Roy B. Earling


photo of Roy Earling

Roy Brown Earling's heritage on his father's side was recent German immigrant, and on his mother's it was many generation American. Roy's father, Herman B. Earling, was one of a family of fifteen boys who grew up in the Milwaukee area of Wisconsin. The Earlings were railroaders near the heyday of the American Railroad. In their case, the railroad was the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul, often called the Milwaukee Road. Roy Earling's father was a vice-president. One of his uncles was president. Perhaps Roy Earling's precision engineer side was influenced by these men: men who were proud of their engineering feats and timely schedules, monitored by the round gold watches that all railroaders carried. Roy's mother, Edna Brown, descended from an old politically connected American family that was proud of its pre-revolutionary war status. Symbolically Edna's father was named George Washington Brown.

Roy Earling was born in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on May 29, 1887, the first of two Earling sons. Because of his father's position with the Milwaukee Road, he grew up under comfortable circumstances. The circumstances may, however, have declined to some extent in Roy's early childhood. In 1893, the price of silver, the hope of the Populist west crashed and America was thrown into a depression. Western railroads, with a direct connection to western farms and ranches, suffered also. The depression was, however, short lived, in part because of new gold discoveries in the far north. Gold was struck on the Klondike in 1896 and at Nome in 1898. These discoveries and the related publicity, which reached every corner of the world, could well have stimulated Roy's desires to study mining. In about 1904, Roy enrolled in the excellent mining school at Houghton, Michigan. He graduated with B.S. and E. M. degrees from Michigan School of Mines in 1908.

Michigan copper had at last been displaced by Butte copper, but the great Michigan copper mines, some more than two miles deep, were still in production. With this copper-rich background it was perhaps inevitable that Roy's first post college jobs were in the copper industry. His first job was as a sampler in the Great Falls (Montana) Reduction Works of Anaconda Copper Mining Company. From Montana, Roy worked successively as an engineer for the Superior and Boston Copper Co., and as geologist for the properties of the Ray Central Company in Arizona. While at the Ray Mines, Roy and an associate found an important new ore body. The ore body was so good that it enabled the company to sell the mine, and Roy found himself without a job — the cost of success. Loss of employment was only temporary as Earling then joined Arizona Copper Company, Ltd. where he was first chief engineer for a new smelter, then mine superintendent.

World War I intervened in Earling's mining career. Roy was drafted in 1917 and assigned to the field artillery. He never left the states but served in Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Ft. Lewis, Washington, where he was discharged with the rank of captain. The Washington location was significant in another way. On New Years Eve 1918, Earling attended a dance at the Rainier Club in Seattle where he met Mary Louise Gazzam, a lively local girl who had grown up on a family homestead on Bainbridge Island. Mary was well educated and had her own scientific interests. She had graduated from Smith College with a degree in botany. Mary was ten years younger than Roy, but the gap in age proved to be no barrier to romance, and Roy and Mary were wed in 1919.

Roy returned briefly to Arizona, but late in 1919 he accepted a headquarters position with U.S. Smelting, Refining, and Mining Company (USSR&M) and the Earlings moved to company headquarters south of Boston, Massachusetts. The Earling's two oldest daughters, Mary Lou (born in 1921) and Nancy (1923) were born there. At Boston, Earling helped plan the acquisition of Alaska claims which had been stripped of their high grade ore by the underground drift miners, but left with abundant "dredge gold". Roy's next few years were devoted to the solution of problems associated with dredging of frozen ground, in the footsteps of Wendell P. Hammon and Norman C. Stines.

Wendell P. Hammon took the first giant steps in the recovery of gold from frozen ground in Alaska. His engineering company experimented with thawing beginning in 1919. In 1923, Hammon bought the Alaska rights to the cold-water-thaw process invented by John Miles. Hammon also bought claims and water rights and prefabricated two large dredges at his shops in California. Hammon opened the first large thaw fields and shipped the boats to Nome. But the thawing was incomplete and the operations faltered. Hammon was a great miner overextended, and he was forced to sell a controlling interest in the Nome operations to USSR&M, whose management believed that the problems that had deterred Hammon could be solved.

Roy Earling, followed quickly by his young family, went to Nome in 1924 as part of a five man USSR&M team led by Fred Mulock. The team's assignment was to solve thawing and other problems of the dredge fields. About two years later with technical solutions well advanced, Roy was moved to the new operations at Fairbanks, initially as assistant manager of ground preparation. In 1928, shortly after the birth of his youngest daughter, Barbara, in 1927, Roy was named Manager of the Fairbanks Exploration Company (FE Company) operation, under USSR&M General Manager O. J. Egleston, who had general supervision over both Nome and Fairbanks.

Roy's tasks at Fairbanks were daunting. Norman C. Stines, associate of Hammon, had put the Fairbanks project together and had calculated the capital cost to construct the Fairbanks project at more than $10 million, a very large investment in those times. Stines ultimately was proved to be half right, costs were about $28 million - an enormous, high-risk investment in its day. World-renowned placer experts such as Charles Janin were still convinced that the Alaska frozen ground placer operations envisaged by Stines would fail. But under Earling the technical problems were solved and by the early thirties it was clear that the mines would be profitable. Profitability was enhanced in late 1934 when the gold price was advanced to $35 per ounce. In 1935, Earling was named General Manager of all USSR&M's Alaskan operations, including the Hammon Consolidated Dredging in Nome and FE Company in Fairbanks.

The dredge fleet expanded under Earling. When he took over in Fairbanks, there were three dredges in operation; by 1930 there were five, a total that held until 1936. From 1940-1942 eight dredges were in operation in Fairbanks and after 1935, Roy also had the responsibility for the three boats at Nome. It was widely held in the mining industry that the pre-World War II operations of USSR&M in Alaska among were the best and most efficient placer mining operations in the world, and Earling could take much of the credit for their efficiency.

The development of the deep Cripple placer deposit near Ester, Alaska, took place under Earling's general planning and supervision. It was the most complex operation attempted at Fairbanks and ranks with the great operations of the dredging world. The project developed a channel related to an ancestral Ester Creek, possibly an alluvial fan formed below ancestral Ester, Ready Bullion, and Eva Creeks. The deposit was discovered in 1933 during a deep drill campaign near Ester. Drilling found that the gold-bearing gravel section was thick, as much as 167 feet, and that it was overlain by muck, some thawed, some frozen, at least 100 feet thick. To further complicate the picture, the deposit was old enough, geologically, to have been deformed by folding and faulting.

The development of the deposit finally involved hydraulic removal of the muck, dragline removal of the upper and lower-grade part of the gravel section, freezing of potentially unstable high walls of the stripped section, and construction of a new dredge at Cripple. For mechanical stripping, the FE Company purchased a huge Bucyrus-Mangham dragline, one of the largest in the United States at that time, which alternately dug with 12- and 20-cubic yard buckets and 150- and 200-foot booms. The machine weighed more than 750 tons; its electrical motors generated about 1,000 horsepower. Earling oversaw this project from its inception in 1933 into a period of successful mining that began in August 1940.

The complexity and infrastructure needs of the entire project are rather difficult to conceive of today. FE generated its own electricity in a plant built in 1928 (and sold to the Golden Valley Electric Cooperative in 1954), annually maintained the Davidson ditch, and pumped hundreds of millions of gallons of water, some from an extensive facility on Chena Pump Road.

The pace of Alaskan gold operations increased throughout the 1930s, the period of Earling's management at Fairbanks and Nome. By World War II, Alaska was producing almost 750,000 ounces of gold per year, or approaching the maximum produced in the early 1900s from high-grade, virgin fields. The dollar total was greater, however, because of the increased gold price. The mining industry was a substantial part of Alaska's economy and was the lifeblood of Alaska's two largest cities, Fairbanks and Juneau. It supported Nome and was a surprisingly large part of the economy in Anchorage.

During this period Earling's dredge fleet was a significant factor in insulating Alaska from the worst of the Great Depression. As described by Alaska pioneer author Robert H. Redding, most of the jobs available in Alaska were seasonal beginning with breakup in April and lasting until freeze up in the fall. Roy and his senior engineer's jobs were permanent but the companies's seasonal jobs were attractive and sought after. According to Redding,

"The F. E. Company had great bunkhouses and mess halls. Those who hired on with F. E. counted themselves lucky."
Even today the number of workers employed at that time in Fairbanks would appear significant. During 1935 the company employed 355 men on an average basis and had a peak of 903 during the active mining pre-season. By 1940, the average was up to 500 and peak was 1163. Additional hundreds of USSR&M employees worked the Nome operation.

World War II caused drastic changes. In the fall of 1942 most gold mines were deemed non-essential to the war and were closed by order L-208. During the war, the FE Company furnished valuable material support to the war effort: tractors, shovels and draglines were taken over by Army or Air Force as were the big shops in Fairbanks and Nome. Sometimes knowledge of local conditions was as important as material objects. Earling and N. W. Rice, who had been with USSR&M longer than most, picked out locations for the runways at 26 Mile Field, which would later become Eielson Air Force Base.

As the war's end neared, Earling realized that the economy would never return to pre-war conditions. Men, in the hundreds, who had been glad to drive thaw points during the depression would likely find more gainful employment. Less labor-intensive mechanically assisted point driving had long been considered, but the impetus of war's end and an anticipated labor shortage in the post war period triggered new work on the project. Earling worked closely with Jack (John C.) Boswell on the development of mechanical thaw point driving.

After the war, James D. Crawford picked up much of the direct responsibility for dredge management, with Roy remaining as General Manager and Vice-President of USSR&M for Alaska operations. Earling retired in June, 1952. On June 16th, Roy was honored at a banquet attended by FE Company employees and Fairbanks civic leaders. At the banquet, James Crawford told of Roy's technical career. Other speakers from the broader Fairbanks community, including Dr. Paul Haggland and Leslie Nerland, past chairs of the Board of Regents of the University of Alaska, lauded Earling's community involvement, an involvement that also included Mary. Roy was active in three Masonic organizations, and also in the Alaska Miners Association, and AIME. Mary was a charter member of the Fairbanks Branch of the American Association of University Women and offered much of her time to American Women's Voluntary Services.

During Roy's operational tenure in Fairbanks, he was interested in and encouraged the recovery of Pleistocene vertebrate fossils from the muck that overlay the gold placers. Otto Geist of the University of Alaska and his associates became very familiar figures to the miners as they extracted fossils from the muck. A baby mammoth in almost perfect condition was given, at Roy's request, to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Hundreds of specimens graced the museum at the University of Alaska.

photo of earling and eisenhower 1947
Roy Earling with Dwight Eisenhower during the general's visit
to the Fairbanks district in 1947. Photo from Boswell (1979).

After his retirement from USSR&M, Roy and Mary Earling moved into a long owned second home on Bainbridge Island and Roy opened a consulting business in Seattle. His involvement with Alaska was, however, not over. In April 1954, Secretary of Interior McKay appointed a four-man committee, three from outside the agency, to study all the Department of Interior operations in Alaska and to make recommendations that would improve the agencies' economy and efficiency. Earling was elected chairman of the group by its members. Roy maintained his Seattle consultancy until 1959 when age began to take its toll. Both Roy and Mary continued to enjoy life in their retirement years near Mary's girlhood home. Roy Brown Earling died on Bainbridge Island, Washington, on December 14, 1964.

Earling is sometimes remembered by his nickname, Little Napoleon, inspired by his compact stature and quick and incisive command. Co-directors at USSR&M remembered his detailed and imaginative engineering, his meticulous planning of operations and his untiring efforts, all of which contributed to the companies success in Alaska. His friends and family knew a different person who was fascinated by photography, painting, and family genealogy, as well as geology. He had a wry sense of humor that was appreciated by Mary and his daughters. When Barbara was away at school her dad sent dead mosquitoes by mail to remind her of the joys of summer solstice in Fairbanks; earlier, he once promised her that she could keep a gold bar from the furnace room if she could lift it and put it in her pocket. Roy's son-in-law Jim Ellis, who married Mary Lou, Roy and Mary's oldest daughter, characterized Roy as an able, loyal and honorable man.

By Charles C. Hawley, Mandy Lindeberg, and Nancy Earling Allen


Allen, Nancy E., oral and written communications, 2004

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

Crawford, James D., 1965, "Roy B. Earling, An Appreciation [obituary]" Mining Engineering, March p 99.

Ellis, James, Ellis-Earling Family. A family genealogy, particularly notes and narrative text abstracted by Mandy Lindeberg, daughter of Barbara Earling Lindeberg.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner "Earling to Head Study." Fairbanks Daily News-Miner 3 April 1954. __________, "Farewell Dinner Honors Roy Earling, Retiring Engineer." Fairbanks Daily News-Miner 18 June 1952

Redding, Robert H., "Depression Left its Mark on Alaska" Fairbanks Daily News-Miner 1992 May 3.

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

USSR&M. "Resolution of the Board of Directors" 11 June, 1952

__________, "Fairbanks Exploration Goes to War" Alaska History V10, 1995, no 1(spring)

Top of Page