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A Relic of Alaska's Mining Past Roars to Life


The churn drill sat rusting on an old mining claim for decades.

Story and photos by: Bill Hedman and Lisa Shon Jodwalis, Central Yukon Field Office, BLM Alaska

In 2009, miners who were cleaning up an old mining claim near Coldfoot, Alaska, donated a 1920s-era churn drill to the Bureau of Land Management. The drill, rusted and overgrown with willows, might not have looked impressive to many, but BLM Central Yukon Field Office Archaeologist Bill Hedman found that it was surprisingly intact.

In the early 20th century, gas-powered churn drills like this one had offered Alaska placer miners a major technological advance, allowing them to dig a test hole through frozen gravel much more quickly and efficiently than with picks and shovels. Hedman decided this piece of Alaska mining history warranted some fixing up…

The churn drill sat rusting on an old mining claim for decades.

By 2011, Hedman had arranged to have the drill transported 10 miles down a creek and then 250 miles down the Dalton Highway to Fairbanks. There, machinist and antique engine expert John Howe worked off and on for the next two years to reconstruct the drill, fabricating new parts when necessary. For example, the drill needed a left lay rope to keep the tooling taut against the drop and pull of the hoist. Such ropes are now rare, so Howe had to make his own. He also milled and cured the Douglas fir timbers on which the rest is now mounted.

Howe made the rope used to raise and lower the drill bit.

Central Yukon Field Office staff gather at Howe's shop near Fairbanks to watch the churn drill in action.

In September, Howe fired up the churn drill for the first time in many decades, possibly since the 1960s or 1970s. The past roared back to life as the LeRoi 2-cylinder engine caught quickly. Howe adjusted a lever, and various wheels and belts spun and jiggled. He pulled another lever, and the chisel bit rose and dropped to the ground over and over, just as it had for the early miners. The magic moment was captured in this two-minute video: http://bit.ly/HuSZmd .

Next spring, the churn drill will be fired up again to enjoy a brief moment in the Fairbanks spotlight before joining a replica prospector's cabin and other artifacts in an outdoor gold-mining display that the BLM is constructing near the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center in Coldfoot. Miners in both the Coldfoot area and Fairbanks have been active supporters of the new exhibit, which is scheduled to open in a few years.

The churn drill will be placed next to this replica prospector's cabin constructed by the BLM in 2011.

Story and Photos: By Bill Hedman and Lisa Shon Jodwalis, Central Yukon Field Office, BLM Alaska

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