Chester Wells Purington

(1871 - 1923)

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photo of Chester Purington

Chester Purington, undated
Sketch from damaged photo: Jenny Hawley

Acclaimed geologist and mining engineer Chester Wells Purington was killed in Yokohama during the Great Japanese earthquake of September 1, 1923 while attempting to save the lives of his two young children. Purington had re-entered the large apartment complex that his family lived in when it collapsed and burned. Purington's body and that of his little girl were never found. His young son Frank was pulled from the wrecked building, but died a few hours later. His wife Charlotte was running an errand in another part of Yokohama, and thus she survived one of the worst natural disasters of the 20th Century. The earthquake ended the life of one of the most distinguished mining men of his era.

Chester Purington was born in Boston, Massachusetts on October 27, 1871 and graduated from Harvard University in 1893. He began his first field work in 1893 on gold deposits of the Appalachian Mountain chain. His first professional work in Alaska began in 1895 when he investigated the lode and placer gold deposits of the Juneau Gold Belt - at the time the premier producer of gold for the Alaskan Territory. Purington provided some of the first published descriptions on the placer deposits of the Silver Bow Basin behind Juneau. The Klondike placer strike in Yukon, Canada, which would change Alaska and the Yukon forever, was still two years away. In 1896 Purington returned to the States to work briefly on the economic staff of the U.S. Geological Survey with noted geologist George F. Becker in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. That year, Purington completed detailed examinations of the Telluride and Rico districts and later worked in the La Plata Mountains.

In 1897, the lure of the international travel and the desire for adventure led Purington to central and eastern Europe. He examined mineral deposits and districts in Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Russia. During his first trip to Europe, Purington became deeply impressed with the mineral development possibilities in Russia and he made several examinations of gold, copper, and iron deposits in the Ural Mountains.

Purington spent the next two years in South America and in various parts of the U.S. In 1900, he decided to acquire some practical experience in the mining field and worked as a laborer in a large hydraulic placer mine on the Rogue River of Oregon and as a hard rock miner at the Camp Bird Mine in Colorado.

From 1902 to 1907, Mr. Purington worked as a consulting geologist and engineer with Godfrey Doveton, of Denver, Colorado. It was during this time in his career that Purington's second and most important contribution to Alaskan mining took place. The U.S. Geological Survey received numerous requests for information regarding the costs of operating placer mines in Alaska and the best means to work placer claims. Alfred H. Brooks, then in charge of the Division of Alaskan Mineral Resources of the Survey, contacted Chester Purington in October, 1903 and asked him to conduct an investigation that described Alaskan placer mining methods. Purington was assisted by Sidney Paige, who was also a well known economic geologist. Purington began his study in May, 1904, first examining the placer deposits in the Juneau district. He then traveled to the Atlin and Klondike districts in Canada. A riverboat trip down the Yukon landed Purington at Eagle, where he examined placer mining methods in the Seventymile district. Another riverboat trip landed him at Circle, where he investigated placer mines in that area. Purington then traveled overland via horseback to the recently opened Fairbanks district which would become Alaska's premier placer camp. At Fairbanks, Purington and Paige joined forces with the party of L.M. Prindle of the USGS.. Purington notes, "it is due to the fact that the parties worked together in the Fairbanks district that all operations were visited in the few days available." Another river boat trip down the Tanana and Yukon Rivers landed Purington and his party at St. Michael, where he boarded a vessel bound for Nome, his final destination. Prom August to September, Purington visited mining operations on Anvil, Glacier, Dry, Dexter, and other creeks. He then traveled overland to the Council and Solomon Districts before returning to Nome and board a steamer bound for Seattle on October 4th. Purington and Paige enlisted the mining men throughout Alaska and Canada to complete the study. Detailed forms provided by the miners included descriptions of the various mining methods used. Every operation was photographed. Sidney Paige, who was in charge of photography, took more than 400 photos. Forty-one photos were used in the final report. Although many of the mining methods documented in Purington's study are no longer used, some still are and detailed diagrams and photos are invaluable historical records of mining at the time.

Purington spent a significant part of his time in the Yukon and British Columbia. He noted that Canada districts had about 900 miles of roads while the Alaska districts had about 50 miles of roads. He recommended to Alfred Brooks that the US government spend $1 million on roadwork in Alaska.

Purington's extensive report, published the following year as USGS Bulletin 263, and entitled Methods and Costs of Gravel and Placer Mining in Alaska, became an instant classic, a bible of placer mining methods and costs that was applicable not only to Alaska's placer mines but to the placer industry in the Western US, and abroad. Purington's ability to observe and accurately describe the many mining operations he visited enabled him to compare gold recovery technologies, logistical parameters, sampling methods, and geological and engineering characteristics of each placer deposit. He recommended ways in which ground could be processed more efficiently and thus reduce mining costs. Purington remained associated with the Branch of Alaskan Geology and conducted various assignments on a contractual basis for many years.

Purington's Alaskan Classic also launched his career as an international expert on mine sampling methods and mine technology development - a reputation which would follow him until his death. Famous contemporaries such as T.A. Rickard, C.S. Herzig, Godfrey Gunther, Herbert Hoover, and Charles Janin utilized Purington's sampling methods and dredge technology summaries in their professional articles and mining text books. In April, 1905, Chester Purington married long time friend Charlotte Calhoun Wells of Amesbury, Massachusetts. Like Chester, Charlotte loved to travel and accompanied her husband on numerous international trips throughout his career until his death.

Purington's expanding reputation quickly gave him work in Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Mexico. His Mexican assignment included important geological work on the ore bodies of the Cananea district. In 1908, Purington again heard the call of Russia, and he worked on several eastern Siberian properties held by Orsk Goldfields Ltd. of London. He proved up a large, low-grade placer gold deposit in the Amur River basin 600 miles north of Vladivostok, and successfully installed two bucketline stacker dredges for the firm. The dredges operated successfully for many years under his management.

The year 1911 saw his fourth and last major work in Alaska's placer gold fields. He worked mainly on the Seward Peninsula near Nome, and helped install a dredge for the Pioneer Mining Company of Nome. It was here that he became very interested in the problems of thawing frozen ground for large scale dredging operations. Although John Miles cold-water thawing technology was still a few years away, Purington studied the handling of frozen ground and devised improved, lower cost mining methods for permafrost areas of Interior Alaska.

In 1912, Purington returned to Russia and became chief engineering and geological consultant for Lena Goldfields Ltd. of London, which owned a controlling interest in Lenskoi Mines of Irkustk Province, in the Russian Far East. Beginning in 1913, and during the following three years, Purington worked at modernizing many of the antiquated methods used in the Lenskoi mines. In 1915, Lena Goldfields Ltd produced 480,000 ounces of gold worth 9.9 million (US), and the firm became the world's largest gold producer-all from placer mines. Working with Russian officials, Purington also stopped the illegal sale of gold from area mines to German banks in China. World War I had begun and Germany, who was at war with Russia, was acquiring substantial quantities of gold to finance their war efforts - ironically from Russian bullion sources. During this time Purington decided to move his permanent residence to London, the headquarters for many Russian mining companies.

In 1916, Purington began an activist role in technical support during World War I. Along with colleagues H.S. Waite of Harvard and A.L. Cantley of London, Purington organized the American Committee of Engineers in connection with the European war effort. The 100 member committee acted as a technical clearing house of ideas in assisting the allied governments during the Great War, and also furnished information to the Council of National Defense in Washington DC. After the US entrance into the conflict, Mr. Purington served with the Military Intelligence Staff in Washington. In March 1923, six months before his death, he was appointed Major in the Officer Reserve Corps of the United States, in recognition of his distinguished service to his country during the war.

The 1918 Bolshevik Revolution changed greatly Purington's Russian efforts. He had become quite enthusiastic about mineral development potential in Far East Russia. Purington strongly lobbied the Russian government to extend the Trans-Siberian Railroad over the Stanovoi Range to Okhotsk, which he believed was destined to be a major transportation hub in the Russian Far East. He compared the Stanovoi Gold Belt along the Sea of Okhotsk to the Klondike district of Canada in an article published posthumously in the Mining and Metallurgy Journal in November, 1923. Okhotsk was the seaport that Vitus Bering sailed from in his 1741 discovery of Alaska. However, like other Russian-based, western mining entrepreneurs and geologists such as Norman Stines, Charles Janin, and Yulius Brynner, Purington decided to leave Russia until the political situation improved and established an office first in Tokyo, and later Yokohama, Japan.

In 1921, Purington published the first geological descriptions of the coal deposits of Sakhalin Island, and he speculated that the region held excellent potential to develop oil and gas resources. Alaskan-based petroleum logistical firms are now benefitting from Sakhalin's oil and gas fields.

In 1905, Purington worked with hydraulic placer gold miners on the Kenai Peninsula, including Alaska Mining Hall of Fame inductee Simon Wible, offering assistance with various hydraulic mine technologies and placer geology interpretations.

Chester Purington's stellar career benefited from a loyal partner who was willing to travel with him anywhere on the globe, and participate in hard field work - his wife, Charlotte. During the winter of 1905, Charlotte and Chester traveled across the Kenai Peninsula from Turnigan Arm to Seward, on Resurrection Bay, by dogsled and on snowshoes. In 1908, Charlotte became the first known American women to camp on the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk in eastern-most Russia, near the ancient settlement of Okhotsk, where, in 1740, Vitus Bering and Alexi Chirikof built the boats that they used during their 1741 discovery of Alaska. Later, she would travel across the wide expanse of Russia on the then newly built Trans-Siberia railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok. Even later, she would sail nearly 2,000 miles of the Amur River, and spend time in mining camps largely composed of Chinese and Korean miners.

During the short Siberian and Alaskan summers, Charlotte used skills learned as a child on the East Coast of the U.S. to plant vegetable gardens near the mining and exploration camps. The fresh produce thus produced was always highly prized by the geologists and engineers actively involved in the prospecting expeditions. All in all, Chester and Charlotte traveled nearly 50,000 miles together, before settling down and raising a family.

Russian geological and mining historian Yuri Pruss recently honored Chester Wells Purington in the following way during the 2008 Gold Mining Forum held in Magadan, Russia:

"In 1923, he had assessed the gold placers not only of the Sea of Okhotsk but also the upper side of the River Kolyma. His (Purington's) published research served as a spur to the organization of the First Kolyma expedition under the direction of Yuri Bilibin."
Yuri Blibin and his team of exploration geologists are widely given credit for discovering , in 1928, what is now regarded as the largest placer gold producing region in the world-the Kolyma-Indigirka district of eastern Russia.

Few American mining engineers or geologists of their era were as well known and as highly respected as Chester Wells Purington. He was a keen observer of all valuable details that pertained to his profession and never lost an opportunity to learn something new. As his close associate A.C. Ludlum states, "He was a fine, sturdy character that breathed good will at every step." Shortly before his death, Purington wrote a close friend a letter that perhaps best describes his personality and philosophy:

The profession which I adopted thirty years ago, first that of a geologist and finally that of an engineer of mines, has been enjoyable and profitable in the best sense. There has been no financial success worth mentioning, nor desire for such. Possibly it is not a 'gainful' occupation as card-indexed, but that does not worry me. To be a spectator at the pageant of humanity, to observe the marts and peoples of the world, to avoid becoming theoretical dry as dust (boring), and to have enough earth science education to read with keen enjoyment of the parched desert or the snowy sierra, these are the privileges of the engineer or geologist who elects to take the world for his oyster and open it."

By Thomas K. Bundtzen and Charles C. Hawley, 2002; updated 2009


Gunther, Godfrey C., and Fleming, R.C., 1962, "The Examination of Prospects" McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. New York, 220 pages.

Herzig, C.S., 1914, "Mine Sampling and Valuing - With a Chapter on Sampling Placer Deposits by C.W. Purington", Mining and Scientific Press, San Francisco and The Minnig Magazine, London, 163 pages.

Ludlum, A.C., 1923, "Chester Wells Purington", Mining and Metallurgy Magazine, volume 4, November, 1923, pages 578-579.

Pruss, Yuri, 2008, "Geologists and Mining Engineers of Northeast Russia: 80 Years of the First Kolyma Expedition", Oxotnuk Publishers, Magadan, 145 pages.

Purington, C.W., 1897, "Preliminary report on the mining industries of the Telluride quadrangle, Colorado", Annual Report of the U.S. Geological Survey, vol. 18, pt.III-F, pages 745-849.

Purington, C.W., 1905, "Methods and Costs of Gravel and Placer Mining in Alaska", U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 263, 273 pages.

Purington, C.W., 1905, "Ore Deposits of the San Juan Mountains, Colorado", Economic Geology, volume 1, number 1, pages 127-145.

Purington, C.W., 1921, "The Coal Deposits on Sakhalin Island", Mining and Metallurgy Magazine, volume 2, pages 430-445.

Purington, C.W., 1923, "Stanovoi Gold Belt of Siberia", Mining and Metallurgy Magazine, volume 4, pages 555-564.

Staff, 1908, "Over the world and back they go - Mr. and Mrs. Purington tell of their travels in Alaska and Siberia", The Sunday Boston Herald, January 3, 1908, pages 14-15.

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