Coal Creek Dredge

Dramatic change came to Coal Creek in 1935 when Alexander McRae, a Canadian millionaire and mining investor, decided to buy out the old-timers’ claims and import a gold dredge capable of overturning the earth to extract millions of dollars in gold. To facilitate mining on an industrial scale at Coal Creek, McRae’s company—Gold Placers, Inc.—built an 8-mile road from the Yukon River to the upper creek valley, a camp to feed and house the dredge crew, and a system of pipes and water diversions to harness the incredible power of water under pressure.

Once this infrastructure was in place and the dredge was built, the Coal Creek watershed would never be the same. The practice of placer mining by machine is a multi-step process that involves stripping the land of trees and topsoil, thawing the permanently frozen ground below, and excavating enormous amounts of gravel with the dredge as it eats its way across the landscape. Water is essential to placer mining, and at Coal Creek the employees of Gold Placers, Inc. used water cannons to blast away topsoil and to speed the thawing of the permafrost. They diverted water to create lakes in which the dredge floated on its steel pontoons, and they washed thousands of tons of sediment into the creek. The result was what one historian called “a world turned upside down.”

As the gold dredge advanced up and down the Coal Creek drainage, it excavated 20′ into the earth and scooped thousands of tons of gravel into its gavel-washing interior. Whereas a single miner using hand-tools might wash 1 cubic yard of gravel in a day, the dredge processed 3,000 cubic feet in a twenty-four-hour period. Water jets, revolving tumblers, and multiple sluice boxes separated gold from the waste material, which poured out of the back to create arc-shaped mounds of discarded rock called tailings. The dredge operated nearly continuously for the next twenty years, meandering wherever the richest concentrations of subterranean gold could be found. In the process, the channel of Coal Creek was repeatedly altered and most of the valley floor was scooped up, processed for gold, and re-deposited, ultimately producing around $3 million in precious metals. After major operations under Gold Placers, Inc. ended in 1957, individuals leased the dredge and mining claims and mined there periodically during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Today the dredge’s tailings—tell-tale signs of industrial placer mining—cover roughly 8 miles of the Coal Creek valley.

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