James M. Davidson

(1853 - 1928)

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photo of James Davidson
James M. Davidson, taken in San Francisco, California, circa 1906.
Photo courtesy of Diane Strauss.

When James M. Davidson, who studied civil engineering at the University of California, arrived in Dawson City, Yukon Territory in 1898, he had already had about a quarter-century of civil engineering and mining experience in his native California. Davidson was born at Ft. James, Siskiyou County, California, on December 3, 1853, three years after his father, William, a native Virginian, had arrived by crossing the plains from Indiana. William was satisfied with life as a farmer, but James M. Davidson was a restless and observant man, quick to perceive and understand problems and devise solutions.

Davidson attended the University of California, where four of his friends were James Budd, later governor of California, and mining or metallurgical experts, Professors S. B. Christie, George C. Edwards, and Henry Webb. After leaving the university in the mid-1870's, Davidson returned to Siskiyou County and was elected County Clerk, serving for four years. He also filled non-elective posts in the clerk's office and, at the same time, mined on the Klamath River. A period of ill health led Davidson out of mining work into farming, and endeavor that he periodically returned to throughout his life.

Like many other Americans, Davidson was virtually wiped out in the financial panics of the early 1890's, and came north after the Klondike discovery to recoup earlier prosperity. As a trained civil engineer with a mining background, Davidson was much better prepared than most of the stampeders. He crossed Chilkoot Pass into the Yukon early in 1898, but since he did not approve of either Canadian law or Canadian mining methods, he left for the Alaska Territory. Davidson mined on Mastodon Creek in the Circle area in the fall and winter of 1898. He learned about the discovery at Nome indirectly through a letter from Magnus Kjelberg, part of the Swedish community on the Seward Peninsula, to one of his friends at Circle. Davidson embarked for Nome on the first riverboat of the 1899 season, and arrived in Nome on the 4th of July. He used the last of his available funds to buy a lot to pitch his tent. On July 10, Davidson set up the first surveying transit in Nome. With another engineer, George Ashford, Davidson soon had a thriving surveying and engineering business in Nome. In a surveying related venture, Davidson and B. D. Blakeslee produced and sold Map of the Nome Peninsula in 1900.

As the camp exploded, thousands of men and women packed the beaches and backwaters at Nome, which led to serious sanitation problems. Quickly recognizing the serious water quality problems in the crowded camp, Davidson located the Moonlight Springs water rights on September 25, 1899. The pure water springs were developed by Davidson partly with an investment from the Pioneer Mining Company of the "Three Lucky Swedes" - Lindeberg, Lindblom, and Brynteson. Moonlight Springs water is still used in Nome.

Davidson was active in both the technical and promotional parts of large-scale placer mining in Alaska. His work and plans were critical to the development of large-scale mining at both Nome and Fairbanks. By 1901, Davidson noted the scarcity of useable water at Nome for mining, then entering a large-scale hydraulic mining stage, and devised and planned a solution. In association with W. L. Leland and W. S. Bliss, Davidson formed the Miocene Ditch Company and began construction of the Miocene Ditch, a major engineering and construction feat. The ditch extends from the Nome River, just below Buffalo Creek, to Anvil Creek and the Nome coastal plain. The ditch divides north of King Mountain; the east fork diverted water into Dexter Creek, and the west fork furnished water to upper Snow Gulch and, through an 1800 foot tunnel, to Anvil Creek. Construction, managed by Davidson, started in 1901, and the ditch was complete and in operation by 1904. During the same period, Davidson assisted Leland and Bliss with successful mining operations.

Davidson spent many years investigating mining opportunities. He visited every placer mining district then known in Alaska. Both Davidson and Norman C. Stines believed that the Fortymile district could support dredging operations, but neither man could obtain financing for the project. Meanwhile, the government was slowly building the railroad that would make Fairbanks relatively accessible and Davidson renewed work at Fairbanks. In 1821, Davidson had conceptually outlined a plan for bringing water to Fairbanks for large-scale dredge operations. After meeting with Norman C. Stines and agreeing to cooperate in the redevelopment of the district, Davidson conducted initial field surveys of a major water diversion-supply system for the Chatanika drainage north of Fairbanks. He maintained an interest in Nome, where Hammon and Stines were assembling dredge properties that would use Miocene Ditch water. Davidson told Stines that a ditch similar to Miocene, but somewhat longer, could bring water from the upper Chatanika to Fairbanks. Davidson calculated water flow, studied the ground conditions, and staked out a ditch route nearly 100 miles long. He then obtained mining options and water rights for the project. In 1923, Davidson convinced Stines and U. S. Smelting that water could be obtained from the Chatanika system and that with cold-water thawing, dredging would be feasible. Once convinced, Stines, his assistant Crosby Keen, and Davidson held fast on the Chatanika option. As built, the Davidson Ditch had 83.3 miles of earthwork section, 6.1 miles of inverted siphon, a 0.7 mile long tunnel, and about 0.4 miles of pen stocks and flumes. Abundant water for cold-water thawing and the reasonable freight rates that followed the completion of the Alaska Railroad made large-scale dredging possible in the Fairbanks district.

James Davidson died in northern California in 1928, and is buried in Fort Jones, near Yreka. He was never able to see the famous waterworks that bear his name.

By Charles C. Hawley


Boswell, John C., 1979, History of Alaskan Operations of United Smelting, Refining, and Mining Company: University of Alaska Mineral Industry Research Laboratory Special Publication, 126 pages.

Cole, Dermot, 1999, Fairbanks - A Gold Rush Town That Beat the Odds: Epicenter Press, Inc., 224 pages.

Deyo, Margaret C., 1925, Waste Gold: A Story of the Second Coming of a Camp: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, December 24, 1925 edition (also republished in Boswell above).

Green, Lewis, 1977, Nome River Water Control Structures: U. S. Bureau of Land Management, Alaska Open File Report 62, 45 pages.

Spence, Clark C., 1996, The Northern Gold Fleet: Urbana / Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 302 pages.

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