The Davidson Ditch

90 miles to Chatanika

The Davidson Ditch is a 90-mile pipeline built in the 1920s to supply water to gold mining dredges north of Fairbanks. Abandoned in the 1960’s, it was the first large-scale pipeline project in Alaska, and lessons learned in its construction were applied to building the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline System from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay half a century later. 

By 1910, most of the placer claims around Fairbanks had been well-worked. From a peak of 9.5 million in 1909, gold production began declining, and by 1920 less than one million dollars in gold was being produced annually. 

Mining engineer Norman C. Stines, an unusual man with an equally unusual history, had worked abroad with some of the preeminent mining engineers in the world. He had observed the success of the huge gold mining dredges near Nome, and he believed the same technique would prove profitable in the Fairbanks area, but the lack of available water presented a problem. 

Dredges, which work from barges, require tremendous amounts of water to float the barges, thaw the permafrost, and remove the overburden, exposing the gold-bearing ground. In their research document The Davidson Ditch, produced for the cultural resource consulting firm Northern Land Use Research, Inc. in 2005, Catherine Williams and Sarah McGowan wrote, “Only by moving millions of cubic yards of the muck overlying gold-bearing gravels …. could the low-grade placer gold deposits be mined profitably.”

Nome surveyor and civil engineer James M. Davidson had overseen the construction of the 50-mile Miocene Ditch, which channeled water from the Nome River to early mining operations in that area. Born on December 3, 1853 at Ft. Jones in northernmost California, Davidson had attended the University of California, took courses in civil engineering, and had mined on the Klamath River before turning to farming. Almost wiped out in the financial panics of the 1890’s, he’d been among the thousands of hopefuls crossing the Chilkoot Pass in 1898, but as a trained engineer with a background in mining, the then-45-year-old Davidson was better prepared than most of the stampeders on the trail to the Klondike. 

Davidson traveled down the Yukon River, decided he didn’t like Canadian laws and mining methods, and crossed into Alaska, happy to be back on American soil. He was mining on Mastodon Creek, in the Birch Creek Mining District near Circle, when word was received of a gold strike on Anvil Creek, near Nome, and seizing the opportunity, Davidson booked passage on the first steamship down the Yukon River in the spring of 1899. It proved to be a wise move, and by 1920, when Stines traveled to Nome to seek him out, Davidson had built a thriving surveying and engineering business. 

After meeting with Stines, Davidson agreed to travel to Fairbanks and study the situation. He conducted initial field surveys of a major water diversion-supply system for the Chatanika drainage north of Fairbanks. Behind the scenes was the United States Smelting Refining and Mining Company, which established the Fairbanks Exploration Company, or FE Co., to design, construct, and operate the facilities at the Chatanika Gold Camp. The exact relationship of Stines and U. S. Smelting is uncertain, but from 1920 on they backed Stines and let him lead the Alaskan field projects into the development and early mining stages.

In July 1924, Davidson, with a 22-man survey crew, mapped the topography, calculated water flow, and staked out a ditch route 90 miles long designed to divert water from the Chatanika River at a point below the junction of Faith and McManus Creeks to hydraulic sluicing operations at Cleary and Goldstream, just north of Fairbanks. He obtained the necessary mining options and water rights for the project, and, after the initial survey was complete, James Davidson, then over 70 years old, retired, leaving the detailed surveying and construction to others. He died in northern California just four years later, never seeing the completed engineering marvel which would bear his name. 

The final design was by J.B. Lippincott, consulting engineer, a man of international reputation in the world of hydraulic engineering, who had been an assistant chief engineer on the Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in 1913. In April, 1926 the first crews began clearing the right-of-way for the ditch. The route more or less paralleled today’s Steese Highway, and a handful of work camps were established along the route to house workers. Construction took place before the advent of the bulldozer, so earth moving was primarily done by tractors, graders, and steam and diesel shovels, but it was necessary to employ gangs of workers equipped with hand shovels in many places inaccessible to the machinery. 

The entire system was gravity fed, utilizing no pumps or mechanics. A containment dam just below the meeting of Faith and McManus Creeks fed water into open ditches which gradually descended along ridge lines. Fifteen inverted siphons channeled the water down hillsides, across intersecting streams, and back up to the grade level. A 3,700-foot long tunnel was blasted though a ridge between Chatanika and Goldstream Valley.

As built, the Davidson Ditch had 83.3 miles of earthwork section, 6.1 miles of inverted siphon, a 0.7 mile long tunnel, and about 0.4 miles of pen stocks and flumes. The construction project concluded ahead of schedule but over budget on May 18, 1928, when the first water flowed into the pipeline. 

In the 1930s the famed musher Leonhard Seppala, who had braved blizzard conditions in the 1925 Serum Run to Nome, lived at Chatanika and patrolled the Davidson Ditch with his dogteam, ensuring the steady flow of water to the gold dredges was not interrupted. 

Today the rusty red pipeline is visible from several places along the Steese Highway, and a Davidson Ditch Historical Site at milepost 57.3 tells of the history and construction. Abandoned in the late 1960s, the remains of the conduit are partially protected by its inclusion in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. It is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, but to date it has not been listed. ~•~