Phillip Ross Holdsworth

1910 - 2001

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Photo of Holdsworth.

Phillip Holdsworth is sworn in as the first Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources in 1959.
Photo from Alaska's Digital Archives.

Phil Holdsworth’s professional career extended nearly seventy years. He was a practical miner at the age of sixteen. Later he operated mines, assay labs, and mills. In World War II, he defended a Philippine mine as a guerilla warrior. Embarking on a life largely devoted to Public Service in Alaska, Phil Holdsworth attained the role of Alaska’s elder natural resource statesman before his death in 2001.

Philip Ross (Phil) Holdsworth was born August 21, 1910 in Grants Pass, Oregon, to Philip Harold and Florence, nee Ross, Holdsworth. The founder of the American family was William Holdsworth, who emigrated from England to Traverse City, Michigan in 1858. William’s wife, Mary (Saunders) came from England’s historic mining region, Cornwall. Phil Holdsworth’s father, Philip Harold, was a trained mining engineer.

The Holdsworths first came to Alaska in 1913. Philip Harold, accompanied by his wife, Florence, three-year old Phil, and his sister Bertha, constructed and operated a small, lode gold mine near Moose Pass. The family remained in Alaska for three years, but returned to Washington State in 1916.

Phil first mined at age sixteen (1926) in a family operation at Ewing's Landing in British Columbia, where he learned the skills of a miner such as mucking, timbering, and handling explosives. He also learned to complete laboratory assays for metals such as gold, a skill he would use later in Alaska. In the winter of 1928-29, Phil enrolled in the University of Washington in a program that stressed both mine engineering and geology. The professor who taught assaying selected Holdsworth as his assistant because Phil knew more about the subject than he did.

At a time when the Great Depression had just begun, Holdsworth balanced periods of education with periods of mining to earn the funds to continue his education. In April, 1931, Phil returned to Alaska where he was hired as assayer at the Nabesna hard rock gold mine in the northern Wrangell Mountains. Within a month, he also was in charge of construction and operation of the mill. Initially a gravity mill, Phil added flotation and cyanidation circuits which with the gravity circuit extracted almost all of the gold in the ore.

In 1934, Violet Opel (Peggy) Walsh came to Nabesna to visit relatives. Peggy’s relatives operated the Nabesna Road House where Phil and Peggy met.

The couple was married in December 1936 in Fairbanks. In 1937, they returned to Washington where Phil completed his degree in Mining Engineering at the University of Washington. They then embarked on the adventure of their lives. On their honeymoon trip, Phil accepted the job offer of mill superintendent at the Mindanao Mother Lode gold-copper mine in the Philippines. The mine, then in an expansion phase, was much larger than the gold mine at Nabesna, Alaska. It employed 1,000 men and produced $400,000 worth of gold and copper each month from 1,000 feet below the surface—half of which was below sea level. Holdsworth’s responsibilities at Mindanao were soon expanded as he designed and built the tailings dam, helped sink the main shaft, and added power to the operation. The remote Mindanao mine was essentially self-sufficient; it had a sawmill that milled 13,000 board feet of timber per day and a large machine shop. Phil and Peggy thoroughly enjoyed their almost pioneer life—which, however, was due to change.

War hit the Philippines in December 1941 and the mine that had produced metals was soon producing the materials for a guerilla war. Phil was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Philippine Army, but resigned in May 1942, when the Philippine Army surrendered to the invading Japanese. The Holdsworths then joined a guerilla band of Filipinos who were continuing the fight. Phil’s experience, mechanical ability, and reservoir of materials at the mine aided the cause, as in the case of jury-rigged mines: Many years later writer Marguerite Reiss quoted Peggy Holdsworth’s wartime diary:

(Phil) opened Jap mines (found washed up on the beaches) and salvaged the powder for use in our land mines. We experimented developing a tank or truck mine . . . the charge was approximately 25 lbs of powder . . . packed into a rectangular welded container with a gasket-sealed head and an . . .electric blasting cap as detonator. The prime mover was current from a Miners Cap-Lamp battery set up through a tension switch … By using a No. 22 or 24 single cotton covered wire and burning the insulation off, a nearly invisible “trigger” wire was obtained.

Phil's small guerilla band had little time to carry out their clandestine operations. The Japanese occupied the Mindanao mine on May 9, 1942, but by that time, the Holdsworths had moved into a remote shanty supplied by loyal miners at night. They were betrayed by one disloyal man, who lived only two more days before being dispatched by Filipinos whose loyalties were with the Holdsworths. On July 1, 1942, Phil and Peggy Holdsworth were captured by a force of twenty Japanese. They spent almost all the next three years in prison camps or in forced marches between camps.

Phil and Peggy were imprisoned until February 3, 1945. They had been more fortunate than many, but Phil’s weight was down to 152 pounds and Peggy’s to 81 pounds when they were finally found by American troops led by General Douglas McArthur.

During their captivity Peggy’s spunk had earned her grudging respect from her Japanese captors. Furthermore, the Filipinos regarded Phil and Peggy as heroes. For their own part, the Holdsworths remained close to Alaska’s vigorous Filipino community, notably in Juneau, for the rest of their lives. However, heroism is not always well treated by the bureaucracy. Officials could not decide whether Phil should be treated as military, as a short term Lieutenant in the Philippine Army, or as a civilian guerilla. Holdsworth never received veteran’s benefits that should have been his as a matter of equity if not law.

Phil and Peggy returned to Alaska in 1946, where they joined old friend Ole Haugland, a pre-war gold miner at Nabesna, who rebuilt the Chistochina Road House at Mile 32 on the Tok Cutoff.

During the late 1940's, Phil worked on several mining projects in Alaska and Washington. He believed in the potential of the Willow Creek district near Anchorage. However, operating conditions were difficult due to a scarcity of experienced miners and a fixed price of gold, and the post-war projects failed. In 1949, Phil joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Richardson, where he managed construction projects at both Richardson and at Elmendorf Air Force Base. Still living the Alaska dream, the Holdsworths obtained a federal homestead near Wasilla. Phil commuted to work on the base in a little Cessna aircraft. When they left Anchorage, Phil and Peggy donated their 160 acre, proved-up homestead to the Girl Scouts of America. Augie Hebert remembered the gift,

"This extremely valuable acreage would have meant a fortune to Phil had he kept it. His legacy on behalf of the Girl Scouts of America will never be forgotten."

An event in 1951 caused reorganization in the Holdsworth home. Phil’s younger sister Clementina died, leaving David (9), Phyllis (7), and Bruce (4) orphans. There was a real possibility that the children would be separated and placed in foster homes. Peggy convinced Phil to adopt the children a year later.

In 1952, Phil was appointed to head the Alaska Territorial Department of Mines. In his confirmation hearings, Phil affirmed that he favored Alaska Statehood, although earlier, he had been skeptical about its economic viability. Gold dredges still operated at Fairbanks and Nome, but with marginal economics because of inflation and the fixed price of gold. The discovery of a rich copper strike at Bornite suggested that new exploration could revitalize mining, but the discovery of the Swanson River oil field on the Kenai in 1957 indicated that oil and gas would soon play an important role in Alaska’s economy. As Commissioner of the Territorial Department of Mines, Holdsworth acted as an advisor to the Alaska Constitutional Convention in Fairbanks (November 1955 to February 1956). At the convention, Phil became good friends with pioneer Alaska economist George W. Rogers who advised the convention on the drafting of the Natural Resource Article (Article VIII) of the Constitution with Phil’s special insight and advice. Rogers wrote, “Much of the specific provisions in Article VIII benefited from his (Holdsworth’s) experience in development and management. Phil played a major role in this project and in selling it to the Convention.” As Chairman of the Alaska Land Board in 1957, Phil helped draft the Alaska Lands Act and played a significant part in drafting the Oil and Gas Conservation Act.

The Swanson River discovery was a powerful factor in the favorable consideration of Alaska Statehood by the United States Congress. In 1959, William A. ‘Bill’ Egan became Alaska’s first governor. Republican Holdsworth was so well regarded throughout Alaska that he was appointed by Democratic Governor Egan as the state’s first Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Although both Egan and Holdsworth were dedicated to the State’s best interests, they had somewhat different philosophies on resource management. An event in Egan’s first days may have exacerbated their differences. Shortly after Egan’s inauguration, he became critically ill and at times was near death. Many of Egan’s executive roles were undertaken by Secretary of State Hugh Wade. During Egan’s illness, DNR Commissioner Holdsworth and Director of the Division of Lands Roscoe Bell, had to consummate land selections as part of the Statehood Act. Some lands available for selection were on Alaska’s remote North Slope.

Holdsworth favored selection of the lands, although their merit as future oil fields was regarded with some skepticism in academia and the oil industry. Some in the fledgling DNR, chiefly geologist Tom Marshall, believed strongly in the oil potential of the North Slope selections. Others saw the North Slope selections as just a way to help the U.S. Bureau of Land Management out of the daunting task of surveying all the navigable lands on the slope that would belong to the new state anyway.

When Egan returned to his role as Governor after his lengthy illness, he expressed to Holdsworth reservations about selecting the remote North Slope lands. The 1959 Statehood Act awarded ninety (90) percent of the revenue derived from oil and gas under Federal ownership to the new State of Alaska anyway—so why absorb the burden of administering the remote region? Holdsworth and Marshall stuck by their geological guns, and were aided by the views of Deputy Commissioner of DNR, Chuck Herbert, a long time confidant of Governor Egan. The three changed Egan’s mind, and in 1963, Alaska made the critical Prudhoe Bay selections.

The Juneau years were exciting for the Holdsworth family. Phil’s adopted children, then approaching their teen years, noted that their stepfather loved to entertain informally at home: “there was a near constant parade of oil men, legislators, hard-rock miners and others of note visiting our home on 6th Street in Juneau and feasting on roast venison and moose steaks.” The children recalled that,

"In a family setting, he (Phil) was strict but fair; he provided us . . . a model for life based on truth, trust, honor."
Perhaps intuitively, David and his younger siblings recognized that their step-parents, because of the travails of their life together, "had an uncommon closeness and loyalty to one another that lasted for the rest of their lives."

Phil continued to serve as DNR Commissioner through both of Egan’s first terms. The critical sales of the selected North Slope oil lands did not take place until the following Hickel administration, but Holdsworth left a legacy in a tight, well-organized department with considerable expertise in petroleum and non-fuel minerals. His subordinates in the department remembered him as a fair and efficient leader who paid attention to the ideas and needs of his staff.

After his retirement at the end of the first Egan administration, Phil returned to industry. He managed the Alaska affairs of Denver-based Inexco Mining Company. He also began to receive public recognition. He was named Alaskan of the Year by the State Chamber of Commerce in 1971. In 1968, as lobbyist for the Alaska Miners Association (AMA), Holdsworth urged a fair and equitable settlement of the Native land claims, a view not held by some in AMA. During hearings on U. S. Senator Gruening’s native claim settlement bill, a member of AMA’s Land Use Committee testified that natives, "were not owed one acre of ground or one cent of taxpayer’s money." Holdsworth, the lobbyist for the AMA, contradicted the previous testimony. Egan cabinet member Joe Henri wrote

"Phil affirmed that there was a moral, public responsibility to equitably settle the Native land claims."
By the time the settlement was finally made (1971), most miners in the AMA changed their minds and endorsed the final settlement.

Public service again called Phil in the 1970s. The 1959 Alaska Statehood Act included a provision to facilitate the care of Alaska’s mentally impaired. It required that one million acres of State-selected lands be set aside by the new State for revenue generation devoted to mental health programs. Holdsworth advocated a three part solution to Alaska’s mental health issues: first, a blue ribbon panel to identify needs and solutions; second a monetary grant for construction of facilities; and third, and most critical, a Mental Health Trust Fund, funded from proceeds from a 1,000,000 acre estate set aside for mental health. However, in the years following Statehood, the state ignored the last item and nearly half of the lands originally set aside for mental health needs were sold or leased to third parties. According to economist George Rogers, "Phil was the first to call attention to this outrage and soon his voice was joined by family and friends of the mentally ill." Holdsworth and Rogers continued to work on the problem. The issue was finally resolved in 1994. The settlement included provisions originally advocated by Holdsworth nearly 20 years before.

Phil also served on the Alaska Federal-State Land Use Planning Commission (FSLUPC) established under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. He continued to serve on the Commission until the passage of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Conservation Act (ANILCA). His work on the FSLUPC is remembered with appreciation by commission co-counsels John Katz and Esther Wunnicke.

In the 1980s Phil continued to represent the AMA and the Resource Development Council for Alaska (RDC). As a matter of course, legislative leaders routinely asked Phil for his council on natural resource legislation. It is doubtful that any significant piece of natural resource legislation passed in those years without review by Holdsworth.

In later years, Peggy’s health began to fail and Phil devoted himself to her care. Peggy died on November 12, 1993, in Anchorage. For years afterward, Phil retained physical vitality remembered by those who tried to out-dance him at senior functions or out-climb him in the hills. At last Phil’s strength and memory began to fail. He died in Anchorage on June 3, 2001. To those who served with him, Phil will always be recalled as Alaska’s resource statesman, a man to whom all Alaskans are indebted.

By Charles C. Hawley, 2007.


SOURCES

Alaska Legislature: In Memoriam, Phil R. Holdsworth. Joint Resolution 2001.

The Alaska Miner, v. 29, no. 7, 2001. Special issue, A Special Tribute to Phil R. Holdsworth. Articles in the special issue include:

Glavinovich, Paul, “My Friend Phil Holdsworth,” p. 21

Hawley, C. C., 2001, “Phil R. Holdsworth, Mining Statesman: An Appreciation for the Alaska Miners Association.” P. 5-6

Henri, Joe, “On the Passing of a Leading Public Figure,” p. 21.

Hiebert, A. G., “A Tribute on Behalf of the Girl Scouts,” p. 17

Holdsworth, Bruce, Holdsworth, David, and ------, Phyllis, 2001, “Dad,” As above p. 14

Holdsworth, Peggy, “In The Philippines” Includes long excerpts from Peggy Holdsworth’s Philippine Diary, May 9, 1942 to May 8, 1945, p. 8-11, 12-13, 22.

Holeman, Ben Jr., “The Coin Toss: Short Story About Phil Holdsworth.” As above p. 15

Katz, John W., “Phil Holdsworth Remembrance,” p. 19

Marshall, Tom, “Memorial of Phil Holdsworth,” p. 18

Mulligan, John, “Phil Holdsworth,” p. 15-16.

Neeley, Douglas (Sy) “Remembering Phil Holdsworth,” p. 15

Noyes, Leslie, 2001, Rock Poker to Pay Dirt: The History of Alaska’s School of Mines and its Successors. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Foundation, p. 426-428.

Reiss, Marguerite, 2001, “Alaska Miners at War, Part II.

Roderick, Jack, 1997, Crude Dreams: A Personal History of Oil & Politics in Alaska. Seattle: Epicenter, p. 99-106, 108-120, 162-164, 167-172

Rogers, George W., "Phil Holdsworth remembered," p. 17

Tower, Elizabeth A., 2003, Alaska’s Homegrown Governor: A Biography of William A. Egan. Anchorage: Elizabeth A. Tower, p. 116-120.

Wunnicke, Ester, Phil and the Federal State Land Use Commission, p. 21-22

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