Emil Usibelli

(1893 - 1964)

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Portrait of Emil Usibelli

Emil Usibelli, undated
Photo: Usibelli Family

Emil Usibelli was born in 1983 in the northern Italian community of Val' Alta. Ind 1907, 14 year old Emil, his mother, three brothers and three sisters immigrated to America. His father had moved to Washington State several years earlier and sent for his family only when he had saved enough money to establish a home and pay for their passage. Because Emil worked to help support his family both before and after their move to the United States, he received only three years of formal schooling.

After moving to the Pacific Northwest, Emil worked in a variety of jobs. He worked as an underground miner in several coal mines in Washington and at a silver mine in Canada. He also worked as a logger and was employed with his brother John by Pacific Car & Foundry in Seattle.

The foundry made rail cars and paid workers by a piece rate. Emil often told the story that he and his brother John worked so well together that whenever the company had a new part to fabricate, the two brothers would frequently be the first assigned to the task. After the assembly had been completed, the company would establish the amount to be paid for each piece on the basis of the production rate established by the Usibelli brothers.

Emil saved his earnings and eventually owned the Renton Fuel Company, a coal bunker in Renton, Washington. However the Depression years were difficult, and Emil as well as many others looked north for new opportunities.

In 1935, Emil moved to Alaska and found work as an underground coal miner at the Evans Jones Mine near Palmer. A year later he moved to Suntrana near Healy to work underground for the Healy River Coal Company. After being laid off as a result of injuries sustained in a mining accident, Emil started a contract logging operation to supply timbers to the underground coal mines at Suntrana.

Emil and Rose

Emil and Rose Usibelli with their HealyRiver Coal Company "Doodlebug," circa late 1930's or early 1940's
Photo: Usibelli Coal Mine

During World War II, Ladd Air Field, in Fairbanks became an important base for transferring warplanes to the Soviet Union. In 1943 the U.S. Army Air Corps hired Emil Usibelli to conduct exploration work on military coal reserves east of Suntrana. Later that year, Emil and friend T.E. Thad Sanford obtained a coal lease on these lands and a one-year contract with the Army to supply 10,000 tons of coal to Ladd Air Field. Not having the capital to develop an underground mine, Emil, as mine operator for the partnership, started operations using a small TD-40 bulldozer and a 193's vintage GMC logging truck. His surface mining methods were viewed with much skepticism by the competing underground mine operators, but the Usibelli-Sanford partnership met its contract obligation. Later Emil added International K6 and K8 trucks to haul coal and constructed a tipple to load rail cars.

Emil, Rose and Children

Emil and Rose Usibelli with their children Rosalie and Joseph Senior
Photo: Usibelli Family Collection

In 1945, Emil introduced hydraulic stripping to increase production. Hydraulic stripping had long been used by many Alaskan placer miners to remove silt overburden from gold-bearing gravel. The sandstone beds overlying the coal seams, however, were too coarse to be removed by the hydraulic monitor. Emil used TD-18 bulldozers to push the sandstone to the nozzles, and sluice boxes with riffles were set up to catch small amounts of gold found in the Tertiary gravels. Emil and Thad let mine employees keep whatever gold was trapped in the riffles.

Emil and John Sr on Tractor

Joseph Usibelli Senior and Emil Usibelli on Tractor, circa 1950's
Photo Credit: Usibelli Family Collection

In 1948, Emil purchased Sanford's shares of the business and Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc., (UCM) was incorporated under the laws of the Territory of Alaska. In the early years of the business, supply contracts with the military were small and in some years, non-existent. Emil persevered and upgraded equipment and facilities while working to make his surface mining methods more efficient and cost effective. Still, Emil believed that a proper coal mine should include underground production. In 1956, he opened an adit near Suntrana, which he named after his daughter Rosalie. UCM replaced hand labor with a continuous miner and mechanical loaders for Rosalie mine output, and improved production drift designs. Never-the-less, the underground mining at the Rosalie adit was still more expensive than the surface mine production pioneered years earlier by Emil Usibelli, and was eventually discontinued.

By the late 1950's, coal from UCM's surface operations exceeded coal output from all of the company's underground competitors. In 1961, UCM purchased the Suntrana coal mine, the successor to Healy River Coal Company. With the purchase, UCM became the predominant supplier to the Interior Alaskan military bases and, for the first time, to Fairbanks area utilities. On March 24 of 1964, at the age of 70, Emil was killed in a mining accident at the Usibelli Mine at Healy. He was killed within days of the greatest natural disaster to strike Alaska, the Good Friday Earthquake. His 25 year old son Joe returned from graduate school at Stanford to take over operation. At the time of Emil's death, Usibelli Coal Mine was supplying the bulk of Interior Alaska's coal for booth military and commercial markets.

Emil Usibelli was an avid hunter and bowler, and is remembered by his family and friends as having a good sense of humor, a fiery temper and a natural ability to do math in his head. They also note that he had an uncommon share of common sense and the confidence to take risks.

Emil Usibelli's family has had three generations active at the mine. After his death, Emil was succeeded by son Joe as president of UCM in 1964, and by his grandson Joe Junior in 1987. Until recently, grandson Mitch Usibelli was Vice President for Engineering, while grandchildren Anna, Cathy, and Rob worked at UCM in the 1980's.

Additionally, Emil's brother John was succeeded by two generations at the UCM operation in Healy. John worked as Superintendent of Operations for UCM from 1947 until his death in 1960. John's son Poland began operating equipment as a teenager in 1953 and retired in 1981. Roland's son John, a graduate of the University of Alaska School of Mineral Engineering in the early 1990's worked as a heavy equipment operator for UCM beginning in 1982.

Emil with hydraulic monitor

Emil Usibelli with Hydraulic Monitor in Background, circa 1940's
Photo: Usibelli Coal Mine

Despite his business success, the lack of a formal education beyond third grade troubled Emil throughout his life, and he made a long-term commitment to enhance educational opportunities of the community by providing a major portion of the heating needs at Monroe Catholic Schools in Fairbanks.

Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. is still honoring Emil's commitment to furthering education more than thirty years later. UCM created an endowment in Emil Usibelli's name at the University of Alaska Fairbanks that provides incentive awards to exemplary UAF faculty and researchers. UCM annually funds a scholarship to the UAF honors program and Tri-Valley High School graduating seniors, is a major supporter of the Alaska Sealife Center, the Alaska Native Heritage Center, and through it's private foundation, funds over 20 educational programs throughout Alaska.

by Charles B. Green and Becki Phipps, 2000

Thanks to Bill Brophy for rounding up the photos for this article.


Editor (unknown), 1993, Usibelli Coal Mine Celebrating 50 Years 1943-1993: Alaska Journal of Commerce Special Supplementary Publication, October 11, 1933, 11 pages

Green, C.B., editor, 1988, Historic Suntrana Important to Fairbanks Development: Usibelli Coal Miner, vol. 9. pages 8-9

Green, C.B., editor, 1993, Emil Usibelli: Started Coal Mine at 50 Years Old: Usibelli Coal Miner, vol. 13, pages 1-3

Green, C.B., editor 1996, UCM History Project: Memories Treasured: Usibelli Coal Miner, vol. 15, 1996, pages 4-5

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