From the bookshelf: Miner's biography a rare treasure

Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2005



The Platinum King: Andrew Olson's Story

By Jan Olof G. Lindstrom and Karen L. Olson

Book Publishers Network

$17.95 (softcover)

In 1926, Yupik prospector Walter Smith found something unexpected in his gold pan near Goodnews Bay. It was odd and didn't glitter, but he sensed its value. The strange nuggets turned out to be platinum, one of the few metals on Earth worth even more than gold.

Smith's pleasant surprise parallels this reader's experience opening "The Platinum King." What seemed at first glance an obscure biography by unfamiliar authors turned out to be an amazing story well told.

Anders Olof Olsson was born — at the cost of his mother's life — in 1885 in a rural Swedish farmhouse. His bereaved father could not raise him and his older sister, so he sent the two babes to live with grandparents nearby.

Times were tough in Sweden, and for two generations so many Swedes emigrated to America that the country lost one-fifth of its population.

Young Anders grew up in a large, loving family spread across two continents. A traveler fired the boy's imagination with tales of the Klondike gold rush. At age 18, the lad invested his meager savings in a ticket and set out for the home of an uncle near Seattle.

He adopted the name Andrew Olson and picked up English quickly. In the string of small towns running north from Seattle to British Columbia and swelling with Scandinavian newcomers, he worked on his relatives' farms and at area sawmills. But the young man remained restless. When he heard of a possible mining job in Alaska, he rushed to apply.

David Strandberg offered Olson and another young Swede jobs at a gold mine on the condition that they pay for their own outfitting and transportation and show up for work on March 1 in Ester. By the time they reached Valdez in mid winter, their pockets were nearly empty. Unable to hire transport, they walked the last 400 miles to Fairbanks.

Mining agreed with Olson. He returned several years later with his cousin, Daniel, to work at Flat. That time they landed at Seward and walked 500 miles to work.

"The Iditarod Trail led them over Moose Pass," Lindstrom and Olson write. "They walked in reverent silence, in awe of the landscape's grandeur — the glacier-carved valley, imposing mountains, chunks of icebergs trapped in the frozen lake, and the magnificent Portage Glacier."

Supervisors soon realized Olson was more than a fast shovel. He constantly sized up the work, tinkered, suggested improvements and created time-saving gadgets. While others spent earnings and free time on the rowdy frontier recreations of Fairbanks, the shy Swede heeded his family's advice to avoid liquor, cards and loose women. He stayed around camp, wrote letters to relatives, went fishing and read about scientific mining. Soon he was a crew boss himself.

He convinced many of his family to join him in America, studied mining technology in the Soviet Union and formed his own company. When others balked at the Bering Sea platinum due to the metal's unfamiliarity and the site's utter remoteness, he waded in.

Andrew Olson became president of the Goodnews Bay Mining Company. It provided all of the United States' platinum production for decades, including World War II, when the metal was declared a strategic need for airplane parts. The company remained a family affair, and the book does a remarkable job describing the unique and upbeat life at Platinum, Alaska.

In the course of a long career, Olson achieved a happy home life, met famous men, became a legend in his field and reaped enormous profits. Yet he avoided the high life and always referred to himself as a simple miner.

Horatio Alger could not have invented a more inspiring embodiment of the American Dream, and Olson's work in some of Alaska's most remote and challenging terrain makes his accomplishments all the more impressive.

The book "The Platinum King" is unusual and impressive in its own way. The authors are not professional writers, but relatives of Olson who came to the project through their fascination with history and genealogy.

The manuscript had its own trans-Atlantic odyssey. In Sweden, Jan Olof Lindstrom began writing about his family's legendary cousin who made good. He crafted a hybrid of scrupulously researched nonfiction embellished with fictionalized description and dialogue to fill in narrative blanks. He published the result in Swedish in 1993.

The tale so interested friends and relatives in America that Timothy Nordin, a Canadian whose family came from the same village as Olson, translated it into English. Karen Olson, a history buff from Seattle married to another Olson relative, got involved. She researched a wealth of new material about the story's Alaska and Washington aspects with help from the Alaska Miners Association, Olson's family and former mine employees. Her work was added to create an expanded, English version.

The result reflects hard work and dedication. When the book describes grandmother's framed embroidery on the wall, the reader is sure the writer has seen the very piece. The authors juggle two nations, the vast cast of characters and the interplay of personal and professional life with insight, warmth and finesse.

The prose is plain, the dialog a bit stiff. Yet those characteristics perfectly suit the tale of a taciturn Swede.

The book includes an interesting array of photographs ranging from family portraits to views of mining equipment. Lindstrom's line drawings are crude but effective. The authors include a glossary of mining terms, a list of characters and a detailed bibliography. An index and, especially, a more detailed family tree would have been helpful.

"The Platinum King" is homespun but awesome. It is not as flashy as some books, but this story is a real find worth treasuring.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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