Miner's biography suffers from rocky writing

Posted: Thursday, November 06, 2003

Wesley Earl Dunkle is not a household name today, but he led a fascinating life and contributed much to Alaska's development in the first half of the 20th century. A miner, engineer and aviator, he helped the chaos of gold-rush prospecting mature into a modern extractive industry.

Charles Caldwell Hawley, a geologist with intimate knowledge of Alaska's mining, has written the first biography of Dunkle, and the University Press of Colorado has issued it as part of a series on mining in the American West.

"During a 50-year professional career, Dunkle set a pace in geology and mining that was difficult to follow," Hawley writes in his introduction. "That pace accelerated in 1932 after Dunkle earned his pilot's license, and he barely slowed down until his death in 1957."

Dunkle came to Alaska in 1910 as the gold rush ended, and he came trained in the then-new sciences of applied geology, mining engineering and business analysis. He had a knack for sizing up prospects: predicting where ore veins went, what they could yield and whether extracting them could pay off.

His first work was for the Guggenheim syndicate that ran the massive copper mines at Kennicott and related sites around Prince William Sound.

"For many new arrivals, Kennicott was a shock. After the miners drew their equipment and supplies, they went uphill to the bunkhouses and mines via the aerial tramway," Hawley writes. "... Each man stepped into a bucket and was on his way, in some places hanging 300 feet above the ground."

Dunkle worked out of Cordova, Valdez, Kennicott and Anchorage. For a year starting in 1915, he managed the Beatson copper mine on LaTouche Island, where he acquired a reputation as a competent and likeable manager.

The Guggenheims employed him not only as a manager and engineer, but also as a scout. The latter involved arduous travel through Alaska's backcountry, well suited to his natural athleticism. When he began flying, he knew the land so well he never needed charts.

"Dunkle later reminisced that in the 1930s he probably knew physical Alaska about as well as anyone," Hawley writes.

His career took him to the U.S. Southwest and to Africa, but he spent nearly all his working life in Alaska.

It did not always go well. After making a pile of money during the 1930s at the Lucky Shot gold mine near Willow, he ran into financial trouble developing another lode called Golden Zone near Broad Pass south of Healy. But Dunkle was never too pessimistic or too proud to pick up a shovel himself.

His contributions went beyond producing jobs, metal and coal. It was Dunkle who suggested linking lakes Hood and Spenard to create a seaplane base. He was a charter member of the Alaska Miners Association and even applied for the job of territorial governor.

Readers with an interest in mining and its role in Alaska will find nuggets of useful and curious information throughout the book. Others may find it hard diggings.

Hawley creates a quintessential "left-brained" book. Although Dunkle was friends or colleagues with a cast of colorful personalities from artist Sydney Laurence to banker Elmer Rasmuson, the author gives us more detail about rocks such as chalcocite and breccia than he does about the people in Dunkle's life.

The way he handles his subject's family is a case in point. Dunkle liked independent, intelligent women and married two of them. Here is how the author describes Dunkle's reaction to the untimely death of his first wife, Florence, and losing his father and brother within just a few months of her demise:

"Dunkle's worst fears were justified," Hawley writes. "... Always consumed by work, Earl drove himself even harder at the Lucky Shot mine and elsewhere in Alaska during the next few years."

Hawley is scrupulous about his facts and clear in his writing style. But he tells his tale in a dry manner and moves his narrative around in time and space to a confusing extent. On the other hand, the historic photos included (many from the Dunkle family's private albums) and maps (some drafted by Hawley himself) are real assets to the book, as are its glossary, bibliography and thorough notes.

The epilogue is one of the best parts of the book, neatly summarizing Dunkle's accomplishments and setting them in historical context. It showcases the best of Hawley's thoughtful and thorough approach.

"Wesley Earl Dunkle" is a frustrating but valuable book. It would be more accessible from the pen of a more graceful writer but, like many of Alaska's untapped mineral reserves, it offers real rewards for those willing to dig beneath the surface.

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

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