JOHN GUSTAVUS (GUS) UOTILA
(1884 - 1973)
Gus Uotila in Montana, 1912
Photo courtesy of Charlie Uotila
John Gustavus Uotila, affectionately known as 'Gus', was born in Finland on January 17, 1884 to Gustavus Uotila and Ida (Niemi) Uotila. Gus first came to the United States in 1904 through New York City. After spending two years in the Cape Cod region, near Fitchburg, Massachusetts, he traveled to Michigan in 1906. Shortly afterward, Gus moved westward to employment in the copper mines of Butte, Montana. At Butte, he met another Finnish immigrant, Miss Aino (Ina) Keturi. Gus and Ina married in Butte on November 9, 1907. In 1912, Gus became a naturalized U.S. citizen in Boulder, Montana
Gus developed an urge to go to Alaska while working in the Butte copper mines, and on April 13, 1913, he arrived in Seward with five other Finns, including his brothers Charles, Oscar, and Toivo. The men, laden with heavy packs, set out for the new placer diggings at Flat on skis. The group followed the old Iditarod trail through Moose Pass, then along Turnagain Arm past the tent city of Anchorage and on to the Susitna River. From there they went up the Yentna, Skwentna, and Happy Rivers to Rainey Pass; and then down the Tatina and South Fork of the Kuskokwim Rivers and on to McGrath and Takotna. From Takotna, the Finnish skiers followed the newly constructed mine access trails in the Kuskokwim Mountains to the mining town of Flat. The trip took just 14 days and the stalwart Finns averaged more than 50 miles a day. Uotila's wife Ina took the 'easier' but more circuitous riverboat route, traveling from St. Michael to Iditarod via the Yukon, Innoko, and Iditarod Rivers.
Gus first worked for Charlie Strandberg for one year as a general laborer at Flat, and observing the need for transport of equipment and supplies in the area, went into the freighting business. Initially operating with four black draft horses, each weighing about one ton, Gus daily hauled goods of all types to store owners and mining companies, including prosperous miners Frank Manley, Tom Aitken, and the Reilly Investment Company. During the winter of 1918, using his team of draft horses, Uotila hauled the 350 ton Beaton and Donnelly gold dredge a distance of three miles from the head of Black Creek to the lower end of the Otter Creek paystreak. Later, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Gus moved many of the houses and business establishments in the Flat townsite, this time with mechanized tractors, so that the renamed North American Company Dredge could mine the ground underneath the structures. When the mining process was completed, the houses and businesses were moved back by Uotila to their original locations. During his freighting career, Gus hauled thousands of cords of wood from outlying areas into the mining camp of Flat. According to John Miscovich, Gus Uotila was universally regarded as the toughest teamster the Iditarod had ever known.
"After hauling wood from Caribou and Montana Creeks far to the north, Gus would unload the four or five cords of green wood, eat supper, and head over to 'Uncle Andrews's card room'; where he would play pinochle until midnight."
Gus and Ina Uotila at the Alaska Steamship
Company Dock in Seattle, Washington, circa 1920.
Gus began the transition from horse to mechanized equipment in 1915, when he bought a 'Clectrac', one of Alaska's first gasoline-powered tractors. The tractor was delivered to Gus via riverboat at Iditarod. Having never driven a tractor before, he set out for Flat with the operator's manual in one hand and the steering lever in the other. Many in Flat were skeptical of this new iron horse. They became even more skeptical when Gus broke his arm and wrist while hand-cranking the little tractor. In subsequent years, Uotila would
In 1932, Gus Uotila began his first mining venture in partnership with John Ogriz on Slate Creek southeast of Flat. Ogriz and Uotilla operated two placer mines on bench and modern stream levels of Slate Creek, using draglines and bulldozers. This placer mining venture operated successfully intermittently until 1951. By this time, Uotila had replaced his burned-out Model T with a Model A, which he used to haul freight into Slate Creek from Flat. It is said that Uotila made the Model A do things on an unfinished road that no one believed possible. During the 1930s, Uotila conducted a winter placer exploration program at Malemute Gulch east of Flat. Each day Uotila would travel back and forth from the exploration site to his home in Flat on 13 foot long, homemade skis made from nearby trees.
In 1937, Gus Uotila and Eric Hard, Ophir's dentist, doctor, barber, and blacksmith, purchased claims from Frank Meyers and began development work on Ophir Creek in the Innoko mining district about 70 miles northeast of Flat. The following year, wife Ina and Gus moved to Ophir from Flat, where both began an Ophir residence that lasted for 27 years. In 1938, Gus and partner Hard brought in a 11/4 cubic yard Northwest model #5 dragline, the first to be used in the Innoko district.
Despite his change of residence to Ophir, Gus continued to be associated with the Slate Creek placer mine in the Iditarod with John Ogriz, and expanded into new areas. In 1939, Gus and Eric Hard initiated a mining operation on Bear Creek in the Tolstoi district in the Cripple Creek Mountains area, where they operated as Hard and Uotila. This partnership eventually broke up with Eric Hard retaining the Bear Creek ground and Uotila keeping Ophir Creek, where Gus mined for many years until the 1960s.
Also in 1930s, Gus Uotila, Charlie Uotila, and John Ogriz, bought the Moore Creek placer mine from Waino ('Billy the Finn') Koskinen. Moore Creek is about halfway between the Ophir and Iditarod mining camps. Elmer Keturi, Ina Uotila's nephew, and Charlie Uotila would assume operations for the partnership. Moore Creek became one of the largest producers of placer gold in southwest Alaska during the mid 1930s to late 1940s. Starting in 1955, Uotila worked placer ground with Guy Rivers and Weldon McIntosh on Emma Creek near Wiseman for several seasons. These latter claims were eventually sold to Andy Miscovich. From 1958 to the early years of Statehood, Uotila also maintained mining interests with Albert Yrjana on Birch Creek in the Ruby-Poorman district. Uotila also had a few placer claims in the Goodnews Bay district that were staked by him during the late 1920s platinum rush into that area. The Goodnews Bay Mining Company later acquired the claims from Gus, and mined them for platinum successfully. Gus Uotila put his personal mark on many interior Alaska mining camps. Besides the typical bunkhouses, blacksmith shop, radio shack, and tractor repair shop, a 'Uotila camp' would also include a Finnish sauna.
Gus Uotila's team of draft horses hauling a 350 ton Beaton and Donnelly gold dredge from Black Creek to Lower Otter Creek, circa 1918. Photo from Bundtzen and others 1992
In 1937, Gus Uotila's nephew Toivo Rosander, born in Finland, came to Alaska from a farm in New Hampshire to help Gus get started on Ophir Creek. Although Toivo had no mining experience, he soon learned the trade and later operated several large and successful placer mines in the Innoko and Tolstoi districts. Toivo is still involved with an on-going placer mining operation with son Ron Rosander and Ron's sons Neil and Kyle on Colorado Creek north of McGrath. In 1939, Gus hired and trained William (Bill) Carlo as a 'rookie' cat-skinner at Bear Creek in the Cripple Creek Mountains-Tolstoi district. Carlo, an Athabascan from Rampart, would later become one of the most well known placer miners of interior Alaska and started a family mining tradition of his own. Apparently, Gus was not only a good miner but was also a generous teacher and mentor.
During World War II, Uotila's by then legendary skills as a master overland freighter were required by the U.S. Army, who awarded him their first contract to haul overland a large shipment to a remote Alaskan site. Uotila's contract instructed him to transport 500 tons of steel landing mattes from Nenana to Galena to be used on a runway of the Galena Air Base, a part of the U.S. Lend Lease program. Because the route included a nearly continuous four hundred and fifty mile stretch of the Tanana and Yukon Rivers, with unpredictable and dangerous ice conditions, many questioned whether it was even possible to complete the effort. Gus Uotila and his crews proved it was possible to routinely transport heavy loads overland and across frozen rivers through innovation and hard work. The ice bridge technologies that were deployed by Uotila to traverse the frequently dangerous, thin ice of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers were some of the first to be used in Alaska. Because of the dangers of going through the unpredictable river ice, the tractors were not equipped with cabs. Two machines did go through Yukon River ice, but there were no fatalities. Uotila's freighting jobs frequently included brother Charlie Uotila, and Elmer Keturi, who accompanied Gus on his many World War II freight runs. Unfortunately, Charlie Uotila 'frosted his lungs' in an extreme cold snap during one of the military cat train ventures, and died of respiratory failure in 1944. Charlie Uotila was one of Alaska's premier dragline operators who routinely completed tractor repairs without benefit of heated enclosures in extremely cold weather. Gus and Charlie had worked together closely as a team for many years. After the war, Joe Fejes would help and befriend both Gus and Elmer Keturi during their overland freight work.
Uotila cat train enroute from Nenana to Galena on the Tanana and Yukon Rivers, late winter 1942-43. Photo from Uotila Family Album
In 1950, Gus Uotila, Elmer Keturi, and others acquired the Taylor Creek placer mine from Nick Mellick Sr. of Sleetmute. During the spring of 1951, this partnership freighted a large mining outfit, including a dragline, and bulldozers from Moore Creek to Taylor Creek via Sleetmute, a distance of nearly 200 miles. This venture, which involved dangerous and unpredictable traverses across the Kuskokwim and Holitna Rivers, required construction of snow dams, and pole and ice bridges. The route from Moore Creek to Taylor Creek is now a RS2477 right-of-way.
Between 1947 and 1953, Gus initiated a placer gold mine venture with Charlie Uotila's son, Eugene, on the South Fork of the Koyukuk River, south of the Brooks Range. Their pioneer winter cat trail, from Livengood to Stevens Village, the Dall River, and finally to the South Fork, later became part of the Dalton Highway corridor that now provides access to the North Slope oil fields. In 1955, utilizing experience gained from Gus, Eugene Uotila, worked for Alaska Freight Lines on a DEW Line (Distant Early Warning) contract, traversed 600 miles of roadless expanse from Fairbanks to the North Slope with a large cat train, more than 30 semi trucks, and 'Monster', a diesel-powered vehicle with 9 foot diameter wheels.
Gus Uotila's winter cat train expertise was again needed by the military during the cold war. In 1956, at the age of 72, Gus was asked by the U.S. Department of Defense to help build a DEW Line station in western Alaska. Gus Uotila and crew first hauled fuel in 55-gallon drums and several large fuel storage tanks from a river landing area on the Holitna River to the future site of the Sparrevohn Air Force Station on the southwest edge of the Alaska Range. During the following summer, Gus Uotila and others built the initial runway at Sparrevohn with D-8 tractors. Supplies and equipment used to build the remote, cold war military base were flown-in, using this runway.
When not busy with his placer mining and freight runs, Gus and wife Ina spent the winters visiting relatives and friends in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, California, and Florida. In 1952, Joe and Claire Fejes, Elmer and Hildur Keturi, and Gus and Aino Uotila helped organize the Fairbanks Folkdance Club. For nearly 30 years, this organization put on dances that celebrated folk dancing culture from Europe to Asia to North America. Gus Uotila finally retired from placer mining in 1965, and he and Ina left Ophir to make their home in Fairbanks. When the Fairbanks Pioneers Home opened in 1967, both were among the first guests to reside there. Gus was an avid card player and his favorite winter pastime was playing pinochle. After retirement, Gus could often be seen playing pinochle at the Pastime card room in Fairbanks.
Cole McFarland, who was born and raised in Ophir, Alaska, remembers Gus as a hardworking miner with a great sense of humor.
"Gus always had time for the younger set,"said McFarland, who would himself excel in the mining business and become president of Placer Dome U.S., Inc. According to John Miscovich,
"Gus was a good dancer and all the ladies wanted him as their dancing partner wherever he lived during his long life."Being extroverts, Gus and Ina held many private get-togethers with friends and family both in and outside Alaska. In a tribute to Gus Uotila, the Pioneers of Alaska Igloo No. 4 wrote:
"Brother Gus was indeed a true pioneer. He was noted for his dependability and his respect for his fellow man can best be stated by saying that his word was as good as the gold that he mined."
Placer miner, cross country skier, overland transportation expert, and outstanding Alaskan citizen John Gustavus Uotila passed away in Fairbanks, Alaska, on February 3, 1973, at the age of 89, after returning home from an evening of pinochle.
Compiled and written by Tom Bundtzen, with contributions by Toivo Rosander, Ron Rosander, and Charles C. Hawley; interviews with John Miscovich, Cole McFarland, Niilo Koponen, Richard Wilmarth, Charlie Uotila, Mark Fejes, and Andy Miscovich; reviewed by Dermot Cole.
Bundtzen, T.K., Miller, M.L., Laird, G.M., Bull, K.F. 1997 Geology and Mineral Resources of the Iditarod District. Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Survey Professional Report 97, 48 pages.
Carlo, Bill, 1988, 52 Years of Placer Mining in Alaska, in, Burton, P.J., and Berg, H.C., eds., Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Alaska Conference on Placer Mining: Alaska Miners Association/Alaska Women in Mining Publication, p. 9-13.
Keturi, Elmer, 1991, Trails and Tailings: Unpublished autobiographic manuscript
Reiss, Marguerite, 1995, Alaska Miners at War-Part IX, Eugene Uotila, in, Stratman, Joel, ed., The Alaska Miner: vol. 23, no. 4, p. 10-11; 13.
Reiss, Marguerite, 1995, Alaska Miners at War-Part XII, Elmer Keturi (in three parts), in, Stratman, Joel, ed., The Alaska Miner: vol. 23, # 7-9, p. 9-18; p.9-12; and p.9-12.
Stewart, B.D., 1937, Report of the Commissioner of Mines to the Governor for the Biennium ended December 31, 1936: Territorial Department of Mines annual report, 67 pages.
Stewart, B.D., 1939, Report of the Commissioner of Mines to the Governor for the Biennium ended December 31, 1938: Territorial Department of Mines Annual Report, 63 pages.
Unauthored, 1967, J.G. Uotila Application for Fairbanks Pioneers Home, 2 pages
Unauthored, 1972, State of Alaska, J.G. Uotila, Application for eligibility in Alaska Longevity Bonus Program, one page.
Uotila, Eugene, 1973, Obituary of John Gustavus (Gus) Uotila, Pioneers Home Igloo #4, Fairbanks, 2 pages.
Williams, J.A., 1960, Report of the Division of Mines and Minerals for the Year 1959: State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources annual report 80 pages