Several weekends ago, I got a shock on my way into the Laundromat. A newspaper headline proclaimed that Fairbanks, Alaska had lost an icon. My favorite place to explore, Gold Dredge Number 3, caught fire and burned.
The abandoned machine, built in the 1930s, was five stories tall, and yet it built a mound of rock that almost hid it from the road. It was an ankle twisting walk on rock tailings down to the rickety wooden ladder that allowed us to trespass on it’s decks.
Once inside, I was always overwhelmed by the smell of grease and oil that seemed to bleed from every spray-paint-tagged surface. Maybe that’s why it went up so fast…
For those not familiar with old-fashioned gold dredges, they are basically floating factories that tear up gravel, dump it inside themselves, sort and wash gold from the rock, then dump the tailings off a conveyor belt out back.
The iron ladder treads would ring as we climbed to the second floor to see the screens. The rock was sorted in this revolving screen tunnel. The gold fell out with the gravel and dirt and were separated on the mercury laced gold-saving tables seen to the right.
I would always walk carefully across the dredge’s splintered wooden floors and admire the levers, cogs, water pumps and motors. I imagined the sound of rock roaring in the tumbler overhead, like bricks in a clothes dryer, the groan of the water pump, the whir of the generator, the hiss of water washing sand from the gold and the crackle of falling rock on the tailings pile.
I’m drawn to old, mysterious things.
One of the dredge’s big mysteries is how it lasted this long. The eight local dredges ran from the early 1930s to 1963. Number 3 is one of the first built, and one of two that ended operations in 1963. 36 years is a long life for a piece of machinery with complex systems that needed constant maintenance. I can only imagine what a beating it took as it operated 24-7 for 254 days each year before ice froze the ground and the man-made lake it floated in. Dredges then sat empty through the winter, exposed to temperatures -40 degrees (C or F, they’re the same at that point) and colder.
But maybe the dredge’s long life is not such a big mystery. People who argue that human biological immortality is possible always point to classic cars. They continue to run perfectly, because whenever a part or system in these valuable cars wears out, it is replaced. For Dredge 3, whenever a part wore out, the Fairbanks Exploration Company replaced it. In the case of accidental damage (I’ll discuss that next week), a stream of gold profits flowed back and fixed it. In a way, all machines are potentially immortal. They don’t age or die, as long as you replace or repair the parts that malfunction or wear out.
Our bodies are complex, with multitudes of parts and systems, and one failure could result in failure for them all. Yet could the human body last forever if, like a machine, we could replace, repair and upgrade everything? Will that ever happen?
Of course, a fire like the one on August 3rd means the dredge will never have any hope of resurrection as anything other than scrap metal, and maybe not even that. Yet if we could repair living bodies, could we resurrect dead ones? Would we want to?
For more information:
The initial report from the Fairbanks Daily News Miner, with pictures
A great history of local dredges