John Calvin "Jack" Boswell


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photo of Jack Boswell

Jack Boswell, undated
Photo: John Boswell

John C. "Jack" Boswell was born in Vale, Oregon on August 19, 1905, the son of John Boswell and C'Ceal Johnston. He spent his formative years working on the family's placer gold mine in Mormon Basin County in eastern Oregon, on-the-job training that would be put to good use in Jack's adult life. He attended the University of Oregon for two years, then sold the gold extracted from a designated cut on his father's placer mine, and used the funds to book passage to Seward, Alaska. By June 1926, he had taken the train to Fairbanks, arriving nearly broke. Through the only two family friends that he knew in Alaska, Jack got a summer job with the Fairbanks Exploration Company (FE), owned by mining giant United States Smelting Refining and Mining Co. (USSR&M).

Jack's first job began at McPike's camp at the confluence of Gilmore and Pedro Creeks near the site of the first discovery of gold in the Fairbanks district. When Jack's seasonal job ended, he enrolled as the 119th student at the new Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (now the University of Alaska). Jack's college career was a full one: he was a star member of the college basketball team, Business Manager of the Collegian, the college's publication, and he spent many nights cleaning the facilities of the new school as part of his work study program. On one memorable field trip to Healy in 1928, Boswell proved to be an able if not inspired cook, assisting Dean Patty with the course of ham - there were no vegetables on that trip. Jack's sisters, Marion and Katherine, followed him to Alaska, and also attended the University of Alaska.

Jack continued to work as a general laborer for 'Aunt Effie' (the FE Company) in the summers of 1927 and 1928 while he finished his college degree. He went to work full time for the FE Company after graduating with his Bachelors degree in Mining Engineering in 1929. Hs first permanent position was Thawing Assistant at the Chatanika operations on lower Cleary Creek. He held the entry-level rank of Junior Engineer. A year later, his talents already apparent, he moved up to Hydraulic Superintendent at Chatanika.

Jack's involvement with the fledgling college in Fairbanks did not stop at his graduation. He remained an active supporter of the college's alumni association, and was the President of the Alumni Association when it instituted the drive to change the college's name to the University of Alaska in January 1935. Jack authored two letters to the college trustees, one of whom, George Lingo, also served in the Territorial House of Representatives. Mr. Lingo introduced House Bill 97 that same year providing for the name change. The bill passed both houses easily and on July 1, 1935 the name was officially changed to the University of Alaska. Jack continued to take courses despite the ever-increasing demands of work. Jack eventually completed his formal education by taking a professional degree of Engineer of Mines in 1942.

Jack's professional career spanned a period of rapid technological growth in Alaska's mining history, and his career with USSR&M spanned virtually the entire operating history of the Fairbanks Exploration Company. During almost forty years with the company, Jack rose through the ranks from laborer to Fairbanks District Manager. Only the post of General Manager eluded him, essentially because the position was phased out with the retirement of Jim Crawford in 1965 and the closure of the major dredge operations in Fairbanks.

A seminal moment in Jack's life came when he was promoted to Superintendent of Hydraulics for the new Ester district operations in 1934. The Ester operations were a new start-up for the company, and presented numerous engineering and management challenges for Jack and his co-workers. The same era initiated a change in Jack's personal status. On May 19, 1934, Jack married Jewell Gladys Booth, and they moved into what was known as the McQuarrie cabin on Ester Creek. While they lived in the McQuarrie cabin, Jack and Jewell became first-time parents, a set of twins named Marion L. and John W. who were born on May 26, 1935. In 1937, the McQuarrie cabin was razed to make way for the dredge. Jack helped the FE Company move the old Ester schoolhouse, which the Boswells renovated, and where they lived for much of Jack's career. It was while living at the old school that their third child, Robert B., was born on May 26, 1938. Jack always attributed the coincidence of birth dates for his children as a function of good engineering!

photo of Jewel and Jack Boswell on hunting trip

Jack and Jewell Boswell on a hunting trip near Fairbanks.
Photo from the Boswell family collection.

Jack's time at Ester (1934 - 1946) introduced him to nearly every aspect of sub-arctic dredging, and prepared him well for the years ahead. On the deep Cripple pay channel Jack had to deal with muck up to 187 feet thick overlying gravel as thick as 167 feet. Jack was instrumental in helping the University of Alaska's legendary Otto Geist collect voluminous Pleistocene mammal bones from the thick frozen muck which rested on the pay gravels in Ester. Under the general leadership of Roy Earling, Jack was in day-to-day charge by 1938, when the giant Bucyrus-Monigham walking dragline was installed to strip the upper low-grade Cripple gravels. The dragline, a veritable behemoth, weighed 1.5 million pounds and swung a 12 cubic yard bucket on a 165 foot boom (the booms used on the large machine are sometimes stated as 150 and 200 foot). The bucket weighed 10 tons empty, and carried up to 30 tons fully loaded. It was one of the largest draglines in North America when it began operations at Ester.

By 1940, Jack and his fellow employees at FE Company had increased their presence in the Fairbanks district to what was to be its all-time high. The FE Company was operating 8 dredges, which in aggregate were processing an amazing 75,000 tons of gravel per day, while stripping operations were removing frozen muck at a rate of 175,000 tons per day. This peak level of production was maintained until October of 1942, when the War Production Board banned all non-essential mining, including the dredging operations of the FE Company. Although the dredges went silent, Jack continued to advance the science of cold regions dredging during the hiatus in operations, which lasted from October 1942 until the end of 1945. Jack and Roy B. Earling, then Vice President and General Manager of Alaskan Operations for USSR&M, conducted a series of tests in an effort to build a mechanical point-driving machine. Hand point driving was laborious and slow, averaging only 10 feet of advance per day in the permanently frozen overburden covering gravels in Fairbanks and in Nome, the site of the company's other operations. The result of these tests was a simple, robust, combination rotary and percussion drill capable of driving points to a pre-determined depth. The point-driving machine was one of Jack's proudest achievements, and helped the company resume profitable dredging after the war when manpower was scarce.

Partly as a result of Jack's efforts during the war years, he was promoted in 1946 to Superintendent of Stripping and Thawing, and then in 1951 to Assistant Manager of Fairbanks Operations. This position lasted only one year, after which Jack became the Manager of Fairbanks Operations, a position he held from 1952 until his retirement in 1965. Within five years of assuming the top operating position at Fairbanks, Jack, working closely with his old friend and associate Jim Crawford (FE's General Manager), increased the FE Company's activities to seven dredges - pre World War II levels. It was also during this period that Jack became part of several historic events in Alaska.

photo of Jack Boswell and associates in front of dredge

USSR&M pioneers R.H. Ogburn, James Crawford, Southal Pfund, and John Boswell in the Fairbanks district, date unknown.
Photo from Boswell (1979).

The first came in 1954, when Jack was asked to bring a new dredging operation to life at Hogatza River in north-central Alaska. Several creeks in the Hogatza River basin had been prospected by the company, starting in 1939. These promising prospects were left undeveloped until late 1954, when Jack and his son Robert, accompanied by Crawford, hitched a plane ride with Alaskan flying legend Sig Wien. Their goal was to determine how to get a dormant dredge in Livengood moved to the Hogatza River site. They chose a route, and in early 1955 began a two and a half year effort to bring the Hogatza River dredging operation to production. Jack completed numerous trips to the site over the pre-production period, solving numerous logistical and engineering challenges before the dredge started producing gold in May 1957. The Hogatza operations continued for 18 consecutive years until finally shutting down in 1975. Jack's descriptions of the challenges faced and overcome at Hogatza River show that the project held a special place in his memory.

One of Jack's most notable successes came in early 1958, when it was time to move the Dredge Number 6 from the mined-out Gold Hill area a distance of 7.3 miles to a new dredge site on Sheep Creek. Dredges had been moved before, and Jack would eventually participate in all six of the company's dredge moves. But it is clear that Jack was most proud of the Dredge Number 6 move, because it in this move that he took the most active role. The move required the use of three D9 Caterpillars, ten D8s, three HD20 Allis Chalmers, and two HD19 tractors. Jack and lead move engineer Richard Ludwig rode on the bow deck of the dredge and used telephones to direct the four lead tractors. After a series of false starts and minor mechanical mishaps the dredged moved the required distance in a mere four and a half hours.

A less impressive, but equally memorable event occurred under Jack's watch on the evening of April 27, 1959. An ice jam occurred in the rock chute of Dredge Number 2 on Fairbanks Creek. The rock chute was where oversized rocks were directed to prevent their jamming the stacker belt at the rear of the dredge. Instead of clearing the chute with a metal pole as was the normal custom, the deck-hand on site tied a stick of dynamite to a willow pole and detonated it in the rock chute. In Jack's own words:

"This was done at 6:00 PM and the dredge was on the bottom of the pond at 7:00 PM."
The spring run-off prevented repairs on the dredge until the rate of water flow into the pond could be controlled by pumps. Pumping was started in early May, but it was not until June 10th that the pond was down to a level where repairs could begin. Repairs included patching the hole in the hull, repairing numerous electric motors which pulled a total of 509 kilowatts of electricity, correcting a bend in the massive digging ladder and washing the accumulated mud from the inside of the hull. The repairs themselves were a major engineering challenge, but the dredge started operations again on September 18. It is a tribute to Jack that in his account of this expensive fiasco he never mentioned the name of the guilty deck-hand who was responsible for the sinking.

In 1955, Jack was chosen to serve as a delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention, a body of civic and business leaders in Alaska whose job it was to draft the constitution for the soon-to-be State of Alaska. Jack's talents were quickly recognized, and he was appointed Chairman of the Resources Committee. He also served on the convention's Executive Committee. Those portions of the Alaska Constitution dealing with natural resources have stood the test of time, further attesting to Jack's versatile talents. Earlier, he was known for his athletic talents as a member of the collage's basketball team; he continued his interest in athletics as the founding President of the Midnight Sun Baseball League. Always supported by his family, and especially by his wife Jewell, Jack was very active in the civic affairs of Fairbanks. Jack was President of the Central District Republican Committee in 1959, and became the President of the Fairbanks United Way drive in 1960.

While Jack's many achievements were well known to his family and his contemporaries, his accomplishments and those of the FE Company might have been lost to history if Jack had spent his retirement years at his favorite pass-time, fishing. Fortunately for us, prior to his death in 1978, Jack wrote a detailed history of the Alaskan operations of USSR&M. His 1979 posthumous publication History of Alaskan Operations of United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company was published by the Mineral Industry Research Laboratory at the University of Alaska and remains one of Jack's most enduring legacies. This summary, from which much of the above information was drawn, spans a time period stretching from horse-drawn scrapers and rocker boxes to 12 cubic yard electric drag lines and giant floating dredges. From 1928 to 1964, Jack's efforts helped the company produce $125 million worth of gold (about 3.5 million ounces). Perhaps even more impressive were the engineering challenges that men like Jack Boswell faced and surmounted. It is difficult to reduce Jack and his company's efforts to a few terse lines, but a single fact brought out in Jack's history of the Alaskan operations of USSR&M stands out as one of the brightest stars in Alaska's glorious mining history: the efforts of the FE Company in the Fairbanks district, spanning almost 45 years of exploration, construction and operations, resulted in the company recovering about 8.5 percent more gold than their drilled reserves indicated was present. Even in today's computer driven era this is an astounding achievement that has seldom been equaled and most likely will never be surpassed.

By Curtis Freeman and Robert Boswell, 2007


Beistline, Earl H. 1979 "Preface" in John C. Boswell cited below.

Boswell, John C., 1979, History of Alaskan Operations of United States Smelting, Refining, and Mining Company. Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Mineral Industry Research Laboratory

Noyes, Leslie M., 2001, Rock Poker to Pay Dirt. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Foundation.

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