Fairhaven Ditch

An aerial view of part part of Fairhaven Ditch showing a long ditch cutting through the tundra.
An aerial view of a section of Fairhaven Ditch.

NPS Photo - Eileen Devinney

 
Fairhaven Ditch was an extraordinary feat of construction during the early 1900s, considering the limitations
of the time period and the harshness of the environment on the Seward Peninsula. As miners exhausted
"the golden sands of Nome" with small scale mining along the beaches and in the streams and creeks near
Nome, there was a push to find more efficient ways to move mining into the interior of the peninsula.
Fairhaven Ditch, which runs through the eastern section of the preserve, was one answer to this problem.

Water was necessary for any large-scale mining operation on the peninsula. Ditches were often built to
support mining operations by bringing water from rivers and lakes to mining sites. Enterprising people
designed and built ditches, made from a series of pipes and dirt channels, to move water long distances.
By 1909, the peninsula was dotted with forty-two ditches carrying more then 52,000 inches of water a total
of 569 miles. The sheer size of the undertaking required to construct these ditches without mechanized
equipment and in remote locations, stands as a testament to the resourceful nature of humankind.

Work on Fairhaven Ditch started in 1906. Along with constructing the ditch, cabins were built to
accommodate the large work force needed to complete the project. The people working on the ditch faced
harsh conditions in extremely remote locations. A long way from home, the workers journeyed into the
mostly unknown area of the current boundaries of the preserve. A USGS surveyor noted that a
300-mile-long boat trip around the peninsula was quicker and easier than a cross-country hike through the
peninsula. The weather was unpredictable and could change at a moments notice. The swarms of
mosquitoes must have been a constant aggravation. Nonetheless, even with all the challenges, the ditch
was completed in 1907.

At the time, the ditch was one of the longest on the Seward Peninsula. It was eleven feet wide at the bottom
and ran for thirty-eight miles. It cut through dirt, permafrost, and lava formations. The process to build the
ditch was painstakingly slow because of the need to thaw layers of permafrost before creating a dirt and
canvas barrier to stop more thawing. Horses were brought in on barges to drag a device similar to an old
fashion snow plow. The movement of men, equipment, and horses over the vast landscape of the tundra
might now seem like an almost impossible feat, but the resourceful entrepreneurs of the time rose to the
challenge.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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