Wesley Earl Dunkle

(1887 - 1957)

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Wesley Earl Dunkle was known to his old and close friends as Dunk or Bill. To his family, he was Earl. He was born in Clarendon, Pennsylvania in the spring of 1887. Earl was raised in nearby Warren when his father, attorney John Wesley Dunkle, was elected county attorney and moved to the county seat. The Dunkle family were English speaking Pennsylvania Dutch-Germans who immigrated to the new world in the 1730's. Earl attended public schools in Warren and graduated with honors from Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University in 1908. Shortly after graduating from Yale, he read of the Guggenheim plans to build a railroad to tap rich copper deposits in Alaska's Wrangell Mountains. He resolved to go to Alaska, and arrived in August 1910.

His first position was at the Guggenheim's Beatson Mine on Latouche Island in Prince William Sound. By December 1911, he was promoted to field engineer. In that position he had two main jobs, first to examine mining properties for Stephen Birch and the Guggenheims; second to undertake geologic studies at Birch's Kennecott mines in the Wrangell Mountains.

In the first of these jobs, Dunkle traveled throughout Alaska, also the western coast of Canada. At Kennecott, Dunkle worked on the origin of the rich copper ore and strongly advocated the acquisition of the Mother Lode, the deep continuation of the bonanza lode. In the 1920's, Dunkle returned to project examination, but managed development operations for the Guggenheims at Mt. Eielson near Kantishna and at the Mabel mine in the Willow Creek district.

In 1929, Kennecott sent Dunkle to Africa to look at new mines for possible purchase. He was there for almost a year, and recommended several properties.

Dunkle left Kennecott in 1930 to open the Luck Shot mine on behalf of Pardners Mines of New York. The mine had been destroyed by fire and had to be completely rebuilt. Dunkle had a salary and a share of the profits. In the winter of 1930-31, Dunkle opened the Lucky Shot as the first year round modern operation in the Willow Creek district. His faith in Lucky Shot was warranted. The average grade of ore in its first three years of operation never was less than 2 ounces of gold per ton, a rarely duplicated grade.

Each day a small but efficient mill with gravity, flotation, and Deveraux cyanide circuits recovered about 100 ounces of gold, sufficient to make Luck Shot the second or third largest lode gold mine in Alaska and one of the largest in the United States.

Usually with some backing from Pardners, Dunkle embarked on a whirlwind of activities in the early 1930's. He opened the Golden Horn lode mine and the Willow Creek placer in the Flat district, as well as developing the Parks mercury mine on the Kuskokwim.

He prospected as far north as the Brooks Range and used a long time Kennecott friend, Bert Nieding, to examine prospects in southeastern Alaska. His crews drilled placer deposits at Circle and in the Yentna district. In 1936, he began to develop the Golden Zone lode on the south flank of the Alaska Range near Broad Pass.

Pardners left Alaska in 1938, but Dunkle and local Alaskans kept the Golden Zone project going and opened a placer mine at Caribou Creek in Kantishna. Golden Zone aimed at self-sufficiency. Most of the power needed for the mine was generated by hydroelectric systems of Dunkle's own design.

Shortly after opening the Lucky Shot in 1932, Dunkle began to develop a latent interest in aviation. With Steven Mills, Charley Ruttan and Jack Waterworth, he formed Star Air Service; Dunkle was chief shareholder and later was president of Star Air Airlines, its successor. Star is the direct ancestor of Alaska Airlines.

Dunkle was also a skilled and adventurous pilot, who established several records, including fastest time between Seattle and Anchorage. Star also successfully freighted a bulldozer over the Alaska Range, another first.

Dunkle was the main mover and shaker behind the plan to connect Lakes Spenard and Hood to provide adequate room for sea plane take-off and landing at Anchorage. An incentive might have been the fact that he crashed in a Travelaire on an attempted takeoff, when the plane hit a tree.

Dunkle's timing at Golden Zone failed with World War II. The mine was undercapitalized and then was closed as a gold mine by War Production Board Order L-208. For his part i the war effort, Dunkle immediately opened up a coal mine north of Golden Zone and shipped bituminous coal to the military bases in Anchorage. An attempt to re-open Golden Zone immediately after the war with Thayer Lindsley's Venture Co. failed largely because of economics of the time.

In the late 1940's, a once wealthy Dunkle occasionally worked as a coal miner in his own mine and held on to what was left of his mining empire. Gradually recovering economically, Dunkle briefly worked for the Corps of Engineers before starting his last mining venture.

The venture was a coal field at Broad Pass. Dunkle invented a coal drier to upgrade the lignitic coal. He died on the trail in October 1957, while prospecting for his coal venture.

Dunkle established two families. His first wife, Florence Hull, was an adventurous 1908 Oberlin who taught school throughout the west before moving to Cordova and employment as Stephen Birch's secretary. The Dunkle sons, the late John Hull and William (Bill) were born respectively in 1915 and 1917. The Dunkles lived in Washington, Alaska and Idaho. Florence Hull Dunkle died in early 1932, just as the Lucky Shot was attaining success.

Earl married Billie Borthwick Rimer, whom he had met in Africa, in 1935. Billie was an honors graduate of St. Andrews in Scotland and earned a Ph.D. in biology at the University of Cape Town, studying under famed scientist Lancelot Hogben. A son, Bruce, was born to the Dunkles in 1937. Billie was a much more aggressive person than Florence; in the early 1950's, Dunkle commuted between Alaska and Washington, D.C.. A long time Mt. McKinley area acquaintance, Bradford Washington, encouraged Dunkle to record his life and adventures in Alaska. Dunkle wrote Washburn several long and interesting accounts of his own exploration work near Mt. McKinley. Washburn, in turn, lined up a publisher for Dunkle. But the Broad Pass coal field took precedence to the proposed story. Only pieces of his story were written.

After Mr. Dunkle's death, Billie reorganized and managed the Broad Pass coal project, obtaining aid from Goodnews Bay Mining Company, and tried, unsuccessfully, to elicit interest in Golden Zone. The Dunkle mining presence, more than half a century in Alaska, finally ceased with the death of Billie in 1962.

By Charles C. Hawley, 1999.


Hawley, C. C., Wesley Earl Dunkle: University of Alaska Press; 2003.

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