The historic Ester Gold Camp was built in 1936 by the F.E. Company to house hundreds of workers needed for gold mining operations in the area. The abandoned gold camp includes a hotel, restaurant, mercantile, saloon and ticket office.
The tunnel seemed like it would lead to a secret bunker or a buried treasure. As I shuffled through, slightly hunched, my headlamp sprayed a beam of light that bounced off walls of sharp, glittering schist. Spring runoff dripped from the ceiling and puddled on the rocky floor. I tried not to think about the weight of the hill above me.
“Look at that thermometer, 35 degrees. If it changes, I’m gettin’ out of here. It’s had that same reading since 1969, so there’s not been any global warming down here,” said my guide, Clutch Lounsbury.
Lounsbury has a white bushy beard and, if not for his signature Carhartt bibs and Alaska Miners Association cap, he could easily be mistaken for Santa Claus. His gold mine starts from the front door of his old cabin and stabs 800 feet into the side of Ester Dome, and the entrance is less than two miles from my house.
Clutch Lounsbury in his old house, at the entrance of his gold mine.
I had run past and skied over this area a hundred times without knowing it was there. His dad built it in the 1930s, chasing a vein of gold-bearing quartz as it zigzagged through the mountain. His father blasted the first 60 feet by hand, using a chisel, a sledgehammer and a healthy dose of dynamite.
“When he set off the first shot, he didn’t shut the back door, and the pressure of the explosion blew the windows out of the house. My mom was so mad she broke all the dishes.”
Eventually, Lounsbury’s dad bought an air compressor and chiseled the rest of the way in with a jackhammer. When Lounsbury and his brother restarted the mine a few decades later, he fixed up the old steel-wheel compressor. They blasted giant chunks of rock from the walls and ceiling and hauled it out of the tunnel in a hand-pushed cart. They removed the ore by hand.
“Most of the material I brought out in five-gallon buckets.” Working in the tunnel was dark and dingy, but Lounsbury loved it and worked it until they reached a dead end in 1980.
“The values dropped off, and we never got it going again.”
The green dome surrounding the mine has been worked just about every way possible. One of the richest bands of gold on the continent, in an arc 40 miles long and eight miles wide, stretches from the ground under Lounsbury’s mine to the hills above Fairbanks. When it was discovered in 1902, mining camps sprang up on every creek in between, triggering the last great gold rush of North America. The village of Ester rose from the wilderness. Within a few years, there were 200 residents, five bars, two hotels and a rowdy dance floor.
Lounsbury’s mine isn’t the only relic of gold in this area. After touring the tunnel, I began to notice signs of the gold rush everywhere.
Steam boilers can still be found on the trails and streets of downtown Ester.
This spring, I left my house on top of Ester Dome and jumped on an old wagon trail. Tall aspens waved in the wind and moose tracks dented the mud. About two miles in, an old wood boiler sat beside the trail, entangled in ferns and alder branches. Just a heap of rusty metal today, it was a key technology a century ago and used to break through frozen ground. While the pay streak in Ester was incredibly rich, it was also buried beneath a hundred feet of permafrost. To get to the gold, prospectors sunk holes in the ground, digging vertical shafts down to bedrock and running horizontal “drifts” outward. They used steam boilers to thaw the soil, then shoveled out the muck, often advancing just a few feet per day. These drift mines were scattered all over the creeks of Ester, but unlike Lounsbury’s mine, most have collapsed.
I reached the bottom of the hill and ran through the colorful cottages of downtown Ester, where mounds of decades old mine tailings remain piled along Main Street with trees shooting out sporadically like something from a Dr. Seuss book. You can still see the scars of dredging from the highway.
In the 1930s, huge mining companies moved in, buying up the small claims and hiring the prospectors who’d been working them. Lounsbury’s dad got a job drilling test holes in the soil.
They blasted the ground with hydraulic cannons to get down to the gold-bearing gravel, then clawed the hillsides with draglines to dislodge more pay dirt. Then they flooded the valley floor, pumping water from the Chena River 10 miles away. Dredges floated through the dirty artificial ponds, scrounging gravel from the bottom and running it through multiple sluice boxes to capture the gold.
Finishing my run, I heard the hum of machinery in the distance. I looped around Quartz Road and came face to face with a gaping hole where the hillside used to be. More than 100 years after the gold rush and 30 years after Lounsbury called it quits, they are still digging.