Irv Tailleur


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Irv Tailleur Portrait

Irv Tailleur, undated
from Gil Mull Collection

I. L. "Irv" Tailleur was born on June 20, 1924 and grew up in the Yakima area of central Washington. His parents were caretakers of the local dam near Selah, Washington and the rock exposures at the dam got his early attention. Being an avid boy scout, Irv obtained a merit badge in geology and cemented his dedication to becoming a geologist.

photo of Irv as a boy scout

Irv as a Boy Scout, circa 1941
Photo Credit: Jacque DeBell

He graduated from high school in 1942 and went off to university at Harvard the next fall. In 1943 he transferred to Cornell University where he completed his undergraduate studies in 1945. This is also the year he married his high school sweetheart, Mary. He continued studies at Cornell from 1946 to 1948 and obtained his MS in Geology in 1948. In 1951 he spent a semester at George Washington University studying economics and from 1951 to 1953, he took graduate courses in geology at Stanford University.

Irv's initial professional work was in economic geology. While in graduate school, he studied the structure and stratigraphy of base metal deposits in the Bay Horse district, Custer County, Idaho during the 1946 and 1947 field seasons. In 1948, fresh out of graduate school at Cornell, he became a mine geologist at International Nickel Company of Canada (INCO), Ltd.'s Carson Mine (Sudbury district). As Irv described it, he was responsible for mapping, sampling, and estimates of grade, production, and reserves for about fifty (50) working faces (including development headings, square set, cut and fill and shrinkage stopes) or about one fourth of the mine's workings. He logged core from throughout the mine.

Tailleur at Carson Mine

Irv Tailleur examining mineralized zone, Carson Mine, Sudbury, Canada circa 1948
Photo Credit: Jacque DeBell

Irv's experience as a mine geologist was short (June 1948 to March 1949). He must have been casting about for other opportunities and the one that soon came up set in motion and long and productive Alaskan career that included discovery of the Red Dog deposits. In March, 1949, he joined the U. S. Geological Survey as an assistant geologist on the team studying the stratigraphy and structure of Naval Petroleum Reserve #4 (NPR-4 or just Pet 4) which is now National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA). Bill Patton was his project chief and for the next several years extensive field studies were carried out, especially in the foothills of the central and western Brooks Range. This was the beginning of a long and dedicated effort by Irv to understand the geology, evolution, and resources of the Brooks Range and Alaska's entire North Slope region.

In the Pet 4 projects early days, before the advent of helicopters, field transportation was by small fixed wing aircraft, small track vehicles ("weasels"), boats floating down rivers, and a lot by foot. As a result of this initial work, Bill Patton and Irv authored the first regional map and report on the stratigraphy and structure of the northern Endicott Mountains and foothill in the vicinity of Anaktuvuk Pass (Geology of the Killik-Itkillik region, Alaska; USGS Professional Paper 303-G, 1964). In the process of these early investigations, they named many of the geographic features that are in common use today and shown on the topographic maps of the area. This was the beginning of the acquisition of a very large amount of detailed geological data that became packed into Irv's brain. He had an amazingly complete memory of outcrop details, even outcrops visited once many years previously. The advent of helicopter use for fieldwork in the 1950s enabled him to further expand his knowledge into an encyclopedia of the details of the geology of the Western Brooks Range.

It was inevitable that Irv's and Bob Baker's paths would cross. Irv needed fixed-wing support for his extensive field studies and Baker was the pilot who provided a lot of it. While flying, Bob's sharp prospecting eye helped him identify anomalous features on the ground that could be related to mineral deposits. The rusty weathering areas and iron-stained creeks of the Red Dog area that he observed were not accessible to him (due to a lack of fixed-wing landing sites) so he encouraged Irv to examine them for their mineral potential if the opportunity arose during parts of Irv's helicopter-supported field work. Irv finally got this opportunity in 1968.

Red Dog Creek prior to development

Red Dog Creek area prior to development
Photo Credit:

As Irv was a conducting a reconnaissance helicopter traverse in the western DeLong Mountains, one of his landing sites was near an iron-stained creek brought to his attention by Bob Baker . He decided to examine this creek and hurriedly traversed down a spur from the landing site. He examined and described the rocks along this foot traverse and collected a suite of 8 rock samples for semi-quantitative spectrographic analysis. In the creek, he collected one stream sediment sample for analysis as well. In the rocks, lead levels frequently contained greater than two percent; zinc levels reached one percent or more in two samples; and barium ranged from 0.1 percent to greater than 0.5 percent. Irv identified megascopic barite in many of these samples. The stream sediment sample contained greater than ten percent lead, 0.2 percent zinc, and greater than 0.5 percent barium. These sample results became the foundation of an open-file report Irv published in 1970.

Irv's 1970 report (Lead-, zinc-, and barite-bearing samples from the western Brooks Range, Alaska; U. S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 70-319, 16 p.) was timely and valuable in several ways. His description of the rocks he walked over on his way down to the creek read as though they came directly from his field notes:

"The lower outcrops and talus consist of moderately thick-bedded black chert and brownish-gray impure chert which produces dark colored and silvery gray slopes and scars".

Irv's field notebooks are a treasure chest of detailed observations. He augmented them with photographs and other data such as fossil reports and topo maps showing station locations that he reduced and pasted directly in them. The notebooks he created are exceptional records of his work and are still available for review at the USGS's offices in Anchorage. These archives are the direct descendent of the Alaska Technical Data Center that Irv's wife Mary diligently managed for many years in Menlo Park, California. The field notebooks now in Anchorage are now accompanied by a digital file of geographic coordinates for each of Irv's field stations. Although these were digitized directly from his paper field station maps (not stable bases) they enable potential uses to recreate his traverses and place his observations in a geographic context.

field notebook image

Example of Irv Tailleur's field notes, which included fossil reports, stratigraphic sections, photographs, and field observations.
Courtesy of Jill Schneider, USGS

field note from Red Dog

Start of notations of mineralized samples taken at Red Dog outcrops, August 30th, 1968
Courtesy of Jill Schneider, USGS

The 1970 open-file report also includes a discussion of the geologic setting and possible origin of the newly discovered mineralization at Red Dog. He correctly surmised that deposits were syngenetic in origin and suggested that the lead, zinc, and barite deposits of Meggan, Germany were appropriate analogs. Having just briefly examined one iron-stained creek, which he named Red Dog Creek (in the 1970 report) after Bob Baker's Red Dog Mining Company (in turn named after Bob's faithful companion O'Malley, a red dog). Irv knew that other areas of similar appearance could be equally or even more important. So, on his 1970 map, he identified the location of several other areas of similarly colored soils, limonitic-stained creeks, and "blueish-gray slopes suggesting the same rock or stratigraphic interval as at the sample locality". Although these areas indicated the weathering of sulfide mineral concentrations, Irv also cautioned that they need not all reflect the same type of deposit. To this point he shared analytical data for samples collected from Ferric Creek in 1955 (also called Ferrous Creek some places in the 1970 report) that contained negligible base metal and barium contents. Ferric Creek is an area where iron-sulfide layers and disseminations led to iron staining and discoloration of the creek.

Irv appreciated that his and the reader's understanding would benefit from contributions by others with different skills and expertise. This is why he talked Don Eberlein and Don's lab assistant Ray Wehr into contributing a separate petrography and mineralogy section in the 1970 open-file report. Don was an expert with the optical microscope and routinely checked his mineralogy calls with the x-ray difffractometer. Don and Ray's work verified the host lithologic units and the ubiquitous presence of barite in the heavily iron-stained samples. They also focused on understanding the very strong stream sediment anomaly and showed that this sample contained sphalerite and an abundant lead and iron bearing oxidation product that they provisionally identified as plumbojarosite.

Irv didn't stop there in his efforts to better understand the Red Dog deposits. Because of land status changes that removed the immediate Red Dog Creek area from staking for a few years and a general lack of interest in the 1970 report results, exploration geologists did not immediately follow-up on the new data reported by Irv and his colleagues. As late as 1974, Irv was actively soliciting help in studying the new discovery. For example, he invited State geologists Milt Wiltse and Tom Bundtzen to examine the Red Dog area with him. Milt and Tom were studying the Arctic deposit during the 1974 field season and wanted to follow up on Irv's invitation to visit the Red Dog area with him. Unfortunately eight of the ten days they had a helicopter that summer were not flyable due to weather conditions. They didn't make it out west to visit Irv and many times over the years Tom has wondered how his career might have developed if the weather had cooperated that summer. Irv knew Red Dog was important and Tom and Milt would have recognized this too.

As important as Red Dog is, Irv's major commitment was to understanding the Brooks Range. Although others had observed the presence of thrust sheets in the western Brooks Range, Irv was the first to define and map them. He observed stratigraphic differences between thrust sheets and collected evidence that demonstrated they constituted far-travelled rock assemblages, now called allocthons that represent several hundred miles of crustal shortening. This superposition of far-travelled allocthons was documented in his suite of detailed field maps of the Nuka-Elivluk region of the eastern DeLong Mountains (USGS Open-File Report 66-128) for which his wife Mary did much of the drafting. This was the beginning of a wealth of ideas he conveyed, mostly through talks and discussions at meetings and in one-on-one conversations with anyone interested in the Brooks Range and North Slope. For example, Irv modified S. Warren Carey's ideas on large-scale continental rotation and formation of oroclines, and he was the first to suggest that northern Alaska down to the southern flank of the Brooks Range has rotated away from the Canadian Arctic Islands to form the Canada Basin.

irv with a message t-shirt

Irv and his favorite-saying T-shirt, circa 1976
Photo courtesy of Chuck Mayfield

Irv was known for his firm convictions, questioning of models, and favorite saying:

"except in the Brooks Range."
He vigorously defended his geological convictions — in camp often with a cup of strong coffee laced with Hudson Bay 151 Proof Rum — and took great delight in his apocryphal business card, which read: Irv Tailleur, Recalcitrant SOB. On one occasion, after making the classic statement "If that's greywacke I'll eat it," he followed through gleefully grinding up said greywacke to spread with peanut butter on pilot biscuits. His apparent delight with this occasion is evidenced by the discovery after his death of a labeled sample of this greywacke in his rock collection.

Tailleur making a graywacke sandwich

Irv Tailleur making (and later consuming) greywacke sandwich after losing a geological argument; circa 1976
Photo by G.C. Mull

Another example of Irv's willingness to face up to new data or observations comes from an encounter Lorne Young (a Cominco geologist who came to understand the DeLong Mountains and Brooks Range well) had with Irv in the field. This is how Lorne recalls it:

I worked with Irv in the field several times and even visited with him at his office. This is when I was a young brash geologist and Irv was an old brash geologist! One day in my early career, I took Irv to an area on the east side of Deadlock Mountain (very close to the Red Dog Mine) to explain that he had miss-mapped Early Cretaceous sandstone as Devonian sandstone. He was extremely skeptical, and as soon as he got out of the helicopter and glanced at the rock formation he declared me wrong. He then picked up a sample of the formation and ten seconds later, he declared me right.

And this is what made Irv great. At once, he presented himself as confident, and all-knowing; yet with a single observation of definitive geological evidence he could change his opinion at a moment. He was never dogmatic; always curious, open-minded and concerned if his model of the western Brooks Range was correct. And I can say, that after working his old stomping-grounds over a period of four decades that Irv was largely correct, and that any improvements I may have contributed to his studies are because I stood upon his great shoulders.

Irv was always interested in understanding the resource implications of his work and in 1978, after Pet 4 was transferred to the Department of the Interior and became NPRA, Irv got to apply his many years of experience and knowledge to guiding exploration on this part of the North Slope. He is probably very responsible for the unusually numerous cores that were taken for paleontology, geochemistry, and even paleomagnetism, in addition to typical reservoir cores. During this same time, he led the field parties that mapped much of the DeLong Mountains and produced, along with his younger colleagues Chuck Mayfield, Inyo Eller5sieck, and Steve Curtis, a series of outstanding 1:63,360-scale color geologic maps.

Irv and Mary Tailleur

Irv and Mary Tailleur in retirement in Sequim, Washington
Photo by Jacque DeBell

After retiring from the USGS in 1989, Irv and Mary moved from Menlo Park, California to Sequim, Washington. Here he maintained an office with his extensive files, maps, field notes, and rock collections. Anyone interested was welcomed by Irv and Mary and those maklng a trek to Sequim to visit and discuss geology with Irv were richly rewarded. Irv never stopped being committed to helping understand northern Alaska. He died August 27, 2004, at the age of 80, after a long struggle with emphysema.

Irv and Gar Pessel in Brooks Range

State Geologist Gar Pessel trade information on Brook Range geology, circa 1975
Photo by G.C. Mull

Irv and Gil MUll photo

Irv Tailleur and Gil Mull in the Delong Mountains, near the Red Dog prospect area, circa 1975
Photo by Jerry Boot

Acknowledgments: This compilation includes significant parts of memorials written by Gil Mull and Paul Weimer (with very minor editing here and there) soon after Irv's death (AAPG Bulletin, v. 89, no. 9, p. 1251-1252; Geological Society of America Memorials, v. 34, October, 2005). About the only parts originally contributed here are amplifications of Irv's involvement with economic geology, his role in the discovery of Red Dog, and his continued interest in understanding Red Dog. Contributions from geologists Marti Miller, Jill Schneider, Julie Dumoulin, George Plafker, Gil Mull, Jerry Booth, and Tom Bundtzen and Irv's and Mary's daughter Jacque DeBell were essential to this compilation.

Written by Travis Hudson
October 22, 2015
Sitka, Alaska


Koehler, G.F., and Tikkanen, G.D., 1988, Red Dog, Alaska — Discovery and Definition of a Major Zinc-Lead-Silver Deposit: Presentation at the Annual Convention of the Geological Society of America (GSA), Denver, Colorado, October 31st, 1988, 9 pages.

Patton, W.W., Jr., and Tailleur, I.L., 1964, Geology of the Killik-Itkillik region, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 303-G, p. 409-500, 3 sheets, scale 1:125,000.

Tailleur, I. L., and Sable, E. G., 1963, Nuka Formation of Late Mississippian to Late Permian age, new formation in northern Alaska: American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin, v. 47, p.632-642.

Tailleur, I.L., Kent, B.H., Jr., and Reiser, H.N., 1966, Outcrop geologic maps of the Nuka-Etivluk region, northern Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 66-128, 7 sheets, scale 1:63,360.

Tailleur, I. L., 1970, Lead-, zinc-, and barite-bearing samples from the western Brooks Range, Alaska; U. S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 70-319, 16 p.

Tailleur, I. L., 1973, Probable rift origin of the Canada Basin: in American Association of Petroleum Geologists Memoir 19, p. 526-535.

Tailleur, I. L., Mull, C. G., and Tourtelot, H. A., 1973, A skeleton in Triassic rocks in the Brooks Range foothills: ARCTIC, Journal of the Arctic Institute of North America, v. 126, no. 1, p. 79-80.

Tailleur, Irv, and Weimer, Paul, 1987, eds., Alaska North Slope Geology, Bakersfield, California, Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, Pacific Section, and Alaska Geological Society, Book 50, 2 vols., 874 p.

Mayfield, C. F., Tailleur, I. L., and Ellersieck, I., 1988, Stratigraphy, structure, and palinspastic synthesis of the western Brooks Range, northwestern Alaska, in Gryc, G., ed., Geology and Exploration of the Naval Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, 1974-1982: U. S. geological Survey Professional Paper 1399, p. 143-186.

Mull, G.C., 1980, Credit where credit is due: letter to the editor of Northern Miner clarifying discovery of Red Dog deposit.

Mull, G.C., 2004, Memorial: Irv Tailleur (1924-2004): Geological Society of America Memorials Volume 35, Number 3 (November), Pages 4-5.

Mull, G.C., and Weimer, Paul, 2005, I.L. Irv Tailleur: AAPG Bulletin, Volume 89, No. 9, pages 1251-1252.

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