Try Your Luck Panning for Gold As You Experience Alaska's Rich History

Allison Burney

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On a family trip to Alaska several years ago, one of our adventures took us back into Alaska's gold rush history: panning for gold!

We stopped at the El Dorado Gold Mine outside Fairbanks, where we got a train ride tour of a gold mine that was actually used during the Gold Rush of 1897 and well into the 1900s. We got to go through an underground tunnel and got a demonstration of how miners back then traced the gold and how they extracted it from the land.

Then we moved to our third stop, where we saw how the miners would separate the dirt and rock from the gold. They poured gallons of water at high speeds down into a sluice (a moat with wood walls on either side). The rushing water would wash away all the lighter stones and sand, and the gold would get trapped in the mesh turf area along the bottom. Then they drained the water and “collected their pay,” as the guide described.

Then it was our turn! We were each given a pan and a bag of “dirt,” and then we set off to a water basin to try our hand at panning for gold. I had collected about 7.5 grams of gold, which was worth about $37.50 at the time. Not too bad! The gift shop contained the 25th largest gold nugget ever found in North America, worth about $60,000 at the time—and it was heavy, too!

We also got a guided tour of Barge No. 8, which operated for about 30 years from the 1920s to the 1950s. During its operation, it extracted millions of ounces of gold, but only moved a total of about 4.5 miles during its entire working years. It was interesting to learn about how it operated and what it accomplished, and to imagine what it must have been like in this area during the Gold Rush era.

However, I couldn’t help but think about the destruction barges like this did to the natural environment, essentially destroying everything in their path. Even today, mining companies around the world are causing much harm to the environment and to the health of the local people living near the mines and working at them. It is a big point of contention worldwide today and leaves me with mixed feelings as a result.

While it was interesting to learn more about how mining began in North America and the rapid development that occurred because of the discovery of gold here, the detrimental effects also can’t be ignored. National Geographic explores some of the potential consequences of a proposed gold and copper mine currently being debated in Alaska, providing great insight into the pros and cons of mining operations.

The El Dorado Gold Mine has since closed, but those looking for a chance to participate in a slice of Alaskan history can try panning for gold at Gold Dredge 8 instead.

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Writer & proofreader. I love travel, reading, coffee, and exploring nature. On a mission to keep learning, growing, and enjoying this adventure we call life.

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