Genevieve Alice Parker Metcalfe

(1907 - 1995)

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photo of Genevieve Alice Parker Metcalfe

Genevieve Parker, circa 1928.
Photo from Vieve Metcalfe.

Genevieve Alice Parker was the daughter of gold-rush participants. Her parents, Fred and Genevieve Parker, had each come to Fairbanks by way of Dawson and other camps, following successive stampedes. They met in Fairbanks, where they were married on June 13, 1905, three years after the town was started. Genevieve Alice was born on May 27, 1907, in Seattle, her mother having gone "outside" for the birth. Mother and child returned to Fairbanks when baby Genevieve was two months old. With the arrival of this first child, the Parkers began a pioneer family in Fairbanks.

Around the time little Genevieve was born, her dad, Frederick Benjamin Parker, was contemplating a career change. Having grown up in mill towns in Washington, he had followed in his dad's footsteps as a sawyer. He, along with his dad and younger brother, brought sawmill equipment over the Chilkoot Pass in 1897 and set up sawmills in Dawson and other areas of the Klondike to provide lumber for miners, businesses and residents. Later, Fred and his partner Charles Carroll set up the first sawmill in Fairbanks. They did this in the spring of 1903, and they were ready and waiting for the influx of miners that came in 1904. Although the sawmill business was successful, Fred always yearned to be a miner. In fact, even during the sawmill years, he did stampeding and prospecting on the side and staked some claims.

In about 1907, Fred and his partner sold their sawmill operation to the Tanana Mill Co. and became, respectively, the Vice-President and Secretary of that company. Fred worked for another year and then began prospecting and placer-mining fulltime. Unlike the majority of stampeders, who left the north country disappointed, Fred Parker decided to stay and to keep on searching for gold. Little Genevieve's mother, the former Genevieve Rebecca Boas, was a strong-willed, independent woman. Orphaned at an early age, she went to Dawson in 1899 when she was 18. After working in a Dawson bakery for several years, she moved to Valdez, Alaska, where she purchased and operated a "candy kitchen". Then, in 1904, she moved to the Fairbanks area. The story as passed down by the family is that Genevieve Boas met Fred when she walked into the Carroll & Parker Lumber Co. to buy materials for building a candy store in Cleary City.

The Parker family early on bought a house at 10th and Cushman in Fairbanks. For the first seven years of young Genevieve's life, however, they lived alternately in Fairbanks and in various mining camps. When the family was living at Ester in 1911, Genevieve's mother made a trip to the hospital in Fairbanks for the birth of another daughter. Her name was Hortense, known later as Jackie. The camp where the Parkers stayed the longest was Crane Gulch on Fairbanks Creek. They moved there in 1914 and lived there year-around for the next seven years while Fred worked his claim at 3-Above. While the family was living at Crane Gulch, Genevieve's mother made several more trips to the hospital - first, for the birth of Genevieve's brother Fred in 1914, and then for another brother, Carl, in 1916.

Camp life was rough-and-ready and filled with comradery and sharing between the owners, mine workers, and their families. It was a wonderful environment for growing kids. There was the outdoors to explore, and the sound and sight of earth-moving equipment and machinery to provide endless fascination. This is where Genevieve Parker developed a lifelong love of the outdoors and a preference for casual living. It is also where she first learned about mining. Without any urban distractions or schoolwork, she was fully occupied with watching the mining operation, asking questions, and making herself useful around camp. As she wrote in 1991:

"I began running errands, taking small tools and messages to outlying areas. Mid-afternoon, I shouldered a yoke to take hot coffee or iced tea plus cookies, cake and pie to the men working at hard twelve-hour shifts. I soon qualified as able to control pressure of the wood-burning boiler, the source of energy. When an emergency occurred like a broken cable or when the scraper was changed to a new digging area, it required all hands on the job. But I stayed with the boiler. I also panned the mine's fringe areas that a scraper couldn't get. One of the men would help move the six-foot Long Tom rocker to the richest left-over area. That way I could clean up my own mine!"

As Genevieve also reminisced in later years, she had an opportunity to watch several different types of mining on Fairbanks Creek:

"At the head of the creek the McCartys and, just below them, Tom Gilmore, tunneled hard rock. His ore was processed by a stamp mill. Well below, a very small dredge was owned and operated by an English company.

Next came the Parker's open-cut scraper mine at the mouth of Crane Gulch. At the lower end of the creek, underground mines were needed to reach gold bearing gravel lying under deep gravel and muck. In winter many prospecting shafts were dug. All these mines and shafts were thawed by wood fires at night and were supported by cribbing".

Life changed dramatically for Genevieve in 1921, when she was 14. Her dad shut down his mine, and the Parkers moved to their house in Fairbanks. There, Genevieve discovered a new world full of opportunity. Her first formal schooling started when she enrolled as a freshman at Fairbanks High School. She began playing basketball, and she and Hortense started dogsled racing. Genevieve managed to be an A student, graduating in June, 1924.

The 1920s was an exciting time to come of age in Fairbanks. Airplanes had come to interior Alaska, a place where roads were few and far between. The Alaska Railroad was completed from Fairbanks to the coast in 1922. The mining industry was reinvigorated by large-scale dredging and water conveyance on the part of the United States Smelting, Refining, and Manufacturing Company (USSR&M), known to local Fairbanksans as the Fairbanks Exploration or FE Company. The Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, later to become the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was started and opened its doors to students in 1922. These events reinforced each other and promised a bright future for Fairbanks and interior Alaska.

As the attractive daughter of a well-known Fairbanks family, Genevieve was asked in 1926 to participate in the christening of the Alaskan, a Fokker monoplane used to transport fuel to Point Barrow in support of the Australian aviator Captain George Wilkins' artic expeditionary flight over the polar cap to Spitsbergen. Genevieve knew Carl Ben Eielson, who was a science teacher at Fairbanks High School, but better known as a daring artic airplane pilot. Genevieve became the women's dog team racing champion in 1926 and again in 1929, when she won the prestigious Fromm Cup, driving the team of Judge Cecil Clegg. She also placed fourth in the Endicott Sweepstakes Race, this time in competition with male drivers. Through her dog team racing, she became acquainted with Leonard Seppala, the hero of the Nome Serum Run and the unquestioned king of dog mushing of his day. After the Empress Theatre opened in 1927, Genevieve worked at the box office selling tickets to silent movies.

Genevieve at age 2 with her parents

Fred B. Parker and Genevieve (Boas) Parker with 2-year old Genevieve in Fairbanks, circa 1909
Photo from Vieve Metcalfe Collection

Encouraged by her parents, who built a study-room addition to their house, Genevieve enrolled in the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines. She took a General Science curriculum, graduating with a B.S. degree in 1928. Five other classmates also graduated from the new college in 1928. While at the college, Genevieve continued her basketball career and played center for the girl's team. Records would indicate the College girl's basketball team had a winning record all the years that she played. Genevieve was also editor of the Collegian, the school's newspaper, as well as a dedicated thespian who acted in several College plays. During her first four years of college, Genevieve took a number of elective courses in the School of Mines. By taking these electives, she met so many course requirements that she was able to stay in school only one more year to earn a second B.S. degree, this time in Geology and Mining.

Genevieve changed the way things operated at the School of Mines. According to the October 12, 1928 edition of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner:

"The boys of the Mining Society were confounded this year with the appearance of Miss Genevieve Parker, a student of the school of mines and possible candidate for admittance into the organization. After many wordy conferences, it was decided that the Mining Society initiation had not been designed for the gentler sex."

The Mining Society only granted Parker honorary membership, even though she had proven herself as someone capable of outdoor activities. Indeed she was a champion dog musher and basketball player, and spent her formulative years working around mining camps in the Fairbanks district. Yet this rebuke did not irritate Genevieve, and she diligently completed her course work. Genevieve graduated from the College for a second time with three other students in 1929. With her second degree, she became the first woman to graduate from the School of Mines.

It was unusual for a woman in the 1920s to be keen about mining. Genevieve, however, had spent her formative years in mining camps with people whose main interest was mining, and she felt comfortable with the subject. Viewed in this light, it is understandable that she pursued courses in geology and mining. What makes Genevieve's story exceptional is the quality of the thesis that she prepared while in the School of Mines.

Genevieve chose early mining methods in Alaska as a subject for her thesis. By the 1920s, most of the early claims were mined out and many individual operators were closing down or selling out to major operators with dredges that made recovery of low-grade deposits economically feasible. Genevieve realized that mining methods were changing and that no one had yet written a description of early mining and the subsequent changes. Fortunately, some of the early miners were still living, and she and her parents knew many of them. Her thesis, The Evolution of Placer Mining Methods in Alaska, was partly based on interviews with miners, including Tom Gilmore, the partner of Felix Pedro, who discovered gold in the Fairbanks District in the summer of 1902. Parker also reviewed carefully the water and mine technologies used at the time, some of which were invented in Fairbanks. Many of those technologies are no longer used, but her documentation of those uses in Alaska is historically significant. Genevieve wrote a thoroughly researched and carefully documented paper that far surpassed the minimum thesis requirement for a B. S. degree. Even now, 75 years later, her thesis is considered an important reference on Alaskan placer-mining history.

Upon graduation, Genevieve accepted a job in Fairbanks with the Fairbanks Exploration Company (FE Company), which operated a fleet of gold-mining dredges in the Fairbanks District. She was hired by Mr. O.J. Egleston as Assistant Office Engineer in Fairbanks. Her work soon caught the attention of the Boston office of FE's parent company, the United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company (USSR&M). USSR&M was mainly a producer of hard rock ores in the lower forty-eight states. Their only large scale placer gold operations were those in the Fairbanks and Nome districts of Alaska. The Boston head office needed placer mine expertise and decided to consider Genevieve as their Boston-based expert on Alaskan placer mining.

One day Genevieve was drafting a new district map, which showed the locations of the exploratory drills with their values. A gentleman unknown to her walked into her office and quizzed her about the district. Genevieve, thinking that the gentleman might be from a rival company, talked about the district, but concealed the drill results. Later the man returned and quizzed her about Alaskan hard rock mines, especially the rich copper deposits at Kennicott, where Genevieve had led a college field trip. In the meantime, Parker had found out that the gentleman was a USSR&M vice president from the company headquarters in Boston.

Genevieve accepted a job offer from USSR&M, and left in early 1930 for Boston to start work at their headquarters. That year, she also became a junior member of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers. Being a woman mining engineer, Genevieve became a celebrity of the day. She made the June 29, 1929 issue of the Engineering and Mining Journal, at the time, the number one trade magazine for the mining engineering field. The article, which is titled: Mining Engineers and Dog Racers of Note Miss Genevieve Parker, also features a picture of Genevieve driving a team of nine dogs. As related in an address given by Earnest Patty, the Dean of the School of Mines, Genevieve Parker met President Herbert Hoover in early February of 1930. President Hoover congratulated her for being the only woman he knew of that made mining engineering a profession and a means of livelihood. Indeed, Genevieve was the only practicing female professional mining engineer in the United States and its Territories.

Genevieve Parker with champion dog musher Leonhard Seppala, circa 1927

Genevieve Parker with champion dog musher Leonhard Seppala, circa 1927.
Photo from Vieve Metcalfe collection.

Genevieve's duties at the USSR&M head office in Boston included coordination and engineering over site of some of the most important beginning parts of the FE Company programs in the Fairbanks district. The projects she was involved in included: 1) the drill appraisal of the Fairbanks Creek basin, which was eventually dredged by the company in the 1950s and 1960s; 2) the exploration and engineering assessment of the Ester Creek basin which also included the initial work on the rich Cripple pay streak developed for Dredge #10 in the 1940s; and 3) infrastructure planning throughout the district. Importantly, Genevieve served as a valuable interface between the Boston-based engineering and management staff, some of whom had never worked in Alaska, and the many people working for the company in Alaska that she knew so well.

Her mining engineering career with USSR&M would last 5 years. While working at USSR&M, she met and married John Brownlow Metcalfe. John was a geologist and mining engineer who stayed with USSR&M for 34 years, retiring in 1969 as Vice President and Director of Smelting. Genevieve worked until late 1934 before retiring to start a family. Regrettably, she worked at a time when women were generally expected to make a choice between career and family rather than balancing both.

One of John Metcalfe's early job assignments with USSR&M was in Salt Lake City, where John, Genevieve and two-year-old daughter Vieve moved in 1936. After the birth of their second daughter, Nancy, and three years of doing field engineering in Utah, John was assigned to Fairbanks in 1939.

After a year, the family moved from Fairbanks to Nome, where son John was born. Genevieve and family were living in Nome when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred on December 7, 1941. In a letter to her in-laws dated December 11, 1941, Genevieve wrote:

"News of the declaration of war came through Sunday....Sunday night saw Home Defense going into action and everyone has been working like mad since then. Monday night about six-thirty the siren blew for ?lights out? upon receipt of an Army wire ordering a complete blackout, and since then it has been continuous....Fifteen minutes after the siren blew on Monday, the town was in total darkness."
During 1941, all non-native civilians were told to leave Nome as soon as possible. In February, 1942, the family finally returned Massachusetts.

Genevieve spent most of the rest of her life in Marblehead, a suburb of Boston. Genevieve competed in sailing events, and enjoyed reporting small boat races to several weekly newspapers. She made sure her children were exposed to the cultural offerings of Boston, taking them to libraries, museums, concerts, and plays. Genevieve continued to provide support to her husband in his job since she knew the mining business and the USSR&M managers and their families. The Metcalfe family always gave company employees from Fairbanks a warm welcome when they visited the East Coast. These visitors were often invited to dinner in Marblehead and an evening of talk about the past and present Alaska.

In 1949, John was working in Alaska for most of the summer, so Genevieve decided to drive her family from Marblehead to Fairbanks on the Alaska-Canada (Alcan) Highway. The Alcan Highway had been built for the military during WWII, but was not paved, and was poorly maintained. Genevieve was undaunted by driving the Alcan, as it was reminiscent of her Fairbanks mining-camp days.

John Metcalfe lost a long battle with cancer in 1970 when he was 65, bringing an end to John and Genevieve's retirement dreams. Genevieve spent no time feeling sorry for herself, and remained fiercely independent for the rest of her life. Genevieve became a professional-level photographer, and entered her photographs in competitions and won prizes. By choice, she lived alone in her historic home next to Marblehead harbor. She died peacefully on November 19, 1995, at age eighty-eight.

Genevieve Parker Metcalfe was a congenial and warm, yet strong person who was not afraid to pursue a profession that was not, at the time, considered for women. Genevieve broke through a gender barrier now considered practically routine, but did so without fanfare. Her contribution to the understanding of early placer mining technologies and to the history of the Fairbanks mining district will always be considered primary references for those subjects. Instilled with the frontier Alaskan pioneering spirit, she earned the enthusiastic respect of all who knew her and became familiar with her accomplishments. In 1996, during the 15th Biennial Conference on Alaska Mining held in Fairbanks, Genevieve Parker Metcalfe was one of the nine distinguished mining pioneers to have her profile carved in ice for the Ice Art 96 World Ice Sculpting Championships.

By Vieve Metcalfe, Thomas K. Bundtzen and Earl H. Beistline, 2004

SOURCES

"1926 Basketball Schedule Given; Games October 29th" Fairbanks Daily News- Miner October 26, 1926, p. 4

"Dean Patty Speaks." Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, February 12, 1930, p. 1
"Avid Sailor: Obituary of Genevieve Metcalfe" Marblehead Reporter, November 30, 1995.

"Fair Mining Engineer is Hardy Type." Seattle Post Intelligencer, January 9, 1930, p. 1

"Mines Graduate to Soon Transfer to Boston Office." The Far North Collegian: November 30, 1929, p. 8

"Mining Engineers and Dog Racers of Note — Miss Genevieve Parker." Engineering and Mining Journal, June 8, 1929, p. 31.

"Mining Society Initiation Today." Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, October 12, 1928, p. 3

"Miss Parker is Winner of Women's Dog Race." Fairbanks Alaska Daily News- Miner, March 9, 1926, p. 5

Noyes, Leslie M., 2001, "First Woman Graduates From the School of Mines," in From Rock Poker to Pay Dirt Fairbanks: University of Alaska Foundation, p. 118-125, see also p. 73 and 493.

Parker, Genevieve Alice, 1929, The Evolution of Placer Mining Methods in Alaska: Thesis B.S. in Geology and Mining. Fairbanks: Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, 64 pages.

Stevens, R. W., 1985, "The Detroit Arctic Expedition," in Alaskan Aviation History, Des Moines, WA: Polynyas Press, p. 278-302.

"Wilkins Aircraft Christened in State." New York Times, March 13, 1926 p.2
"Alaska College Bestows Degrees on 6 Students." Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, vol. 26, no. 3, June 6, 1928, p. 1

Wilkins, George H., 1928 Flying the Arctic New York-London: G.P. Putnam's Sons

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