James Donald Crawford


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photo of James D. Crawford
Photo courtesy of Sarah Crawford Isto.

James (Jim) Crawford came to Alaska in 1928 with a mining degree but with scant experience in his chosen field. After his graduation from college in 1926, Jim gained some experience in the oil industry by installing oil tanks and burners, the only job that he could find. Two years later, he was promised a job in a gold mine at Chisana, Alaska, but the job evaporated as Crawford was in transit. On his arrival in Seattle Jim found a part time position with Kristofferson's Dairy and visited mining company offices during his off hours. Finally the Seattle representative of the Chisana Mining Company, perhaps feeling some responsibility, found Jim a job at the hard rock copper mines at Kennicott. Arriving in Alaska in 1928, the young engineer planned to stay for only a short time, perhaps two years, to gain practical experience that he could use elsewhere. He left thirty-eight years later, sometimes jokingly saying that he was a "slow learner".

James Donald Crawford was born on April 11, 1904 in Houston, Texas to James M. and Pearle Crawford. He grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, where his father was a station agent for the Wells Fargo Company. Crawford's interests in the fields of geology and mining had been triggered early in life. Young Jimmy Crawford, slightly built and short for his age, was fascinated by the rare and valuable rocks that are known as ore. He learned that such rocks yielded the lead that made Missouri a major mining state and the gold that was still being minted into $10 gold pieces as he grew up. By his high school years, Crawford knew that he would seek and develop metals, but not as an unschooled prospector. James planned to attend college to learn geology and the technology of mining. It was a step forward for the Crawford family. Except for a distant great aunt, who later was a teacher and author, Jim was the first child in the extended Crawford family to attend college. He inspired his younger brother, Earnest Augustus, and his own daughters to do the same.

Perhaps fortuitously for Crawford an appropriate college was close at hand. Missouri had been mining territory since the early 1700s when French traders and their Indian partners began to exploit rich deposits of lead. The lead industry flourished and, in part to support it, the Missouri School of Mines was founded at Rolla, a site about 100 miles from Jim?s home in St. Louis. By the 1920s, the school was the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy. Crawford graduated from Rolla in 1926 with a Metal Mine Engineering degree in a less than propitious time.

Although some segments of the economy flourished in Crawford's college years mining did not. The copper industry had barely recovered from the great production years during World War I and the copper price was not stable. Gold was little better. The price of the yellow metal had been pegged at $20.67 an ounce nearly a hundred years before. Costs had risen sharply in the same period and there was little incentive for gold miners. Nonetheless, James Crawford followed his boyhood ambition and became a mining engineer and a geologist. Alaska afforded him the opportunity to follow his dream.

Jim's first mining job as a mucker and trammer in the underground copper mine at Kennicott, Alaska, paid $4.50 per day less $1.45 for board and $0.08 for hospital insurance. As Jim's daughter Sarah Isto writes, Jim had never worked as a miner, but he felt he would be closer to professional opportunities in a tunnel near McCarthy, Alaska,. than he had been greasing trucks at a dairy in Seattle. Within a few weeks, his first professional opportunities appeared when a company surveyor and then an assayer quit. His quite junior professional position as assayer paid $175 per month and included a small private attic room in the staff house at Kennicott.

Although the gold price was fixed and relatively deflated at the time, Crawford trusted it more than the fluctuating price of copper, and he sought gold mine opportunities in the territory. In May 1929, he accepted a job with U.S. Smelting, Refining, and Mining Co. (USSR&M) in the gold mines at Fairbanks, Alaska. After that Crawford's entire career was with USSR&M.

Crawford's first assignment for the USSR&M's Fairbanks division, the Fairbanks Exploration (FE) Company, was in the Chatanika deep placer where he worked to develop techniques and equipment for stripping and thawing of overburden and gravel. Although cold-water thawing had been in use for nearly ten years at Nome, Alaska, the technology was still not perfected. Spacing and pattern of the points driven to thaw the gold-bearing gravel still had to be optimized for Chatanika and the rest of the Fairbanks district. Furthermore, there were sixty or so feet of frozen muck and silt to strip before the gold-bearing gravel section could be thawed and mined.

photo of crawford with horse
James Crawford at the Walker Fork, 40 Mile mining district, 1933
Photo courtesy of Sarah Crawford Isto.

Shortly after Jim arrived in Fairbanks he met Alta Tanner. Like Jim, Alta had come to Alaska in 1928 for a short time, in her case a one-month visit with her cousins Audrey and Claire Stanfield. Within twenty-four hours, however, Alta had found a job with the Alaska Road Commission that paid about three times as well as her job in Oregon and she decided to stay, a decision which Jim evidently approved. Jim also earned Alta's approval. Alta's father had lost their family ranch by ill-founded speculations on wheat futures, and his instability led to her parents' divorce. In Crawford, Alta saw a professional man of good character who was careful, if not frugal, with money. Moreover, Jim was gallant and had a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor that was appealing. On March 27, 1930, after a four-month courtship, Jim married Alta Tanner at St. Mathews Church in Fairbanks. The newlyweds moved into a three-room cottage about three-quarters of a mile from the F E Company office. In the meantime Alta's Stanfield cousins had married two of the Loftus brothers, engineers who had attended the Alaska College of Mines and Agriculture. In 1931, Jim and Alta Crawford visited in-laws in Oregon and found the Great Depression in full control of the economy. The sharp reality of the visit ended any thought of what they assumed earlier was a short apprenticeship in Alaska.

crawford panning for gold
James Crawford at Jack Pot Gulch, Chistochina district, July 1936
Photo courtesy of Sarah Crawford Isto.

In 1932, Crawford left field and research work on stripping and thaw fields to take charge of a two-man, Mineral Exploration Department for F E Company. Although he had other assignments with the company during the next few years Jim was involved in exploration and early stage development of properties from 1932 to 1941. Jim examined hard-rock and placer properties in the Chulitna, Circle, and Kantishna districts, the Ebner mine at Juneau, and prospects at many other localities. During this time, the F E Company created a rarely equaled series of maps and reports on both placer and hard rock deposits in Alaska and the adjacent Yukon Territory. Crawford played a major role in this effort. In 1934, Jim was transferred to the Engineering Section where he was in charge of surveying and mapping as Chief Office Engineer, F E Company. In that position, he gained a detailed knowledge of the mining properties of the company, knowledge fully used after World War II.

In 1936 prospect drilling was added to Crawford's portfolio. Prospecting work was expanded in 1937 and, under Crawford, the company evaluated prospects at many localities including the Circle and Iditarod districts in Alaska and Mayo and Clear Creek districts in Yukon Territory, Canada. The work identified two properties, Chicken in the Fortymile of East-Central Alaska and Hog River (Hogatza) in the Koyukuk River basin of northwest Alaska; both would become FE Company mines. It can be argued that if World War II had not changed domestic mining forever, Crawford?s work on both placer and hard rock deposits would have allowed company expansion instead of the attrition that it suffered after the war.

Hogatza ultimately proved to be one of the longest lasting of any of the F E dredge operations, staying in production from 1957 until 1975 or for 18 consecutive years. The new Alaska Gold Company, successor to the FE Company, would again operate the Hog River dredge from 1980 to 1983. After purchase by Taiga Mining Company of Anchorage, the dredge would again operate from 1990 to 1996. The detailed work at Hogatza began in August 1939 when Crawford met prospector-frontiersman Jimmy Huntington at the mouth of the Hogatza and together they visited Bear Creek and other tributaries of the Hogatza. The preliminary results were sufficient to justify an exploration drilling campaign under difficult winter conditions. Drilling began in October 1939 and continued into the summer of 1942 when most gold operations were stopped by War Production Board Order L-208.

During World War II, the Crawford family left Alaska for company headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah where Jim became assistant geologist to the USSR&M mines that produced copper, lead, and zinc, then deemed of major strategic importance to the war effort. Although nominally working for the parent USSR&M, the moving expenses and salaries of Jim and about fifteen key Alaska employees were paid by the F E Company. The Fairbanks subsidiary wanted assurance that a professional workforce would be available to return to Fairbanks on a few weeks notice as soon as L-208 was revoked. Some restrictions in the order were lifted in the spring of 1945 and in March 1945 Crawford returned to Fairbanks to a new assignment.

On his return to Alaska, Jim Crawford was named Fairbanks Dredge Superintendent, effectively in charge of the mines under the general supervision of Roy Earling. Crawford put the big boats back in production. Between 1945 and 1958 several of the Fairbanks dredges, each weighing about 1000 tons, were shuffled in a dramatic fashion so they could operate in the richest or most favorable creeks: In 1947 Dredge No. 5 was moved from Upper Cleary Creek to Eldorado, then in 1955 to Dome Creek. In 1949, Dredge No. 2 was moved from Lower Goldstream to Fairbanks Creek, and in 1952, Dredge No. 6 was moved from Ester Creek Gold Hill; and finally in 1958 from Gold Hill to Sheep Creek.

Crawford himself moved quickly and decisively. As a manager of men he respected the skilled men, the electricians, dredge masters, mechanics, pattern and die makers, miners and the other men who implemented the work, but he was not a back-slapping type. In Crawford?s era, good relations between management and labor were purposeful and respectful. His role model may have been Roy Brown Earling, likewise a man small in stature, but with abundant self-assurance.

In 1950, Crawford became Manager of the Fairbanks district. In 1952 long time general manager Earling retired. Crawford was then named Vice President and General Manager of all Alaska operations including the USSR&M operations at Nome. Although the big dredge operations were feeling the pinch of the fixed gold price and post World War II inflation, Crawford believed that new fields of sufficient grade could still be opened.

The pre-war drilling at Hogatza north of the Yukon had identified a relatively small but good grade deposit in Bear Creek. In 1954, Crawford pushed for the development of a dredge operation there. In anticipation of an operation, the F E Company bought the government Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC)-owned equipment at Livingood, which included a diesel-electric dredge that would be ideal for Hogatza. In April 1955, Crawford accompanied by Jack Boswell and Carl Johnson, returned to the Hogatza district where they located mining claims and water rights. The Livengood dredge was dissembled and the move to Hogatza began in the summer of 1955. Jim was on hand for the first clean up from the operation in 1957. About at the same time, Crawford also advocated a dredge operation in some good ground at Chicken in the Fortymile district. The installation at Chicken needed another dredge move; Fairbanks No. 4 was moved from Pedro Creek to Chicken where it operated until 1967.

During the post-war years Jim and Alta Crawford expanded their interest and support of civic and mining affairs, especially at the University of Alaska. Jim was active in the Alaska Miners Association and both Jim and Alta participated in AIME programs. A more social life was necessary with Jim?s promotion, and Alta graciously housed and fed a stream of visitors to the Alaska operations at the manager's house on Illinois Street in Fairbanks. It was a far cry from the little company house that Jim and Alta shared during the summer months during their earlier years with the company. The earlier house was built on a tailings pile and was equipped with cold running water and outside plumbing.

Although the Chicken and Hogatza dredges remained in production for a few more years, the post-war economy and the $35 dollar/ounce price for gold at last caught up with the major dredging operations. The company made every effort to continue the operations cost-effectively but finally the big boats shut down. From a post-war high of seven dredges in 1957 and 1958, only two boats operated from 1961-63 and dredging at Fairbanks ceremonially ended aboard Dredge 10 on July 10, 1965. Crawford and his efficient staff had extended mining of $35/ounce dollar gold as far as possible.

In 1966, Jim retired and the Crawfords moved to Des Moines, Washington. Jim returned to Alaska as a consultant for a couple of years but 1966 marked the end of his Alaska managerial life. Jim?s knowledge of gold placer mining, however, was still of value in some low cost areas of the world. Jim, accompanied by Alta, took his knowledge to placer mines in Brazil and Columbia. In 1979 Jim returned to Alaska where he was honored by a Distinguished Service Award from the Alaska School of Mineral Industry.

Jim Crawford died in Des Moines, Washington, on May 19, 1994. During his last years Crawford abandoned consulting to devote himself to Alta?s care. Jim was followed by his beloved wife in January 2001.

Jim Crawford was not a large man, but he was strong and wiry. At Kennecott in 1928, tough hard rock miners learned that Crawford, strengthened by competitive wrestling, could muck along with them. In the succeeding thirty-eight years, many Alaskans learned to respect the quiet humor, intelligence, and inner strength of Crawford.

By Charles C. Hawley and Sarah Crawford Isto, 2004


Beistline, Earl H., 1979, "Citation." On granting a Distinguished Service Award, School of Mineral Industry. Fairbanks, University of Alaska

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

Crawford, James D., 1979, "Dope Sheet." Notes supplied to the School of Mineral Industry, University of Alaska

Isto, Sarah C., 2007, Good Company: A Mining Family in Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Press: 254 pages.

Spence, Clark C. 1996, The Northern Gold Fleet: Twentieth-Century Gold Dredging in Alaska. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press

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