John Joseph Mulligan

(1917 - 2012)

portrait of John Mulligan

John Mulligan, undated.
Photo credit: Mulligan family album

John was born in Woodbury, New York on February 28th, 1917, the oldest of three brothers and a sister. His father and mother (Matthew Mulligan and Bridget Duffy) were both born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States as adults. John learned to shoot, hunt and fish as a child and continued to put game and fish on the table into his 80s.

Early Years

He started a life-long career in mining as a helper for two miners blasting a road cut at the age of twelve in 1929. During and after high school, he worked at farming, trapping, well drilling and construction. In 1937 he began underground work as a mucker and a driller on tunnels, dams and mines in the Northeastern and Southern states, Alaska and California. That is what brought him to Alaska in 1941 to work on driving the Whittier Tunnel. As John told me, he spent his first night in Anchorage, sleeping on a bar room pool table as there were no beds available due to the large influence of workers related to the military build-up prior to World War II. On leaving Alaska that fall, he worked on the Shasta Dam project just prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

World War II

John enlisted in the Army Engineers in 1942. Following scant basic training and a great number of tests, he found himself in the Army Air Corps taking a crash course in weather station construction. This was immediately followed by promotion to sergeant in charge of building weather stations at bomber training fields in Iowa and South Dakota.

When the weather stations were operational, he was sent to Colorado for Arctic Training before being sent to various locations in Greenland. Here amongst other things, he was placed in charge of a weather station near Egedesminde. These weather stations, which transmitted daily weather observations, were critical to the Allies in the war effort. Weather patterns which hit the west coast of Europe passed over Greenland in route and the stations could be used to predict these weather movements. The Germans also knew this and had their own weather stations on Greenland. Several were captured by the Allies. This station also had a search and rescue team, including 20 dogs to help rescue downed airman flying between the U.S. and Europe. While in Greenland, he learned the Eskimo language and some of the skills of the traditional Eskimo hunters from the local elders.

Even though the war ended in 1945, John was left in charge of the stations until the following fall, as he was the only person who could speak in the Greenland Eskimo and Danish languages well enough to train local weather observers.

John was discharged in 1945, and the following year, enrolled under the GI bill in the Missouri School of Mines in 1946, graduating in June of 1949 with a degree in Mining Engineering. To supplement the GI benefits, he worked as a cave guide in the nearby Onondaga Caverns.

Bureau of Mines Years

In 1970, John became chief of Field Operations for the Bureau in Alaska, based in Juneau. A major Bureau responsibility was to gather and present data on mineralized areas in Alaska to the public. Congress and land managers used this mineral data to support the land decisions mandated by the Native Land Claims Act (ANCSA) and the Alaska National Interest Lands Act (ANILCA).

To improve upon this data, a series of mining district investigations were started by the Bureau. The Bureau was eliminated as a Federal agency in 1996. However due to the efforts of Senator Ted Stevens, the program was transferred to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) until 2007, when the program was terminated. This project resulted detailed mineral resource studies in 14 districts in Alaska, adding considerable information to the Alaska minerals database. John worked extensively with the Alaska Delegation and especially Senator Stevens to help secure funding for these studies. The Bureau always had close ties with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. John was always an advocate in funding mining-related research projects at the University. This included helping to fund fieldtrips trips and work on the Fairbanks permafrost tunnel.

sampling material in Antarctica

Mulligan at work sampling materials in Antarctica
Circa 1960

Retired Life

John was always a strong, independent advocate for mining: during his career in the Bureau, he started by being investigated by Senator McCarthy and ended up opposing some of the policies of both the Carter and Reagan administrations. After retirement in 1985, John travelled extensively, developed an interest in genealogy and wrote biographies for the Miner's Hall of Fame. He remained fiercely independent, doing solo winter car-camping trips, solo boat trips and cross-country driving trips into his 90's.

In 2005 John was appointed a Director Emeritus of the Alaska Miners Association and became a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, the Elks Club, and the Cosmos Club of Washington, D.C. The Cosmos Club honors persons deemed to have

"done meritorious original work in science, literature, or the arts, or... recognized as distinguished in a learned profession or in public service".
Members have included three U.S. presidents, Supreme Court justices, Nobel Prize winners, and recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

John passed away in 2012, just two weeks before his 95th birthday. He is survived by his five children, Mat, John, Margi, Jean and Jan, six grandchildren and many great-grandchildren.

A Remembrance — Joe Kurtak

I was fortunate enough to come to work for the Bureau of Mines in 1980 while John was still at the helm. I was immediately put to work leading a team doing a mineral assessment of the Prince William Sound area of the Chugach National Forest. For a boy who grew up in land-locked eastern California being around small boats and big water was a real eye opener.

It was during that summer that I first met John. He came through on a project tour with the Washington crowd including the then-Director of the Bureau.

I was impressed that he would take time to come visit the troops in the field. I also became quickly aware that John was not just another desk jockey Federal Bureaucrat, but had spent a lot of time in the field in Alaska and knew much of its geography and mineral deposits. These "punishment tours" as some called them, impressed upon the Washington crowd the difficulties and special needs for fieldwork in Alaska.

I met John at several meetings over the next few years. One highlight was during a meeting break, him demonstrating to us the technique of rolling a kayak Eskimo style.

I tracked John's field projects all over Alaska through reading his numerous well-written and informative reports. He was an excellent technical writer and I learned much him about brevity and summarizing one's thoughts into something the reader could understand. I have to say that I stood on his shoulders using his work as the basis for many of my projects with the Bureau.

A Remembrance — Travis Hudson

I was a young geologist working with Pete Sainsbury on the Seward Peninsula when I first met Johnny Mulligan. It was at a meeting and Johnny was gracious and friendly. We met again at meetings over the years and he was always that welcoming and friendly guy. I felt like I knew him better than one would expect from casual conversation in meeting halls. And in a way I did. You see, I followed in Johnny's tracks through many mineral deposits on Seward Peninsula.

Johnny went to the field with equipment, real equipment like churn drills and dozers. I personally benefited from his skills with a dozer at many deposits. His dozer trenches at places like Potato Mountain and Ear Mountain are still the best surface exposures at these mineralized areas. At Ear Mountain he went a step further. There he thawed out the ice-plugged Winfield shaft and got underground to map and sample the short cross cuts and winze. To this day, his map, measurements, and sample results from underground at Ear Mountain are the only data we have on the interesting base-metal and tin mineralization exposed in these workings.

The tin mineralization at places like Potato Mountain and Ear Mountain was on Johnny's extensive project list because of his career-long commitment to helping us understand our countries strategic mineral inventory.

Fortunately, he was not content with getting the fieldwork done and always followed it up with the timely publication of his observations, maps, and sample results. His 1959 Ear Mountain report is an example with tables and maps to carefully and completely record his field observations and sample results. His publications continue to be valuable resources for anyone attempting to understand and explore the mineral deposits he examined.

I was fortunate to know Johnny and to benefit from his extensive work on Seward Peninsula mineral deposits. Later in his life I was able to thank him personally for his many contributions and for his help. For that's what his work was too me over the years — it was like he was sitting there next to me helping. I am grateful for this opportunity to acknowledge and thank him again.

Written by Joe Kurtak and Travis Hudson

Mulligan at camp in the cold place

John Mulligan at his field camp in Antarctica investigating coal resources
circa 1959

Top of Page