of his children, an exceptional father.

Bill Douglass is survived by his son William D. Douglass, an attorney of Orinda, CA, and daughters Sheila Jardine Douglass and Jean Loretta Douglass both of Seattle. Another daughter Nancy Douglass died in 2006. Douglass is also survived by his son James Wilson Douglass, who was born to Bill’s 1935 marriage to Madalin nee Wilson. Mr. James Douglass lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

Bill "D" Douglass, as one of the Kennecott Kids, fondly remembers his happy Kennecott years which to a remarkable degree were a product of his father's enlightened management.


By Charles C. Hawley, 2008.

SOURCES

Douglass, Sheila, Notes on her life and family, 12 p. ms

Douglass, William D., Review of William Crawford Douglass, October 2008

Douglass, William C., 1964, “A History of the Kennecott Mines, Kennecott, Alaska” Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys (ADGGS) MP 21. Reprinted 1971

Douglass, James Wilson, Notes from a 1979 obituary of William Douglass

Dunkle, Wesley Earl, 1954, “Economic Geology and History of the Copper River District,” ADGGS, MR-87-4

Simpson, Ronald N., 2001, Legacy of the Chief, Ronald Simpson. Copper Center, AK.

Webb, Melody (Graumann), 1977, “Big Business in Alaska: The Kennecott Mines 1898-1938” U.S. National Park Service Cooperative Park Studies Unit, Occasional Paper No. 1, Denver.

U.S. National Park Service, 2001, “Kennecott Kids: Interviews with the Children of Kennecott,” NPS, Especially V. 2, Alaska Support Service, Anchorage. Melody (Graumann)

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