Earl Richard Pilgrim

(1892 - 1987)

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photo of Earl Richard Pilgrim

Earl Pilgrim, circa 1976.
Photo taken by Frances Nodler Bundtzen.

Earl Richard Pilgrim was born on September 11, 1892, in the mining town of Durango, Colorado. His father, Harvey A. Pilgrim, was an underground shift boss at a Durango gold mine and an accomplished mechanic. His mother, Emma Jane, wanted her son to be better educated than she was. Earl attended grammar school in Minneapolis, Minnesota before finishing his high school education at Broadway High School in Seattle, Washington. In 1911, Earl entered the University of Washington (UAW) College of Mines, where he graduated with a Bachelors degree in Mining Engineering in 1916. During his college years, the innovative engineering student developed a method to extract silver from silver bromide solutions used in photography, and managed to pay for most of his college tuition and other educational expenses by selling the recycled silver. He later sold the patented process to the George Eastman-Kodak Company, and received a small royalty for many years afterwards. During his freshman and sophomore years at UAW, Pilgrim worked during the summers as a general laborer in the Coeur d'Alene silver mines in northern Idaho.

During his third year at UAW, Earl Pilgrim journeyed north aboard the Alaska Steamship Company steamer Alameda to seek summer employment with the Alaska-Treadwell Gold Mining Company (Alaska-Treadwell) in Juneau, Alaska, which, at the time, was mining one of the largest gold deposits in the world. There were actually four mines: Treadwell, 700 Foot, Mexican, and Ready Bullion that were known collectively as The Treadwell Mines. When Earl signed up at the Employment Office, no one asked about previous experience, martial status, or age. About 95 percent of the Treadwell employees were single, a deliberate policy adopted by Alaska-Treadwell, because if there was an accident or a death, company liability was minimized. Because of training received at UAW, Earl was appointed Captain of the Mexican Mine first aid team, which took first place in the annual safety competition held during the 1915 4th of July celebration. On the same day, he also won a 22 lap, two-mile-long distance race, despite competition from the company favorite, James Dermody. Unknown to the surprised race officials, Pilgrim was ranked as the second fastest long distance runner in the Pacific Coast Conference. At the Treadwell races, he received $100 in gold coins for both events, a good sum of money at the time, especially for a student. As he would relate in the Alaska Journal,

"There was a friendly atmosphere (at Treadwell), quite different from the miners' attitudes toward college kids I encountered in the Coeur d'Alene mines of Idaho."

pilgrim and group at 4th of July contest

The Mexican Mine first aid team in the 4th of July contest, 1915. Pilgrim is pictured at lower left.
From Pilgrim (1975).

After graduating from UAW, Earl worked mines in Idaho and British Columbia. In 1918, he resigned from his position as chief mining engineer with the Silver Hoard mine in Ainsworth, British Columbia, Canada, and enlisted in the Special Volunteers, 27th Mining Regiment of the U.S. Engineers. This unique U.S. Army unit was assembled to drive tunnels in the Alps. He was sent to France, but the unit was recalled at the end of the WWI without seeing military action. Upon his honorable discharge, he resumed his profession as a mining engineer in Idaho, Nevada, and British Columbia mines. In 1922, Pilgrim was superintendent of a zinc oxide smelter of the National Lead Company in Harbor City, California. It was at this time that Earl made a lasting friendship with Morris P. Kirk, of Morris P. Kirk and Sons, a subsidiary of National Lead.

In the fall of 1922, Dr. Charles E. Bunnell, President of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (pre-University of Alaska) in Fairbanks, offered Earl Pilgrim a teaching position, and he was one of the first six professors hired by the institution. Bunnell was acting on a strong recommendation made by Milnor Roberts, Dean of the School of Mines at the University of Washington. Under those pioneering conditions, Pilgrim initiated, designed, and conducted offerings in the mine engineering curriculum, and coached the first University of Alaska basketball team. He remained at the University of Alaska for four years, but quit after having a falling out with President Bunnell.

For the rest of the 1920s, Pilgrim worked mines in the Fairbanks area. He joint-ventured with O.M. Grant at the Grant hardrock gold mine on Ester Dome. Ultimately, the partnership was not a success and the mine would eventually end up in litigation. In 1928, Pilgrim picked up an option on the Newsboy underground gold mine near Cleary Summit, and mined the property on a small scale for three years, even making a small profit for his hard work there. During this time, Earl was also a consulting mining engineer and many of his clients were small Fairbanks area companies. The USSR&M Company was busy acquiring and consolidating hundreds of placer mining claims throughout the Fairbanks district for its dredge fleet. Pilgrim advised smaller claim holders on how to deal with the large Boston-based corporation. At times, his recommended actions for his clients were not always appreciated by USSR&M, but his qualifications as a good mining engineer were never questioned.

In 1931, Acting Territorial Mine Engineer Benjamin D. Stewart appointed Earl Pilgrim a member of his staff in charge of hardrock (lode) examinations for the Alaskan Territory. At the same time, Stewart hired Irving McK. Reed, who was placed in charge of placer mine evaluations. Although Pilgrim's employment was to last for only four years, the job as a territorial mine inspector gave Earl the chance to see many places in Alaska. During his first year, he visited prospects and mines in the Kantishna district of the Mount McKinley Region, the Nuka Bay district of Prince William Sound, the Bremner River district in the Copper River valley, and prospects on Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula.

In 1936, Earl Pilgrim formed a mining project that would consume much of the remainder of his life. The Stampede antimony deposit in the Kantishna mining district west of then Mount McKinley National Park was first developed in 1916 and again in 1926, when high antimony prices sparked interest. The original Stampede discovery consisted of a spectacular surface vein exposure of nearly pure stibnite (antimony sulfide) 26 feet wide. Although significant amounts of antimony had previously been mined in the Fairbanks and Nome districts improved mechanized surface access and the use of aircraft allowed for more remote sites like Stampede to be developed.

Pilgrim bought out the Kantishna old-timers Taylor, Trundy, and Drayton, and shipped out a small amount of high-grade stibnite ore with tractors during the winter of 1936. Because of capital needs that were beyond his means, Pilgrim sought the financial support of Morris Kirk of Morris P. Kirk and Sons, Inc., whom he met in California years earlier. Kirk was initially skeptical because of its remote location, but agreed to consider financing the Stampede project only after he personally inspected the property. In 1937, Kirk and Pilgrim rode in on horses from the Alaska Railroad near Healy to Stampede, a trip that took about four days, due to problems with river crossings and wetlands. However, after inspecting the site and workings, Kirk gave Pilgrim an initial go-ahead. He insisted, however, that Earl ship out 500 tons of stibnite ore to railhead by December 31 of 1937, if he was to provide further capital for the project. On December 20th, Earl wired Kirk:

"550 tons of ore are waiting at the Lignite railhead. More to arrive. Please advise."
Kirk agreed to finance the operation. Pilgrim and his crews had handpicked high-grade ore that was easily recovered and shipped it to railhead at Lignite. Earl began construction of a simple but effective gravity concentrating mill in 1938 and by 1939, could mill lower grade ores to produce a high grade stibnite concentrate suitable for overland shipment. Until the late 1940s, most of the stibnite concentrates were hauled to railhead during winter cat train runs.

stibnite ore shipment near Rex

Shipment of stibnite ores arriving at Railhead, near Rex, circa 1938.
Photo from Bundtzen (1978).

The summer of 1938 found Earl managing the Stampede operation, and frequently traveling to Fairbanks for supplies. Because he was not able to contact a plane to fly him out, Earl decided to walk the 60-70 miles from Stampede to Mount McKinley Park station and catch a train to Fairbanks. It was on this journey where he met his future wife, Mariette Shaw, who was working at Park Headquarters as a waitress. She recalled:

"I thought he (Earl) was kind of nice. He gave me a wonderful tip!"
Mariette had planned on moving to Fairbanks to finish up a business degree, but her life changed when Earl decided to come to Fairbanks with her. Later that year, Earl and Mariette were married on Thanksgiving Day in Anchorage. Mariette, like Earl, was a free spirit and pioneer of the times. Raised on a homestead in Idaho, she became educated as a teacher and taught school in Bear Creek and Silver City, Idaho, and in Bend, Oregon. From there, she jumped a ship to Juneau, where she began a research project that led her to eventually publish the first history and geography textbook used in the Alaska School System. Mariette Shaw Pilgrim's textbook, Alaska: Its History, Resources, Geography, and Government, which was finally published in 1954, is still available for purchase on some bookstore websites. In the mid-1930s, Mariette moved on from Juneau and got work in a cannery in Cordova, spent time in Circle and in several villages along the lower Yukon River, and finally ended up at McKinley Park headquarters where she met Earl.

Despite the initial successes at producing antimony, the Stampede mine was not a long-term financial success for its backer, Morris P. Kirk and Sons, Inc., (Morris Kirk) and the mine closed down with the onset of World War II, in late 1941. Morris Kirk lost interest in the property and negotiated a sale with Earl Pilgrim, and permanently withdrew from Alaska in 1943. For most of the 20th century, antimony was considered a strategic mineral due to its uses in war industries and the large offshore dependence by US industry. The antimony price, however, had always fluctuated widely due to supply shortages and subsequent gluts caused by rapidly changing market and supply conditions. Earl Pilgrims's role expanded as the eventual property owner, and Mariette became camp cook, dishwasher, clothes washer, postmaster, and sometimes placer gold mine operator on Stampede Creek.

In 1941-42, the Pilgrims mined placer gold in Moose Creek, which is just over the hill from Stampede. But, due to the adverse effects of manpower shortages (caused by the second World War), Mariette and Earl moved to Anchorage in 1944. He worked as an engineer for the Federal Government, and Mariette worked at Fort Richardson as an information officer. After the cessation of World War II hostilities, Earl returned to Stampede, but Mariette did not go with him. Suffering from arthritis, she did not want to return to the hard life at Stampede. Instead, she lived alone, first in Anchorage and later in Fairbanks, while Earl still was trying to make Stampede a success. After working for two years as a school principal, she became the first woman district superintendent in Alaska, and provided oversight for Fairbanks area schools from 1948 to 1951.

After World War II, while Mariette was living in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Earl was busy at Stampede. Single engine NoresmanTM aircraft were used to haul out small lots of stibnite, but Earl decided to make air transport more efficient. In 1947, he obtained a lease from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to build a 4,000 foot long runway on the floodplain of the Clearwater Fork of the Toklat River, about two miles from the Stampede Mine camp. Earl finished construction of the lengthened runway in 1949, and ore shipments using C-46 aircraft from Nenana commenced. This effectively ended the need to transport stibnite ores with winter cat trains.

In 1952, Mariette retired from the school district, Earl closed down the Stampede Mine, and both headed south to Seattle. But Earl couldn't stay away from Stampede, and soon returned to the mine. Mariette and Earl divorced in the mid-1950s.

Pilgrim managed to make intermittent shipments of high-grade stibnite ores and concentrates from the late 1940s to 1970, which was Stampede's last year of production. The more or less biannual production of ore and concentrates ranged from 26-120 tonnes, which would be considered modest under most measures in the mining industry. Nevertheless, during its productive years, Stampede was the only steady source of antimony located in the United States. In fact, until antimony production was initiated during the 1980s at a larger scale Nevada operation, Stampede was the largest American supplier of the strategic metal. Buyers from Texas, Illinois, Florida, Oregon, and Maryland, and from such international locations as Rotterdam, Germany, India, Japan, and South Korea knew that they could obtain a small but reliable supply of low arsenic stibnite concentrate from a steady Alaskan producer: Earl Pilgrim at Stampede. Because of his honesty and dependability, Earl held the position of Vice President of the American Antimony Association for many years.

Over the years, Pilgrim's relationship with the nearby Mount McKinley National Park was cordial. Earl was a friend to Park Superintendent Grant Pearson, who helped Pilgrim obtain necessary leases and right-of-way permission whenever requested. Pearson even unsuccessfully attempted to convince his superiors in Washington DC to support surface access from the park road to Stampede by a route down the Toklat River. Park Rangers would often stop by Stampede, and Earl became acquainted with many students conducting field biological research studies from the University of Alaska.

Earl remarried in December, 1958, to Marian Pilgrim of Alexandria, Virginia, whose first name was very similar to, and often mistaken for, his previous wife's name, much to Mariette's chagrin. Earl's second marriage didn't last long however, and he was single again by the early years of Alaska's statehood.

In 1959 (the year of Alaska's statehood) and 1960, Earl ran as a Republican for Senate Seat J of the new Alaska Legislature. Earl's 1960 election platform reflected the optimism of the day:

"If we are extravagant in anything, it should be for better schools and roads, which are needed almost everywhere. We need to aid in the development of industry which will make for employment whether it is agriculture, mining, or manufacturing."

Although he won many races in his life, Earl lost the Senate seat to his Democratic rival. During the 1950s and 60s, Pilgrim continued to actively consult as an experienced mining engineer. One of his assignments from the Fairbanks Exploration Company (USSR&M) was to travel to Nome and determine how gold was being pilfered from sluice tables aboard the dredge fleet, and design a system that prevented such abuses. Earl was also hired by USSR&M to work on better recovery methods on board their bucket-line stacker dredge at Hogatza, which encountered gold recovery problems due to the clay rich pay streak there.

During most of the 1970's, Earl was an octogenarian living alone at Stampede. Although his first love was mining, he became enormously attached to the wildlife of the Kantishna area, and became somewhat protective of the area's furbearer and game populations. Earl had always enjoyed animals, and liked to reminisce about Kobuk, a Siberian husky dog that lived with him and Mariette at Stampede during the 1930s and early 1940s. Pilgrim was furious when a hunter flew in and killed an albino moose that was frequenting the mine area during the 1960s. He erected a sign at his airstrip stating: No Moose or Caribou Hunting; Bear Hunters Check in at the Camp. From 1963 to 1974, Pilgrim befriended an American pine marten. Mr. Grunt, as the marten came to be known, would stop by Earl's cabin two or three times a winter for eleven consecutive years. In his last notation about Mr. Grunt, Earl wrote:

"February 11, 1974 - Mr. Grunt working on roast that I left outside. Grunt appears to be thin and was real hungry. Worried about him."
Earl didn't see Mr. Grunt again, but many other marten entertained human guests at Stampede over the years.

Earl Pilgrim got caught up in the controversy surrounding the proposed Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), since, if the Act were to pass, Stampede and the entire Kantishna Mining district would most likely be absorbed into a greatly expanded Denali National Park and Preserve. The Alaska lands debate began with the 1971 passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which, in section 17(d)(2), set aside more than 80million acres of Alaska, including the Stampede area. Most of these lands were eventually included into four National Conservation Units. In the fall of 1977, Earl provided colorful testimony about his life and mining operation at Stampede to members of the Udall-Siberling D-2 hearings held in Fairbanks. In 1978, Earl attended the commencement exercises of the University of Alaska, and was honored for his distinguished career as an Alaskan miner. Also in 1978, Pilgrim deeded the Stampede Mine to Edwin K. Dole, a businessman from Palo Alto, California. In 1979, Dole donated the property to the University of Alaska, which subsequently entered into a joint management agreement with the National Park Service. The Stampede property became the Earl R. Pilgrim Mining Research Field Laboratory for university mineral research in Denali National Park and Preserve. Earl Pilgrim took great exception to this unexpected change in his dreams for the mine - seeing the Stampede property turned into a research facility was not what he had had in mind, so wrote Leslie Noyes, who published the treatise on the history of the UAF School of Mines. Earl Beistline, the Dean of the School of Mining at the University, also had reservations, but eventually supported the arrangement. ANILCA passed in 1980, and about twenty small placer and lode mines in the Kantishna district were eventually forced to close as a result of this legislation.

Pilgrim moved from Stampede to Fairbanks in the summer of 1981, and, at the age of 88, made one last stab at mining. He revisited the Newsboy gold mine in Fairbanks, the same property that he had mined 52 years before. With the help of Fred Heflinger, he staked the Newsboy Mine, which, incredibly, was on open ground. Pilgrim's young friend, Jim Lounsbury, used a rope to lower Pilgrim nearly 75 feet down the old shaft. Earl went off into the caved adit, returned about thirty minutes later with a channel sample, and was hoisted back to the surface. In 1982, he was the Grand Marshal of the Golden Days Parade in Fairbanks.

In 1987, an unfortunate event led to the destruction of Pilgrim's antimony mill at Stampede. The Park Service, upon finding large amounts of nitro-carbide (old explosives) at the mine site, requested the assistance of the US Army to remove the explosives at Stampede to make the mine site safe. At the recommendation of the US Army Explosive Ordinance Detachment at Fort Richardson, Alaska, the old nitro-carbide was detonated, which resulted in a huge explosion that essentially destroyed the mill and caused significant damage to other mine structures.

Earl Pilgrim died in the Fairbanks Pioneers Home four months later on August 26, 1987, without knowledge of the explosion at the Stampede Mine. Shortly afterwards, at the special request of Mariette Shaw Pilgrim, Jim and George Lounsbury took the cremated remains of Earl Pilgrim and spread them over the Stampede Mine area.

Earl Richard Pilgrim was a memorable person. He embodied the virtues of a pioneer Alaskan: impeccable honesty, hard work, patience, temperance, and self-sacrifice. Visitors at Stampede were always graciously received and those that enjoyed Earl's hospitality for the first time were frequently surprised to encounter an educated and worldly gentlemen in the wilderness setting of the Stampede Mine. He read voraciously, and kept abreast of national and international events - sometime sleeping only four hours a night. Earl had a quick and charming wit, and could entertain guests with wonderful stories about people, events, and places of the Kantishna region. Pilgrim was also a dedicated American patriot, but was remarkably tolerant and respectful of points of view other than his own.

In 1990, Earl Richard Pilgrim was immortalized in Alaska with the naming of Pilgrim Peak in the Kantishna Hills.

By Thomas K. Bundtzen, Gordon S. Harrison and George Lounsbury, 2004


"1925 Basketball Team" The Farthest North Collegian, July 31, 1930, vol. VII, no. 11, page 5.

Bundtzen, T. K., 1978, "A history of Mining in the Kantishna Hills", The Alaska Journal, vol. 5, no. 2, p. 151-160.

Bundtzen, T. K., 1981, "Geology and Mineral Deposits of the Kantishna Hills, Mt. McKinley Quadrangle, Alaska", University of Alaska Masters of Science Thesis, 237 pages.

Cole, Dermot, 1982, "Earl Pilgrim a Miner Plain and Simple", "Fairbanks Daily News Miner", July 8, page 8.

Donohue, Brian, 1988, "Blowup at Stampede Mine", Heartland Magazine, vol. 5, no. 39, pages H10-H11.

"Earl Pilgrim to Examine Mines", "Fairbanks Daily News Miner", June 20, page 4.

Harrison, Gordon S., 1987, "Petition to Name a Peak in the Kantishna Hills Alaska in Honor of Earl R. Pilgrim" unpublished 6 page manuscript.

Interior Scrapbook - "The Gentleman of the Mine", Heartland Magazine, vol. 4, no. 42, pages 8-9.

McCondochie, Alasdair, 1994, "Mining the Stampede - The Story of Mariette and Earl Pilgrim", Heartland Magazine, pages H8-H12.

"Mrs. Edna C. Pilgrim Wins in Court", The Alaska Miner, March, 29, 1938, page 3.

Noyes, Leslie M., 2001, "From Rock Poker to Pay Dirt", Fairbanks, University of Alaska Foundation, 707 pages.

"Obituary of Earl Richard Pilgrim", Fairbanks Daily News Miner, August 27, 1987.

Pearson, Grant and Newhill, Phillip, 1962, "My Life of High Adventure", Prentice Hall Publishers, 274 pages.

"Pilgrim Case Judgment is Received", Fairbanks Daily News Miner, March 28, 1938, page 5.

Pilgrim, Earl R., 1978, "The Treadwell Mine in 1915", The Alaska Journal, vol. 5, no. 4, pages 194-204.

Pilgrim, Mariette Shaw, 1954, "Alaska: Its History, Resources, Geography, and Government", Caxton Printers, 355 pages.

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