(1911 - 2010)
Oscar Tweiten sluicing in the Fairbanks district;
photo courtesy of Judie Wischman.
Oscar Tweiten was born in Tacoma, Washington, on October 22, 1911. He was the third oldest of eight children born to Norwegian immigrants Omund and Pauline Tweiten. His parents moved from Tacoma back to their home town of Tveiten, Norway, when Oscar was eight years old. Oscar's father, Omund, had inherited the family farm located in the Sirdal Valley. The family home in Norway housed Oscar's ten family members on one side of the house, and Omund's younger brother's family of eight on the other side. They were a strong, hardworking, Lutheran family. It was in a one room school house in the tiny village of Tveiten that Oscar received his formal education. In 1929, at the age of 17, Oscar returned to the Tacoma area just as the Great Depression made its devastating entrance onto the world stage. His brother, Carl, and sister, Martha, had already settled in the area. Together, the three siblings worked to return the rest of their family to America. In 1933, Oscar and his cousin, Lee "Bunk" Leland, were employed at a door factory. When a decree came down that the wages were being cut in half (they only made a dollar an hour before the cut), Oscar said,
"We decided that if we were going to starve, we'd do it in Alaska."This doesn't seem like such an odd decision when you consider that Oscar's uncles, Karl and Ole, had climbed the Chilkoot Pass on their way to the Klondike gold rush, and that Oscar's father had gone to Nome after gold was discovered there. The next generation had already followed suit: Oscar's older brother, Carl, had made his way to Interior Alaska via Valdez and the Richardson Highway in 1932.
In the big territory of Alaska, gold miners were doing well during the Depression. Oscar recalls,
"It was good times in Alaska because of gold mining. We'd heard about that."In May of 1933, Oscar and his cousin, Lee Leland, borrowed $39 from a cousin, and booked passage on a boat to Seward. Once there, they negotiated a train trip to Fairbanks in return for shoveling coal to fire the locomotive's boilers. Oscar's brother, Carl, who was already in Fairbanks, introduced them to a lady named Mrs. Dunham, who was the caretaker of the library. She rented Oscar and Lee a cabin for five dollars per month. Since they were only making fifty cents an hour, this seemed a little pricey, so they moved three buddies in, and each paid one dollar per month.
After Oscar had tried his hand at a few jobs, his brother, Carl, introduced him to Helmer Johnson, a well respected operator for whom Carl worked, who was mining placer gold on Chatham Creek about 25 miles north of Fairbanks. Johnson was using a small bucket-line dredge, the first such dredge in the Fairbanks mining district, and he put Oscar to work on #10 Above Discovery on Cleary Creek, a claim that Oscar would one day own, and on which his two-story frame house still stands. The house had been a part of the bustling town of Cleary City near the mouth of Cleary and Chatham Creeks. When large scale dredging encroached on the town during the Depression, the city was dismantled to make way for the dredge, and Oscar bought the house, and moved it to #10 Above. Thus, Oscar began his placer gold mining career at the business end of a pick and shovel. Little did he realize that he would spend the better part of the next 60 years living and working in this area, and not hanging up his diggers until he was 85 years old.
That first summer in Fairbanks, Helmer Johnson not only introduced Oscar to "gumboot mining", the sourdough's term for placer mining, but to his and wife Emma's daughter, 14-year old Irene Sophia Johnson. According to Oscar, Irene made quite an impression on him, so much so that several years later, on April 5, 1939, they were married. Oscar and Irene had a daughter, Judie Ann, the undisputed light of Oscar's life. Irene suffered from a debilitating disease that required Oscar and Judy to care for her for over 40 years, until her death in 1995. Irene was very talented musically. She could play many instruments "by ear", with no formal training. Oscar and Irene loved to dance and sing together. Irene would play the accordion and entertain in the mining camps.
Oscar Tweiten and Irene Sophia nee Johnson Tweiten with their daughter, Judie Ann;
photo courtesy of Judie Wischman.
Oscar worked for Helmer Johnson until late autumn that first year in Fairbanks. Word was out that there was gold to be found in the Goodpaster area, a poorly known, and inaccessible, part of Interior Alaska, about 100 miles east of Fairbanks. Up for more adventure, Oscar joined his brother, Carl, and cousin, Lee Leland, on a winter prospecting trip to the upper Goodpaster River country, a place he would come to know well in the years ahead.
The story of Oscar and Carl Tweiten's prospecting adventures in the upper Goodpaster River drainage is a book unto itself. In fact, Carl Tweiten did write a book about their experiences in the Goodpaster River country: Alaska, Big Delta and the Goodpaster Region, published in 1990. For anyone interested in finding out what the pioneer spirit is all about, it is highly recommended reading.
During the autumn of 1933, Oscar, Carl and Lee pooled their limited funds, and set out for Big Delta and the Goodpaster River country on their first of many trips to this part of Alaska. The three partners admitted to not winning the good housekeeping award that winter - they discovered mouse droppings in their flour. As was the case for thousands of prospectors before and after them, trapping was a necessary part of prospecting. The meat from the game they trapped was eagerly eaten, while good furs could be traded for food and supplies.
When asked why his party chose the Goodpaster River area as their prospecting destination, Oscar would grin mischievously, and tell the story of French John, a Canadian miner, trapper and yarn-spinner, who told had them about Felix Pedro's famous lost gold mine. It seems that before Pedro discovered gold and set off the rush in the Fairbanks area in 1902, he was in the habit of going up the Goodpaster River each summer, and returning to Dawson in the fall with a bulging gold poke. No one knew where he got his gold, but everybody had their own idea. Oscar and his partners decided that if it was good enough for the legendary Pedro, it was good enough for them.
The three prospectors spent the winter moving into the country by pole boat, which Oscar described as,
"...more pullin than polin."They spent the winter prospecting, trapping and exploring the country on skis. The only reading material they had while in the Alaska bush, was a dictionary and a Bible, about which Oscar remarked,
"Now boy, don't think we didn't go through both of those."By candle light, the young prospectors spent many an evening reading Bible verses and discussing word definitions to pass the time during those cold, dark winter nights. Oscar and Carl had learned the art of Nordic skiing as youths in Norway, and routinely traveled faster and farther in a day than even the experienced local dog mushers, sometimes as much as 100 miles. Oscar noted that skiing in this part of Alaska meant having to cross the shallow, winding Goodpaster River on a regular basis. Sometimes the crossing point was not frozen, so they accomplished this by cutting small poles from the surrounding forest, and fashioning stilts to walk across the open leads, much as they had been taught to do as youths in Norway.
As the winter of 1933-34 came to a close, Oscar and his partners built two cabins to serve their future needs, then returned to Fairbanks, to earn money to pay for more prospecting. Oscar and Carl worked for Helmer Johnson again on Cleary Creek. Lee Leland went to work for the FE Company on their gold dredge at Fish Creek.
The spring of 1935 saw a surge of lode gold prospectors into the Goodpaster River country, particularly into the hills above Oscar, Carl and Lee's cabin on Tibbs Creek, near the upper reaches of the river. During the time he had spent on upper Cleary Creek, Oscar had been introduced to many notable Fairbanks lode gold miners, some of whom mined the hills immediately surrounding Helmer Johnson's operations. The talents of lode mining legends such as Earl Pilgrim, Fred and Charlie Wackwitz, Arnold Nordale and F.J. McCarty, seemed to have rubbed off, because Oscar and Carl soon began to help guide various parties to the new lode gold discoveries in the Goodpaster River country. One of the world's largest mining companies, the American Smelting and Refining Co. (ASARCO) eventually optioned several claims in the Black Mountain area, and put Oscar and Carl to work driving exploration adits on what was known as the Blue Lead Extension.
By early 1937, ASARCO had decided that there was not enough paying ore to continue their work, and they dropped their options on the Blue Lead Extension property. Oscar and Carl joined forces with Fairbanks hotel owner C.W. Tibbets, miner Chris Elenger and mechanic Doc Cripe, and took an option on the nearby Grizzly Bear claim. They immediately began driving an adit beneath a surface exposure of very high grade gold ore. The following spring, they began building a small mill below the workings. Unfortunately, when their adit intersected the lode underground, the gold grade was too low to mine at a profit. After recovering only 1000 ounces of gold, Oscar and his partners decided to look elsewhere for the elusive yellow metal.
The partners chose the Blue Lead Extension claim as their next prospect. The camp, mill and rest of the equipment was moved from the Grizzly Bear mine to the new site. Adits, raises and stopes were soon developed, but once again, the gold grade was too low and unpredictable for sustained operations. Carl remarked that the employees had made wages, but that he, Oscar and the other three owners did not have enough money left to buy socks. Oscar and his partners decided to cut their losses, and gave up the venture. By this time it was late 1939.
The following summer, Oscar returned to work for Helmer Johnson on upper Cleary Creek. He continued working for Helmer until 1942, when the insatiable demand for metals to fight World War II caused the federal government to issue Executive Order L-208. This order forced the closure of all non-essential mining operations in the United States, including lode and placer gold production in the Territory of Alaska. For the duration of the War, and for two years after the War, Oscar was employed at various jobs by the U.S. Army at Ladd Field (now Fort Wainwright) in Fairbanks. Oscar was a very skillful welder, and he ran the welding shop there, but he could do just about anything, and he was also a talented mechanic and heavy equipment operator.
By 1948, Oscar was back in the mining game in the Fairbanks district, running his own placer gold mine on Chatham Creek. Oscar had formed the Chatham Creek Mining Company with partners Emil Wickstrom and Ragnar Berg, and taken over the claims previously owned by Helmer Johnson. Instead of a bucket-line dredge, Oscar used a dragline for this work. Oscar mined on Chatham Creek from 1948 to 1958, during which time he mined over one and a half miles of creek bottom. Oscar recalls crossing high grade lode veins and shear zones when the workings reached bedrock, most notably the old Pioneer lode. He knew he was approaching one of these leads by noting how the gold grades and the shape of the placer gold changed just downstream from the lode. The Pioneer vein in Chatham Creek had been the site of what was reported to be the first lode mining claim staked in the Fairbanks mining district, the Blue Bell lode staked by John C. Rose on November 24, 1903. By the time Oscar mined the gravels over the lode, the underground workings had been long abandoned, but evidence of the lode miners was remained. The Pioneer vein had been stoped upward until it hit the overlying frozen gravels, the same gravels Oscar mined 50 years later.
During Oscar's stay on Chatham Creek, he also worked on Eldorado Creek, just over the divide from his home on #10 Above Cleary Creek. Oscar's efforts started just upstream from an area that had been dredged previously by the FE Company. Although there was gold in the gravels of upper Eldorado Creek, the pay streaks were inconsistent, and none too rich. Oscar pulled out of this area after just two seasons of work.
After Oscar completed his mining on Chatham Creek, he spent a couple more years placer mining on Ready Bullion Creek on the flank of Ester Dome on the other end of the Fairbanks district. The ground was good, but land status problems prevented Oscar from opening up an area known as the Seattle Bench. Reluctantly, Oscar dropped his leases on Ready Bullion Creek.
During the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Oscar returned to his old diggings on upper Cleary Creek, where he continued to mine using a simple dozer and sluice box set up. He also returned to Chatham Creek, where he applied the same methods to areas that had not been previously mined by dragline during the 1950s. He now owned patented and unpatented claims on both creeks, including #10 Above on Cleary Creek, the first placer claim he had ever worked on. Oscar last mined on Chatham Creek in the late 1970s, and he conducted his last mining on Cleary Creek in the mid 1980s.
After over 50 years of placer mining in the Fairbanks district, and prospecting in the Goodpaster country, Oscar decided to lease his placer claims to "the young bucks" younger miners with the skill and modern equipment needed to produce gold on the third or fourth pass over his claims. In the late 1980s, he leased his claims on Chatham Creek to a "kid" named Andy Miscovich, himself a veteran of 40 years of placer mining. Andy and his sons mined on Chatham Creek into the mid-1990s. During Andy's first season on the creek, he exhumed dredge buckets and other equipment from Helmer Johnson's original bucket-line dredge. Neither Oscar nor Andy saw anything nostalgic about the old dredge parts, they simply moved them out of the way and kept mining.
Oscar and Irene were charter members of the Fairbanks Lutheran Church, and Oscar was the last survivor of this prestigious group. Raised in a very religious home, he always possessed a strong, quiet faith. Proud of his heritage, he was also was a faithful member of the Sons of Norway.
When Oscar was 90 years old, he moved from his long-time Fairbanks home to live with his daughter, Judie, and son-in-law, Chuck Wischman, on Mercer Island, Washington. With seven grandchildren and eight great grandchildren, he spent the next eight years surrounded by love, and in good health. Oscar died peacefully on August 26, 2010, just a couple of months shy of his 99th birthday. His obituary indicated the cause of death as "authentic old age".
Oscar demonstrated to all of us how to be cared for by your loved ones in later life. He never criticized, judged or interfered with others. Oscar was a man of great modesty, and he thanked his family daily for his good life, and was possessed of a wonderful, gentle spirit to the end. His obituary summed up his mining life:
"He fulfilled his golden dreams as an Alaskan Miner."
Compiled by Curt Freeman and Judie Wischman, March, 2012.