Ernest N. Wolff
1919 - 2005
Ernest Wolff circa 1966
Photo from UAF Polar Archive
Ernie Wolff was a notable personality on Alaskas mining landscape for more than sixty years. During this time he prospected, mined, taught, administered, wrote, and served on public bodies, always in his unique style with a kind of gentle truculence. Ernie's style of teaching was pragmatic with few inspiring lectures but a great deal of hands on work. After demonstrating a mining or blasting technique, he expected his students to be able to accurately repeat the performance. Ernie knew all the common arts of mining and, by teaching about them, preserved them for future generations. He was a student of Alaska history and of the lives of the prospectors who found Alaska's wealth. He wrote a fascinating account about one of those personalities, Frank Yasuda, and interviewed countless others. Most of us know something about Ernie Wolff simply because he was a visible part of the Alaska mining scene for so long. But Ernie's easy-going nature masked a much more complex personality than most of us knew.
Ernest N. Wolff was born on April 24, 1919 in the small town of Newport, Minnesota. His father was an architect; his mother was a nurse who put her profession on hold until Ernie, one of three boys, was out of high school. In the early 1930s Ernie and his family moved to northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. This move required Ernie to go south to the Iron Range in order to attend high school. Without realizing it, Ernie's youth exposed him to the true meaning of new wealth: his home was surrounded by farms, lumber operations and not far away, the great Minnesota iron ore mines, which fueled the United States' iron and steel industry vital to the U.S. economy. When Ernie wasn't in school, he worked in the lumber camps and there gained an abiding respect for the loggers as, in his words, "the most honorable profession in the world, next to mining".
When Ernie left high school he attended junior college on the Iron Range for two years. It cost Ernie all of $5 per semester to attend but at the depth of depression, $5 was a hefty investment in education. In 1938 he left junior college to continue his education as a mining engineer at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, then the School of Mines. When asked the all too common question, "Why Alaska?" Ernie said simply that the feeling Go west, young man was still prevalent in people's thinking. Ernie indicated that he was always a bit of a contrarian so going north seemed the thing to do.
Ernie spent $33 on a train ticket to Prince Rupert (which, 60 years after the fact, he still felt was too much) and started north to Alaska. His first summer in Alaska instilled in Ernie a longstanding curiosity which never left him his interest in the history of nicknames. At this time in American history, virtually every male of any repute on the frontier had a nickname and Ernie was no exception to the rule. It seems that before Ernie left Minnesota, some of his logging friends gave him two wool shirts to keep him warm during the cold Alaskan winters. Since it was still the Great Depression and most men in Alaska were lucky to have a single shirt on their back let alone two, Ernie turned out to be one of the better equipped and better dressed men on the job. Ernie's summer job as a laborer on the Alaska Railroad brought him into contact with another Minnesotan who liked fancy belts. In order to separate these two flashy characters, Ernie was given the nickname Shirt Minnesota and the other Minnesotan became Belt Minnesota. From that day Ernie was fascinated by nicknames. He gathered a collection of nicknames and the stories behind them, eventually discussing nicknames and listing some of them in his book about Frank Yasuda.
During the following two years, Ernie finished his degree in Mining Engineering graduating in 1941 from the Fairbanks school. Like many students at Fairbanks during the Great Depression, Ernie was able to attend school because of interest taken and aid given by University of Alaska President Charles Bunnell. Bunnell told Ernie that he could live in an old cabin and even loaned him a claw hammer to pull the rusted hasp. During the summers Ernie worked with the Alaska Territorial Department of Mines. When Ernie graduated in 1941 he landed a job at the newly formed College Observatory where he worked until 1948, eventually becoming the acting director of the facility from 1946-1948.
Ernie reserved his summer times from 1941 through 1950 for prospecting and mining in the Chandalar, Manley, Tolovana, Circle and Koyukuk mining districts. He later maintained that it was during this period that he was introduced to the richest gold placer deposit of his experience. It was at Big Creek in the Chandalar. It was not a particularly nuggety creek but it contained abundant fine gold. Lots of big rocks and a thawed streak down the middle, helped thwart the attempts of early drift and surface miners to remove the gold left buried there. Ernie began to prospect the creek in 1946 with partners Joe Regnier and Vince Magnuson. In 1948 the partners resolved to complete drilling the creek; Joe was to drill and Ernie to help with the drill and pan and keep the records. As summer approached, an incoming plane replenished their supplies and brought an elderly Japanese. Ernie knew immediately that it must be Frank Yasuda, a man that he had heard of often since arriving in Alaska ten years before. Yasuda was called the Japanese Moses because he had led Eskimos from the Barrow region far to the south where he founded the village of Beaver on the Yukon.
Yasuda had been confined to an internment camp during World War II and was but a shadow of his earlier self; nevertheless he was determined to visit a prospect that he remembered from long ago. Franks strength failed and the miners brought him back to camp where they fashioned a camp role. They would take Frank to his prospect and Yasuda would assume the cooking chores. During the long days of summer, Ernie and Regnier learned to love the old man. Both men thought Frank Yasuda was the only truly great man they had ever known. The drilling project was completed in September and the men headed back to civilization. The drill had proved the richness of the placer but it proved too difficult to mine with the small equipment available to ,Ernie and partners.
Ernie also had a notable part of a consolidation of the Chandalar District. Eskil Anderson, a sometimes Territorial Mining Engineer, had been approached by several individuals who believed that the Chandalar District had potential for lode as well as placer gold. Anderson enlisted Wolff's help in the reappraisal of the district. The men slowly gathered up lode and placer prospects that they placed in a corporation, Little Squaw Gold Mines. Ernie was named a Director, serving in this capacity for nearly forty years. When asked about Ernie's involvement in Little Squaw Mines, Eskil maintained that Ernie liked to stay out of the limelight, but was a guiding force in the company's up and down history for four decades. As in most good mining camps, men come and go but the camp lives on, in this case as Little Squaw Gold Mines (now the Goldrich Mining Company), currently a public company based in Spokane that recently resurrected the district and began work anew, taking up where Ernie and Eskil left off.
In the fall of 1950, Ernie arrived in Fairbanks fresh from a summer of prospecting and mining in the Chandalar District. Never much of a temperance leader, Ernie's first purchase, even before he reached his cabin on Noyes Slough, was a case of beer. As he walked down First Avenue along the Chena River he was hailed by another future Fairbanks legend, Captain Jim Binkley of Riverboat Discovery fame. Jim and Ernie were friends and Jim offered a ride in his boat, the Godspeed. When Ernie stepped ashore at his cabin, he paid Captain Jim with the only legal tender he had - a bottle of beer. Captain Jim gladly accepted and thus made Ernie one of the first paying passengers of Captain Jim's long and distinguished riverboat career.
After a decade of prospecting, Wolff decided to build up his geologic skills. In 1951 he enrolled in the first geologic field course offered by the School of Mines. The course was taught in the Bonnifield district south of Fairbanks by Ward Bond and an able staff. (In later years, Ernie taught this course.) Ernie took his wife Ann along on the trip. Anns acceptance as camp cook was gained easily by her delicious blueberry sourdough hot cakes.
Ernie and Ann were childless, but soon decided to adopt. It was a decision he never regretted and recalled with a grin that he could get out of bed, heat water, make a bottle of baby formula for his daughter Libby, change her diaper, feed her and get back in bed without waking up. The vision of Ernie in his longhandles feeding an infant is hard to swallow, but knowledgeable sources assure that his story rings true. Eventually Ernie, Ann and then Wolff's second wife Joanne Redhead Wolff, adopted and raised five children.
In 1957 Ernie admitted to reaching the first of several cross-roads in his life. He realized that he enjoyed teaching and that he needed more education if he was going to advance past the Instructor level. Ernie enrolled at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He bought a house there and moved his family to Oregon. He received his Masters Degree in Geology in 1959 and shortly thereafter moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, where he began teaching at Colorado State University. Ernie pursued his teaching career at Fort Collins, but continued to work on his PhD degree, which he received from the University of Oregon in 1965. During this period Ernie spent the winters teaching and the summers doing field work in eastern Oregon. However, Dr. Wolff longed to return to Alaska. In 1966 his opportunity came: he was offered a research position with the Mineral Industry Research Laboratory (MIRL) of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. His new boss was Dean Earl Beistline, a long-time friend from Wolff's previous involvement at the University. Ernie began teaching and research at MIRL where he became its first Associate Director in 1969, effectively operating the Institute under the general guidance of Beistline. Wolff retained this position until his retirement 17 years later in 1983. Ernie remembered his efforts there as being focused not on new scientific discovery but on practical problem solving for Alaskas mining industry. Even so he recognized that the Alaska placer mining industry had to modernize to operate in the complex matrix of technological advance, political activism and environmental awareness. In 1979, Wolff, Beistline and a few others promoted a Fairbanks-based conference on placer mining that could be sponsored by the Alaska Miners Association. The conference is the forerunner of the biennial conference now held in Fairbanks. Although the conference now emphasizes hard rock, it continues to seek and promote placer mining themes.
The Institute also recognized the coming computer generation when MIRL published Report No. 16 that documented all the mineral resources of Northern Alaska from computer generated files. The study was authored by Lonnie Heiner and Ernie Wolff.
Ernie's landmark publication at MIRL is, however, his Handbook for the Alaska Prospecto. Wolffs Handbook for Alaskan Prospectors stands as a valuable and fascinating contribution to Alaskana containing abundant theoretical and pragmatic material. The book, first published in 1964, is an historical gold mine of practical, common sense prospecting techniques. Further, the book remains a snapshot of a way of life quickly receding into mining lore. Where else can you learn how to read a topographic map, identify minerals by classic means, hard face a pick point in your own forge and construct shelter without hammer and nails? When asked why he wrote the book, Ernie indicated that he felt there was a huge gap between practical mining knowledge and the stuff learned in college. It was his goal to fill that gap for the Alaska prospector. Wolff's book went through two editions and several printings and still retains the original flavor which makes it a must for any collection of Alaskana.
During the early 1970s Ernie not only taught but he encouraged his students to strike out on their own. He, along with geologist Pete Sandvik, were instrumental in helping a young, bold entrepreneur named Lawrence (Lonnie) Heiner and geologists Jeff Knaebel and Eddie Chipp start Resource Associates of Alaska (RAA). Although Ernie doesn't claim much credit for his role with RAA, those of us who worked for the firm know that he was integral to its early survival. Within ten years, RAA was a multi-million dollar corporation that eventually grew into an international mining company.
As time passed, Ernie guided MIRL through the copper craze of the early 1970s, the base metal madness of the mid-1970s, and the gold boom in the early 1980s. Over the years Ernie obtained his Professional Engineer's License, his Professional Surveyor's License and also became a Certified Professional Geologist. But he also witnessed his mining industry become saddled with burdensome regulations, many of which seemed to be designed to prevent mining in Alaska. Ernie decided his time in the driver's seat had come to an end. In 1983 he retired from MIRL and in 1985 was honored with both the School of Mines Outstanding Alumni Award and Distinguished Service Award. Ernie was also named to the Alaska Mineral Commission that had been established by the legislature to recommend policies that would promote the Alaska mining industry.
But retirement only sped up the pace of life for Ernie Wolff. He continued to review placer gold prospects around the state and to act as an expert witness when the need arose. He once cautioned about being overly optimistic by stating
"A pessimist is an optimist with experience."He became a founding Director of Fairbanks Exploration Inc., a local mineral exploration company, and was always an effective and plain-spoken advocate for the Alaska mineral industry. He was an integral force in the Alaskan Independence Party. And above it all Ernie remained a practical, no-nonsense, miner's miner.
A perfect example of Wolff's pragmatic approach came some ten years after his retirement, when an aspiring miner from Texas informed Ernie that he had a new device for recovering fine placer gold, a claim Ernie had heard countless times in his career and one which was usually based on junk science. This particular man wanted Ernie to ship 40 tons of fine gravel from the south bank of the Yukon River just down stream below Coal Creek in the Circle District, a place Ernie knew well from past personal mining experience. The would-be miner was going to ship the gravel to Texas and run it through his fine gold device and see what he got. Ernie thought this idea bordered on daft so he suggested a much more cost effective approach: Ernie would send the man several size fractions of fine placer gold purchased from the local assay company. The man could then spike barren gravels from his native Texas with a known amount of gold, run it through his system, and see what he recovered. Simple, practical, economical Ernie sent the gold. He never heard from the man again.
In 2001 Leslie Noyes, after a decade of active collaboration with Ernie and Dean Beistline, published a history of the University of Alaskas School of Mines. The book titled Rock Poker to Pay Dirt ties the Schools history to mileposts in the history of Alaska itself. Wolff's influence is felt throughout. This book could not have been written without Wolff and Beistline as active collaborators.
Ernie's professional accomplishments, significant as they were, are greatly over shadowed by his human side. Through the good and the bad, Ernie's seemingly endless store of compassion has touched the lives of many people over his long lifetime. Ernie always seemed to be helping someone in need, as illustrated in the following tale.
Early one cool fall morning in the late 1980s, Ernie and the author were heading out to the Cleary Summit area north of Fairbanks to evaluate the underground workings of the old Nordale gold mine. On the way to the mine they stopped at his work shed where he kept the hard hats. He opened the shed door and stepped inside. There, on an old couch, was a rumpled young man, fast asleep. Ernie stopped, looked at the man and said "Hmm, there's somebody on my couch." He quietly retrieved the hard hats and we left the man still asleep. Ernie did not speak of the incident until asked who that man on his couch was. Ernie simply said I dont know. What was obvious to Ernie was that the man needed a place to sleep.
Ernie spent the remaining years of his life actively supporting his life-long loves: his family, the Alaska mining industry and the Alaska he called his home. Ernie passed away in Fairbanks on May 3, 2005 at the age of 86. His rare combination of technical training, hands-on experience and human compassion make Ernie Wolff one of the few men who clearly qualify as an Alaskan "gentleman scientist".
Written by Curt Freeman and Joanne Wolff
Noyes, Leslie M., 2001, Rock Poker to Paydirt: The History of Alaska’s School of Mines and its Successors: University of Alaska Foundation/Press, 712 pages
Wolff, E. N.,1964 (3d Printing 1980), Handbook for the Alaska Prospector MIRL, University of Alaska, Fairbanks
Wolff, E. N., 2000: Frank Yasuda and the Chandalar