10 February 2011

Chapter 45: "The Marvelous Assignment"

Above the clouds at Bonanza    --W.A.Richelsen
  The weather pattern was similar to one which had occurred nine
years before that forced the end of old Mother Lode company.  There had been a
steady build-up of snow in the higher elevations as storm after storm dumped its
load over Bonanza Ridge.
        Chief Engineer Richelsen had recommended that Kennecott
permanently close the Mother Lode upper camp due to the ongoing danger of
avalanches.   Bill Douglass concurred because production at the Mother Lode was
declining and the Mother Lode miners could easily be housed at the Bonanza
camp.   Indeed it made more sense, given the new arrangement of crosscut tunnels
at the 800 and 1,250 levels, to house both the Bonanza and Mother Lode crews at
Bonanza upper camp, which could bed 124, which was well above what was needed in
        It was a relatively fast ride down that Bonanza 30 degree
incline shaft to the Mother Lode workings which began at the 1257 cross-cut
tunnel.  The cross-cut was located near the bottom of the Bonanza incline
shaft.  The 1257 cross-cut was a major haulage tunnel that ended at the top of
the Mother Lode incline shaft.  At that point  there was easy access to the 
1250, 1400 and 1600 levels that were under development by 1922.
        The Bonanza-Mother Lode was a single vein, extending from the
top of the Bonanza to a point well inside the Mother Lode.  The  mines were
contiguous, lying along the same thirty-degree plane.  Even though the mines
were separated by a line on a map and were headed by different corporations,
they were in reality a single mine with the main adit and camp being the
        Every underground working from Erie to Mother Lode was connected
except the Marvelous tunnels.  The Marvelous was the original Mother Lode. The
workings had been discontinued  in 1918 as unimportant. In late 1926 the time
finally arrived when they would be reopened to ensure that all possibilities of
large ore extensions had been thoroughly eliminated before the area was
completely ,abandoned.  

ML Profile
Mining profile of part of the Bonanza-Mother Lode workings in 1926
        The reason for the location Marvelous vein was a mystery. 
Except for the Slurry vein in the Jumbo workings, all of the ore bodies were
found fifty to seventy-five feet above the contact zone that separated the
unproductive Nicolai greenstone from the ore-bearing Chitistone limestone.  The
Marvelous vein had assay reports showing seventy percent pure copper, yet it was
hundreds of feet above the contact zone.  It failed to fit the ore profile, but
there it was anyway.
        When Kennecott took over the Mother Lode workings in 1918, it
deemed the Marvelous a fluke and ordered the work there discontinued.  While the
Marvelous was the original showing and the only copper vein exploited by the old
Mother Lode company, the Kennecott engineers realized that the real Mother Lode
of copper ore had to exist in a direct line with the Bonanza contact zone.  Wes
Dunkle projected a large orebody just beyond the Bonanza vein.  He was quickly
proved correct when the Kennecott miners encountered the fabulously rich 1252
stope in August of 1918, only months after Mother Lode was absorbed by
        With the projected end of all the copper mines in sight, it was
time to examine the remote possibility that an orebody could run from high up
the Mother Lode Gulch and continue well into the adjacent Marvelous Gulch to the
northeast along the same strike as the other veins, but well above the main
vein.  It would require following the existing Marvelous workings and mining
them out to expose all the ore at that level.  
        The main reason the Marvelous had been left alone for so long
was its isolated position.  It would have to be connected to the rest of the
mine system by running a raise from the Bonanza-Mother Lode 800 level to the
Marvelous 600 level. It would also be necessary to extend the Mother Lodge
vertical shaft upward to meet the 600 level.  The 800 level is one of the first
of two main crosscuts that allowed haulage from the Mother Lode workings to the
Bonanza incline.  
        To save time and to avoid the cost of extensive tunneling in
order to properly connect the Marvelous to the main system, the engineers
concluded that it made more sense to reoccupy the old camp,  located 5,200 feet
above sea level on the McCarthy Creek side, at the end of the 800 cross-cut,
also known as the Rhodes tunnel.
        The old camp had a jig-back tram which facilitated travel to the
600 level adit, which was the base level for the upper  Marvelous workings.  
The men would be able to readily access these workings by staying at the old
camp while dropping the ore down the new chute that dropped into the Rhodes
        The upper Marvelous was relatively close to the top of the
ridge, resulting in considerable water seepage into the upper workings--a
problem that was common to the upper levels of Bonanza and Jumbo.  The problem
at Marvelous was more severe because it was considerably closer to the surface. 
There is much less ridge above those workings than anywhere else.  The Jumbo
adit was a thousand feet  below the top of Castle Rock, just as the Bonanza
workings were about a thousand feet below the top of Bonanza Peak. The
Marvelous, at one point was only a hundred feet or less from the top of the
ridge.  This was the point where the ridge separating the two gulches dipped
steeply toward the McCarthy Creek canyon.
        The snow tended to accumulate to great levels from  the top of
Bonanza Peak on down to the area just above Mother Lode upper camp.  The camp
was in a narrow gulch with a steep ridge to the north and a glacial cirque to
the west.  The proximity of these two high points to the camp left the Mother
Lode in constant danger of inundation by avalanche.
        The meeting among all the engineers to discuss the Marvelous
took place late in 1926 in the map room. 
        “I am opposed to reopening that Marvelous area, especially if it
also means opening the upper Mother Lode camp. If we must do it, we need to
extend the tunnel system so the men can easily access it from Bonanza.”
        “We are well aware of your strong opposition, Walt.  What
about you, Melvin?”
        “I have to admit that Walt could be right.   That is a very
dangerous area, especially during the season we’re considering for the
exploratory operation.    The seepage problem is bad enough, but that avalanche
danger, especially with the heavy snowfall so far this winter, is at least as
bad as it was when we first acquired Mother Lode.  I sure would not want to be
the resident engineer in charge of that project.”
        Bill looked around the table.  The concern in the eyes of most
all the engineers was difficult to mistake for simple worry. It verged on
genuine alarm.

Old map showing relative positions of the Kennecott (K) and Mother Lode (M) Claims.  The
Chitistone Limestone formation was the host rock for the rich copper ore.
(Below) Another old map showing original ML claims and a proposed main haulage tunnel that was
never driven.  Adjacent Kennecott claims are identified by the letter "K"

        “Your concerns are noted, but I have the orders right here
from my bosses, Mr. Nieding and, more importantly,  Mr. Stannard.   He wants the
area mined and the exploration completed so we can permanently close Marvelous
out.  And he wants it done as soon as possible.    I understand that he’s been
pressured from the stockholders of Mother Lode Coalitions Company.   Some of
them are large investors of great power who are not at all  happy with their
returns for 1925 and 1926.” 
         “They were all stockholders when the Marvelous was being mined.
Now they want the work finished.  They seem to think that there really is a
large orebody there which would justify extending our tunnel system in that
        “Damned that Bateman,” someone was heard to mutter.
        “Well, I’d like to think so myself.  After all,  the prospects
for Kennecott have not looked too promising lately.
        “From the very beginning we’ve built our reputation on our
ability to face and overcome adversity.  We’re still considered the miracle
workers of the copper mining world.   Every problem we’ve ever faced has been
overcome. The profits for both Kennecott and Mother Lode Coalitions Company
reflect that.”
        “So now it’s come to this, Bill.  Is it profits ahead of safety?
Is is the considered opinion of the expert engineers against the hopeful wishes
of a few greedy investors who’ve already long since made their fortunes? What
makes those stockholders experts on Alaska mining, anyway? Not a one of us
really believes there’s anything to that Marvelous nonsense. We called it a
freak occurrence then and shut it down.  It’s like the Nicolai Prospect--all
show and no substance. Why risk the men and so much of our resources for
something none of us believe in?”
        Bill leaned back on one of the office chairs rolled into the
room for the conference. He lit his pipe and looked out the west-facing windows
to the glacier.
        “Walt, you’re my right-hand man. You’ve been here as long as I
have and we’ve all learned to respect your engineering skills.  But this is no
longer a simple matter of our opinion as to whether the ore is there.  These men
pay our way.  They could close us tomorrow and never miss the place.   They
haven’t given me any choice.
        “It’s no longer a matter of whether or not we proceed.
It’s how we go about it.”
        “Then we better plan carefully for safety.”
        “Even that’s a problem.  Charles Earl and C.T. Ulrich want us to
close the area out as soon as possible. They’re thinking they can finish mining
Mother Lode and get out with a large profit.”
        “That’s not possible. Not getting out quickly, anyway.”
        “I know, Melvin.  Realistically we’re years away from mining out
the property. But this time our expert opinion doesn’t count.  So we need an
engineer to head the Marvelous Project.  I’m giving it a special priority, which
means he’ll have the complete resources I have at my disposal, especially the
help of all of us.”
        “Russell, you’re next in line.  Do you want this assignment?”
        Russell Belvedere was known for his willingness to speak out
when most of the engineers would say nothing.  He had an irreverent streak in
him which ran deep, but he was also extremely dedicated to his work and held the
respect of his fellow engineers.   He was currently assigned to the Jumbo along
with Frank Buckner, the junior engineer.  They were working on the details for a
retreat plan in advance of closing the Jumbo mine down.
        “Thank you, Mr. Douglass, but I believe that this is a
opportunity we owe to Frank here, who has been at the mines three years without
having a command assignment like this one.  I already have the Jumbo, at least
when Mel is elsewhere.  I suggest that we give this job to Mr. Buckner.”  
         Russell did not want Marvelous any more than did Melvin Smith,
who probably should have been given it due to his level of expertise. All the
engineers turned toward Frank, who looked, in his engaging boyish manner,
completely surprised and overwhelmed.
        “Sir, I’ve been ready to take on this or any other command
assignment from the moment I arrived here.  If none of my seniors wants the job,
I’ll be more than willing to take it.”
         The other engineers nodded their agreement, settling the
matter, though Walter Richelsen felt uneasy about the entire process.  He even
felt a little guilty.

        This is no job for a junior engineer.  That’s a tough one up there.  
I should do it, I suppose, but Gladys would have a fit.

        He considered the youth and inexperience of Frank Buckner and
almost stood up to volunteer himself instead.   But he quickly thought better of
it, especially with the disapproving image of Gladys on his mind. He stayed put.
        The meeting went on as the engineers considered the difficulties
with Marvelous in the springtime.   The coldest part of the winter time was out
of the question because the jig-back tram was too cold to operate then, and
because the upper workings would also be too cold due to the proximity to the
surface. It would also likely be heavily frosted, creating yet another set of
difficult and hazardous working conditions.
         Furthermore, the upper  camp could not be placed back on line
until warmer weather moved in without great cost and difficulty.   The engineers
anticipated workable temperatures by the end of March.   The greatest problem
then would be the overhead snow which would begin melting into the workings
during the warmer daytime hours. 

        That problem would be partly alleviated by running the crew only
at night during the freezing temperatures.   For by mid-April when operations
should be well underway, the daytime warmth would undoubtedly cause some
unavoidable water run-off problems into the upper areas, so everything had to be
completed in that upper area on a very tight schedule.
        “I’m assigning a crew of eighteen, and picking the Erie foreman,
Eldon Johnson,  to head the special crew.  He’s well experienced for this sort
of operation.” 
 Douglass was looking straight at Frank Buckner.
        “You’ll be on your own out there, so you’ll have your own cook
and waiter.   They’ll have to come from the staff already at Bonanza.  We’ll
move them to the Mother Lode to serve your crew and tend to the barracks
facilities.   It’s good that you have some practical experience with boilers and
electric motors. You’ll need it out there.  Frank, you’ll have to see to the
safe operation of the jig-back tram motor and the boiler which will heat the
camp.  Fortunately, the boiler there is a new one, as we just installed it in
1920 when the original proved too small and unreliable for our needs.
        “The power already runs through to there by way of the 800
crosscut, but the boiler fuel will have to be trammed up McCarthy Creek this
winter and then hoisted up the aerial tram at thirteen mile.   That means you
will also have to see to the operation of the thirty-five horse tram motor from
the days of the old company.   We rebuilt the entire aerial tram  system in 1918
after the last avalanche destroyed most of it. We’ll check it again, of course,
but the tram should be in good repair.”
        “This is beginning to sound like a major operation.”
        “In a way it is.  You get your own camp, Frank.  That’s part of
it. It also means that a lot of old equipment that hasn’t been used in years has
to be tested.
        “We’ll send the coal for the cook stove up on the same winter
sleds with the bunker fuel.   We’ll have to clear the McCarthy trail past Green
Butte since road hasn’t been used for some time, but that should present no
unusual problem.  The road to Green Butte remains open, even though that mine
stopped production last year.  
        “In conclusion,  we’ll take whatever resources we have and use
it all to full advantage.”
        Frank looked at Bill Douglass, Walter Richelsen, Mel Smith,
Russell Belvedere and the others and then leaned back on his swivel stool
contemplating this.  
        “I’ve no problem making any of that equipment work.  I’ve done
it enough times before in Montana and even as a boy in Wyoming.   But I hear a
sound of reluctance to fully back up the Marvelous operation in the tone of your
voice. That bothers me.”
        “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it to sound that way, ” Douglass
        “I guess it’s just the over-all tone here since Stephen Birch
announced to all of us that we were no longer high on the priority list. 
Actually, we are not on any priority list.  We are essentially on our own to
finish this project economically and without extra funds.  That’s just the
reality of it.”
        “Frank, you’ll have to ask for volunteers for head cook and
waiter-bull-cook.  I’m leaving it up to Eldon Johnson, to put together a mining
crew.  Because of the nature of the work, the crew will be carefully selected. 
This is not, by any means, an easy assignment, but it is likewise a challenging
opportunity which will mean a strong recommendation from me for almost anything
you want professionally once you’ve successfully completed this assignment.”

ML camp
Mother Lode upper camp and north wall of Marvelous Gulch where the Marvelous copper vein was located

         It was snowing heavily outside the office.   The top of the mill
could no longer be seen, though it was well-lit.  Production was still heavy
enough to require a night shift at the mill and tram terminal even in
        With the meeting dismissed, Frank walked with Russell, one of
the other unaccompanied engineers up to the three-story staff house, just uphill
from the office.
They walked up the wide steps onto the covered porch where a door with
leaded glass marked the inside stairwell landing.   
        At this first level, which was actually one floor above the
sidewalk below, were the two common meeting areas. There were also two guest
rooms and two complete bathrooms.  On the second and third levels were six rooms
each with two full-baths common to each floor.  The top level was reserved for
the women, including three teachers, two  nurses and the stenographer.  On the
second level lived Russell, Frank and four other engineers.  The two most 
senior engineers, including Melvin Smith,  lived on the main level.  
        The others were accompanied by their wives and children.   They
lived in the cottages.  Bill Douglass lived in the house just uphill from the
staff house with his four children, wife and a nanny. No one lived in the
manager’s house at the top of the walkway since Bert Neiding moved to Seattle in
        Frank opened the glass-top door and let Russell enter first. 
Russell excused himself and headed upstairs to his room.  Frank needed time to
think. He headed for the living room adjacent to the entryway.  This warm corner
room overlooked the office.  From there, Frank could see Bill Douglass in an
animated conversation with Walt Richelsen outside in the blowing snow, where
they were just leaving the office.
        Frank sat back deep into the leather couch.  The Regulator clock
showed the time as nearly two-thirty in the morning.  It had been a very long
meeting.  Frank began to  have doubts about what was about to happen.

        Am I really up to this assignment?  Can I handle this one alone?   
Why did Walt  seem so uneasy about Mother Lode. What was that heated 
discussion with the superintendent out there in the blowing snow over?

        Melvin walked in on the way to his room down the hallway on this
main floor.  He looked at Frank, but only smiled weakly and nodded silently
before  disappearing down the hallway toward his room.  Frank pulled himself out
of the soft couch and headed upstairs toward his room in this comfortably warm
and even cheerful staff house.  Outside the wind had picked up. It was snowing
even more heavily, gusting and even drifting.  By morning the snow would lie
heavily over the entire Kennecott and McCarthy area. The storm would continue,
stopping even the train from its normal arrival.   It would be a winter no one
could forget.  

ML camp detail
The Mother Lode Mine  upper camp: detail from the previous photo 

Continue with
Chapter 46: "Frank's Thanksgiving Letter"

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