Anders Olof Olsson: Andrew Olson
Andrew Olson, undated.
Photo from the UAF Polar Archives.
Andrew Olson was born Anders Olof Olsson in Krokvag, Sweden in August 1885 to Olof and Karin nee Edlund Olsson. An older sister, Justina (Ellen) was often Andrew's best friend and confidante when he was motherless. Karin Olsson died at Andrew's birth. Andrew and Ellen's maternal grandmother Justina, called Mormor by the young Olssons, raised the orphaned children at the large family farm at nearby Backen.
By 1891, America Fever was strong in Sweden. It was often fanned by returning adventurers. At Backen, six-year old Andrew sat at the feet of roving sailor Nils Lvgren and heard tales of sailing the Seven Seas and prospecting for gold in America and Siberia. Beside the tales, Lvgren passed on a simple morality to Andrew: honesty and no liquor or cards. The early teaching stuck as did the memories of adventures. Andrew told his father, "I will sail away to America and dig gold just like Lvgren. With a rucksack on my back and a pick in my hand, I will search for big gold nuggets." Olof discouraged Andrew's youthful dreams but finally could not dissuade Andrew from immigrating. With $100 from his mother's estate, eighteen-year-old Andrew embarked for America in 1903. He had only a few years of formal schooling but knew farming and was experienced in logging skills. Andrew first settled in Stanwood, Washington where his father's brother, John Olsson, had established a home.
Olof, Andrew's father, had discouraged his son's dreams of America, but in 1905, following several poor years on the farm, Olof brought the rest of family to America. He had remarried after the death of Karin, and Andrew and Ellen had seven half brothers and sisters who would soon locate in the New World. Olof and family settled on a farm at Matsqui, British Columbia.
Andrew was ready to begin his gold mining career. The rugged young Swede attracted the attention of miners from Fairbanks who offered him a job. Andrew made the 400-mile trip from Valdez to Fairbanks by foot, and soon was making $7 a day plus room and board, good wages for the time. His first mining tools were pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow. Andrew's first employer was David Strandberg, who taught Andrew to prospect and later hired him again at his Flat operation.
Strandberg, who had arrived early in the Fairbanks gold rush and had a mine at Ester Creek, began to notice Olson's inventiveness. Andrew was familiar with gin-poles used to yard timber in northwest Washington and reasoned that with suitable rigging, the gin poles could cast large boulders out of the pits, replacing many hours of hard hand labor. Andrew also designed a system for dumping placer ore from horse drawn carts directly into the sluice boxes.
After Andrew returned to Washington from Fairbanks in the fall of 1908, he was run down by a team of horses. Injuries were severe and convalescence took almost two years, surprising his doctors who doubted that Olson would work again. As he recovered, Andrew helped around the farm but he resolved to return to Alaska in 1912. This time Andrew and his cousin Daniel Olson walked from Seward to Flat, then at the height of a gold rush. In the meantime, David Strandberg moved his operation to Flat and was ready to put the hard-working young Swedes back on the payroll.
World War I was hard on the Alaska placer mines. There was a scarcity of men and equipment, but by constant work, combining farming, logging, and mining Andrew Olson was becoming established. In the late winter of 1919, he resolved to return to Sweden to see family, especially Mormor, who was approaching her ninetieth birthday. Within a few weeks of his arrival in Sweden, Andrew made the acquaintance of an attractive cousin, Karin Hansson, who enjoyed taking walks and listening intently to Andrew about his life in Alaska. By the time Andrew returned to Alaska for the summer of the 1919 mining season, he knew that he would return to Sweden the following winter with an eye on marriage.
Andrew's dreams of marriage were shared by Karin, but only if Andrew agreed to return permanently to Sweden, something that Andrew was not prepared to do. But he was ready to increase his knowledge both in agriculture and mining. At this time, Andrew and many young idealists were attracted to socialism and were eager to share the Russian experiment. In 1922, Andrew went to Russia where he worked for a time on a collective farm and signed up for mining studies in Moscow. As part of his geological studies, Andrew visited the Ural Mountains. At Ektarinberg, once headquarters of English mining companies in Russia, Andrew watched the efficiency introduced by mechanization of the mines. He also visited a northern placer mine where he first observed mining of platinum metals. On his return to Sweden in late 1923, Andrew proposed to Karin but he was rejected.
On returning to Washington, family and friends enticed Andrew to a church smorgasbord. The cook was Frida Tilly Stromberg, who was in America working to support two young sons, Alf and Bertil, in Sweden. After the meal was over, Frida listened to Andrew's story, then told him hers. Andrew solo mined in Alaska again in the summer of 1924, but on December 24, 1924, Andrew and Frida were married. In the spring of 1925, Andrew and Frida sailed for Alaska, leaving Alf and Bertil with Frida's sister, Emma.
In earlier years in Alaska, Andrew had worked with his half-brothers, cousins, or for experienced mining men like David Strandberg and Frank Manley. By the late 1920s, Andrew was ready to take the next step forward. Andrew, with fellow immigrants Tony Lindstrom and Axel Palmgren, formed Olson and Company and, in 1928, bought the mining rights on Happy Creek at Flat from pioneer storekeeper Mrs. Fullerton for $15,000. They also bought a 1.5 yard dragline, a considerable size for that time, in the Iditarod district, and a large pump from the Nothern Commercial Company. The partners constructed an elevated sluice and pioneered a substantial mining operation. A slotted dragline bucket, invented by Andrew, served as a movable grizzly effectively separating large barren boulders from the finer-grained ore. An elevated trestle sluice, also invented by Andrew and his partners, simplified disposal of tailings. The dragline was used for both stripping and feeding the elevated sluice. It was an ideal system for the thawed ground at Flat and pioneered the operations that were used at Flat through the 1980s. The Happy Creek project expanded, and in 1931, Andrew brought up his Edward and Fred Olson to help with the operation, Edward with the dragline and Fred in the shop. Further expansion was accomplished in 1932. Olson & Company brought in Edward's former employers from the North Bend Timber Company as active and investing partners in Northland Development Company. By this time Edward was an experienced and creative placer miner capable of guiding the operation at Flat, allowing Andrew time to consider other ventures.
In 1933, on a train trip between Anchorage and Seward, Andrew Olson met Walter Culver, a prospector and entrepreneur. Culver was very familiar with a mining area at Goodnews Bay, where platinum had been discovered in 1926. Small operators were eking out a living with hand mining, but the ground was deep and needed mechanization to be worked profitably. Andrew was intrigued by the new district, and authorized Culver to begin quietly consolidating the ownership of claims. Culver acquired the claims based upon his knowledge of the known platinum-bearing creeks and a sure feeling of the location of richer deeply buried deposits. Culver and Andrew Olson trusted each other, and by the time Andrew could leave Flat in the fall and visit Goodnews, Culver had the district tied up and ready for assignment to the Northland Development Company, the successor of Olson & Company. In late fall of 1933, famed bush pilot Oscar Winchell flew Olson to Goodnews. A dragline-mining outfit, similar to that developed at Flat, arrived at Goodnews on July 10, 1934. Mining operations began on the east flank of Red Mountain. Dragline operations on Squirrel and nearby creeks continued through 1936. A prospecting program to assess the larger potential of the area also began in 1934 with a six-inch churn drill. Exploration guided by Andrew in 1935 and 1936 indicated a major deep reserve of placer platinum in the Salmon River valley east of Red Mountain.
In 1935, Goodnews Bay Mining Company (GBMC) was incorporated under the laws of the Territory of Alaska to consolidate and operate the holdings of Northland Development Company. The reserve was sufficiently documented that the GBMC received a $600,000 loan from the depression era federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation to purchase and install a large dredge on the property. The components of the dredge, a Yuba eight cubic foot bucket line dredge, arrived by steamship in early August 1937. The parts, in total weighing 1,400 tons were lightered ashore and hauled along shore to the mouth of the Salmon River, then up the Salmon to the first mining site. Assisted by experienced dredge constructor Jack Turnbull, erection of the huge floating plant was completed on November 10, 1937. The task was accomplished in a remote area served only by one or two steamships each summer and by occasional non-scheduled bush plan flights. The machine was huge and the men had to accomplish the timely freighting and building of the dredge from its component parts. Unusually mild weather allowed the dredge to operate until December 22, completing the RFC-required thirty day acceptance period.
The GBMC's operation became ever more efficient as the crew adjusted to the large-scale dredging operation. On December 7, 1941, shortly after the operation shut down for the season, Japan struck America throughout the Pacific, and Andrew worried about the future of the operation. Knowing of the uses of platinum metals in oil refining and iridium in aircraft spark plugs, Goodnews petitioned the government. Their petition was answered quickly. Because platinum was a strategic metal for the U.S. War Effort, the GBMC was allowed to keep their work force and the call to military duty was rescinded. In fact the government mandated that the GBMC must continue to operate. A list of GBMC employees was sent to the draft board so that the employees would be removed from the upcoming draft orders. The government's decision relieved one of Andrew's burden, but he soon had a much more serious one. Andrew's wife, Frida, always strong, weakened rapidly and by the time a stomach cancer was diagnosed, the cancer was inoperable. Andrew's constant companion died on March 31, 1942.
Andrew still had work to keep him occupied, but he slept poorly. In 1944, Andrew's widowed half-sister Martha moved into the big Washington home. Martha remembered a young lady named Dee Dodge who had worked in the kitchen at Goodnews in the 1930s. Martha's matchmaking skills paid off in April 1945 when Andrew married the much younger Dee Dodge.
During his years at Goodnews, Andrew was joined by his brother Edward, thirteen years his junior. Andrew was the president of Goodnews Bay Mining; in later years, Edward took over direct operations as General Manager, then assumed presidency of the company. The company continued prospecting and a second major ancient paystreak was discovered in the Salmon River valley. As ground deepened, the company brought in a 7-yard walking dragline, one of the two largest in Alaska, to strip ahead of the floating dredge. The company, including its direct predecessor Northland, produced platinum metals continuously from 1934 until November 1975. Total production was approximately 650,000 ounces of placer platinum.
The Olsons' camp at Goodnews Bay was famous throughout Alaska for its amenities and hospitality. The camp had motion pictures and a 2-lane bowling alley. The amenities and style of management paid off for the company, as there was very little employee turnover for almost 40 years. With his Flat partners Tony Lindstrom and Axel Palmgren, Andrew also had placer operations at Deadwood and Harrison Creeks in the Circle District. Company offices were maintained in the White Henry Stuart Building in Seattle.
Andrew Olson lived into his 9th decade, alert and innovative to the end.
By Charles C. Hawley and Karen Olson, 2005
Bundtzen, Tom, and Inouye, Ron, 1996, Names of early miners carved into history: Heartland Magazine, supplement to Fairbanks Daily News Miner July 21, 1996, H-6, H-16.
Fisher, J.F., 1990, History of discovery and development of Goodnews bay Platinum district: Journal of the Alaska Miners Association: Vol. 18, no.11, pages 13, 18
Lindstrom, Jan Olof G., and Olson, Karen, 2004, "The Platinum King - Andrew Olson's Story", Book Publisher's Network, Bothell, WA.