Wendell P. Hammon
Wendell P. Hammon, undated
Photo: Hammon Family Archives
Wendell P. Hammon was a pioneer in two industries - horticulture and mining - and principal in several others, including oil and gas development, and hydroelectric power generation. He balanced his mining and other activities throughout a long and productive life. Hammon began to engage in mining ventures just before the start of the twentieth century; by 1910, he was known to many, accurately, as the "Dredger King."
Hammon was born May 23, 1854 at Conneautville, Crawford County, Pennsylvania to Marshall M. and Harriet S. (nee Cooper) Hammon. Hammon's first move towards Alaska began approximately in 1906 shortly after the discovery of the rich Third Beach near Little Creek in Nome, and recognition of extensive placer deposits in the Fairbanks District. Originally Hammon believed that dredging possibilities were limited at Nome. In 1907 he considered, and rejected, a large-scale hydraulic operation at Fairbanks. A few small Hammon-constructed dredges arrived in Alaska before 1920. One was a bucket-line dredge used successfully at Shovel Creek, a tributary to the Solomon River on the Seward Peninsula. Shovel Creek's operator was Newton Cleveland, who had been a Hammon chief engineer. In general, Hammon was not interested in constructing small flume-type dredges for the Alaska trade. His well engineered and constructed boats could not compete with off-the-shelf "home made" placer dredges on small Alaska projects.
One of Hammon's early ventures in Alaska was hard rock, not placer. Hammon aided Louis Shackleford and Bartlett Thane in negotiations in London on the acquisition of Colonel Sutherland's Perseverance lode mine in Juneau. The Perseverance was renamed the Alaska-Gastineau. Hammon and another famous miner, D. C. Jackling, then helped, technically and financially, to open the Alaska-Gastineau Mine. For a while it was the largest hard rock gold mine in the world.
Hammon, however, was a better placer mine developer than lode miner. By the end of World War I, Hammon recognized that the placer deposits in frozen ground at Nome and Fairbanks were large enough for consolidated operations and could be mined if the ground could be thawed economically. The first efforts at thawing used steam and heated water; steam thawing had limited success in thawing shallow ground for dredging, but it was too expensive to consider for use on deep buried frozen placer deposits. One young inventor, John Miles, proposed that cold-water thawing was feasible. Hammon Consolidated Gold Field Company tested cold-water thawing on ground owned by the Alaska Mines Corporation at Nome with satisfactory results. Miles patented the cold water process in 1920, and Hammon purchased the rights to the process for Alaska in 1923. Hammon had already acquired considerable ground at Nome, and the company began cold-water thaw field operations in 1922.
At about the same time, Hammon re-examined the data on the Fairbanks field, concluded that a dredge field could be developed, and optioned placer ground. His crews, including his son Wendell C. Hammon, began drilling in Fish, Fairbanks, Cleary, and Goldstream Creeks in the Fairbanks District and established reserves rich enough for dredge mining. The Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields drill program at Fairbanks (1923) coincided with costly start up operations at Nome, and the Company was forced to relinquish some placer claims in Fairbanks. Nevertheless, Hammon retained control of about 457 acres in Cleary Creek and 512 acres on Goldstream Creek, lands of critical value for later operations. Competition between Hammon and U. S. Smelting at Fairbanks was finally resolved when, in 1924, the companies decided to consolidate all Fairbanks operations through a new company, Fairbanks Exploration Company. U. S. Smelting bought all the Hammon-controlled shares at $110 per share and became the sole owner of Fairbanks Exploration. In September 1926, Hammon also sold his part of the Davidson Ditch to Fairbanks Exploration Company.
Hammon sold his Nome operations to the U. S. Smelting Refining and Mining Company, although the Nome-based company operated as Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields until 1938. By 1924, Hammon probably had abut $4,000,000 invested at Nome and recovery of capital had proven difficult. The purchases of the Hammon interests at Nome and Fairbanks effectively took Hammon out of Alaska as an operator, although as president of Yuba Manufacturing Company, Hammon constructed other dredges for Alaska fields in succeeding years.
Wendell P. Hammon and James M. Davidson were contemporaries; each man was near seventy years old as the Fairbanks and Nome dredge fields were coming on stream. Hammon lived many more years, vigorous until the end, still looking for opportunities for his large dredges. Hammon was not primarily an Alaska operator; his great operations were in California. Nevertheless, his presence in Alaska was crucial. Cold water thawing was necessary for the dredge mining of placers in frozen ground. Hammon, through his operating and engineering companies, took a raw patent and small scale experiments to commercial development. The cold water thawing method was improved to great efficiency by his own successors at Nome and Fairbanks.
In California, Hammon was a major force in horticulture, oil production and refining, hydroelectric systems, and power companies. Although a late immigrant to the Gold Rush state, he gained acceptance into the California mining fraternity, reinforced when he married Gussie Kenny, the daughter of '49.r Ephraim Kenney, a pioneer miner of Placerville, California. Mr. and Mrs. Hammon lost a daughter, Georgia, in 1915, but their sons Wendell C. and Glenn A. entered family businesses after service during World War I. In his later years, Hammon contributed his time and personal wealth to the support of arts and crafts. His descendants retain a thoroughly justified sense of pride in their distinguished farmer-miner ancestor.
As noted by F. C. van Deinse, himself a noted placer engineer, in an obituary on Hammon,
"An attempt to sketch briefly the career of Wendell P. Hammon can hardly do him justice. We can speak only of a few aspects of his career. If we could have lived with him, we would have found him . . . to be patient and kindly, considerate of those who worked with him, and beloved by all his friends."
Boswell, John C., 1979, History of Alaskan Operations of United Smelting, Refining, and Mining Company: University of Alaska Mineral Industry Research Laboratory Special Publication, 126 pages.
Cole, Dermot, 1999, Fairbanks - A Gold Rush Town That Beat the Odds: Epicenter Press, Inc., 224 pages.
Deyo, Margaret C., 1925, Waste Gold: A Story of the Second Coming of a Camp: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, December 24, 1925 edition (also republished in Boswell above).
Green, Lewis, 1977, Nome River Water Control Structures: U. S. Bureau of Land Management, Alaska Open File Report 62, 45 pages.
Spence, Clark C., 1996, The Northern Gold Fleet: Urbana / Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 302 pages.