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Mr. Alaska: Bob Bartlett Goes to
Washington

A Fortune in Gold Mining
By Theresa Bakker
January 2, 2009

GOLD ROOTS

The original Roman Senators may be known for their privilege, a board of old men looking to exert their power, but as part of the American dream of equality, the U.S. Constitution allowed for an elected body that would represent the people. Still, it's rare to learn of somebody serving who really is a regular "Joe."

Before Edward Lewis "Bob" Bartlett became Alaska's Territorial Delegate and helped create the state he would go on to represent as one of its first senators, he worked in the gold mines, an occupation steeped in the Alaskan experience.

Gold was the reason Bartlett's family was in Fairbanks in the first place. His parents, Ed and Ida, came north separately following news of the Klondike strike. Ed Bartlett and his three brothers set up a freight packing business in Skagway and later moved their operation to Dawson City, where he met Ida. The two soon married.

After the turn of the century, Ed Bartlett moved his family to the young town of Fairbanks, keeping pace with the flow of gold discovery. He established himself as a freighter on Goldstream Creek in the valley just beyond town.

At that time, many women left the state for pre-natal care, so in 1904 Ida gave birth to their son Edward Lewis in Seattle. Bob would later say that was his only regret, not to have been born in Alaska. Their daughter "for reasons of her own" according to Claus-M. Naske's book Bob Bartlett of Alaska, "refused to address her brother by his given name and instead called him ‘Bob.'"

Bob Bartlett grew up in the modest town of Fairbanks, a place made unusual by its harsh climate and isolation. Going anywhere meant an eight-day trip by horse and sleigh over a rugged trail to Valdez, where travelers could catch a steamer to Seattle.

As a young man, Bob had avoided the family business. By the time he was married with a child, he was working in Juneau as an Assistant to the Federal Housing Authority Director. After his father died unexpectedly of a stroke, he decided to step in and take over his family's mining operation at Independence Creek. He was 32 years old.

HARD TIMES

Bob and his wife Vide arrived in Fairbanks "on April Fool's day, a cold, windy and overcast day," according to Naske's book. "They arrived on the train and were met by many friends, yet, to Vide it was not only cold but very disheartening to be back in Fairbanks, having left it with such high hopes for a new life just three short years earlier."

Independence Creek was one of several gold bearing waterways winding through the hills surrounding the Miller House on the Steese Highway northeast of Fairbanks. The roadhouse catered to area miners who needed food and a bed, but soon evolved into a port of call for the freighters and stagedrivers operating between Fairbanks and Circle to supply the placer mining operations in the vicinity.

The antiquated practice of building wood fires and slowly excavating the thawed ground had evolved into a new kind of placer mining. Giant hydraulic hoses were the preferred technology. They blasted cold water over the gravelly streambeds, washing away the muck. Miners used bulldozers to stack the remaining tailings, which were eventually sluiced for gold.

To get to their claim, Bob and Ida took a bush plane to Circle and then had to walk to the mine some forty miles away. Bob joked that it was more than he'd walked in his whole life. He lost twenty pounds in as many days and settled in to the rigors of mining.

The first summer went fairly well. Vide took care of the children at the nearby hot springs, while Bob and his crew worked at the mine. Mary Nordale's family was close to the Bartletts. She spent the summer with them, taking rides on the tractor and playing with the family's cocker spaniel, Toto.

She remembers that Bob was uncomfortable with mining. "They weren't very successful, so he didn't like it. He did enjoy parts of it, he just didn't like being dependent on it for an income."

The summer of 1938 was especially difficult. After an early start in the spring due to an abundance of water on the placer operation from a huge field of melting ice, the weather suddenly turned cold and the water slowed to a trickle.

"It's darn hard to wash the gold out of the creeks without any water," Nordale said. "And of course, the Depression was hitting Alaska by then."

Vide and Doris Ann stayed behind in Seattle that year. Bob hated being so far away from his wife and young daughter. He didn't want to repeat the way of life that had been so difficult for his parents. He later wrote that his dad "never had a real opportunity to know his children or to enjoy home life." He couldn't face that prospect himself.

When the mining season finally ended in the late fall, Bartlett was better off than he anticipated. He broke even. But Bartlett knew Independence Creek Mine had yielded its best, and he "definitely knew that 1938 had been his last mining season," according to Naske's book.

MINING DAYS

Mining wasn't a lonely life, since there were miners all over the place, but it wasn't a place for children either. "It was strictly a boys' camp," Nordale said. "These guys would be off at the mine while their families stayed at the hot springs."

Nordale remembers those times with the Bartlett family at the hot springs fondly. She said the resort was much the same as it is today. "They had an outdoor pool with a diving board. They had a horse in a pasture, and they grew some veggies.

"Doris Ann and I never went into the hotel itself, because Bob and Vide had one of the cabins in that little row facing the hotel. In the winter, the miners would park in the springs, so in the summer when they were busy, it was mostly used by visitors."

Although mining was a hard life with plenty of uncertainty and disappointment to go around, they also made happy memories. Ray and Dorothy Wrede were lifelong friends of the Bartletts. Their daughter Pat Babcock remembers watching Bob eat blueberry pie on his many visits to their family home.

"Sometimes Bob would eat a whole pie all by himself," she said.

Bob Bartlett always had an encouraging word for Pat and her sister Jeanette, who both live in Fairbanks today. "His warmness in thought and spirit gave us the self-confidence to embark on our endeavors with humor, spirit, dignity and cheerfulness."

Bob's connection to the men he worked with at the mines ran deep. He and his wife remained lifelong friends of the Wrede family. The Wredes came into the Circle Mining District in a small leaky boat they floated down the Yukon River from Whitehorse. Bob Bartlett and Ray Wrede traveled to Seattle together in 1938.

Dorothy was working for the Alaska Steamship Company in Seattle. Bob knew her since childhood; he'd stayed at her home in Fairbanks while he was going to school, so he introduced her to Ray at a party. They married in 1939 and returned to the Circle District.

After Bob Bartlett got out of mining, he and his mother sold their entire outfit to Ray and his brothers. At the time, Bob was a Territorial Delegate to Congress. In a letter to Ray Wrede, he wrote, "You are welcome to everything we have at the mining claim, except for my long johns, which I may need this winter, as the Japanese have invaded Alaska."

Today Bob and Vide Bartlett are buried next to their best friends, Dorothy and Ray Wrede, at the Northern Lights Memorial Cemetery off Yankavich Road.

Theresa Bakker is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer. This is the second of a four-part series she wrote for the premiere of KUAC's new documentary Mr. Alaska: Bob Bartlett Goes to Washington. It airs Jan. 29, 2009 at 9 p.m. on public television stations statewide.

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