The Dalton Highway: A Multi-Media History of Alaska's Arctic Road

Archeologist: Robin Mills

Select a section below to listen to the interview segments.
Interviewer: Marie Mitchell Robin Mills Robin Mills  
Date: November 27, 2006
Identifier: H2006-28-11
Approximate Length: 60 min.
Biographical Information and Summary of Interview: Born April 4, 1968, in Manchester, England (U.S. Citizen)
Robin Mills' interest is in historical archeology and historical geography of interior Alaskan mining settlements & camps; late 19th and early 20th centuries material culture analysis; cultural and natural site formation. Mills earned his Ph.D. Anthropology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) in 1998. His Ph D. dissertation is about the "Historical Archeology of Alaska Placer Gold Mining Settlements". Since receiving his degree, Mills has written many articles and publications about his area of interest(s); and has assisted with the instruction of classes for the Anthropology departmentat UAF. Mills current professional title is Historical Archeologist for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Fairbanks, Alaska. Mills provides data and stories about the history of Coldfoot, Alaska and of mining in that area .
Storytelling: Click to listen to Part 1 of Mills story about "the 100-year flood at Coldfoot"
Click to listen to Part 2 of Mills story about "the 100-year flood at Coldfoot"

Segment 01) Robin Mills was born in Manchester England. He lived in Canada for 10 years, then immigrated to the US and grew up in New York State. Since 7 or 8 years old, he knew he wanted to work with artifacts. When he learned about archeology, he pursued that profession.

birth place -- England\ child hood -- Canada\ United states -- immigrated to\ childhood -- New York\ youth -- interest in\ archeology -- pursuit of\ Boston University -- enrolled in\ archeology|

Segment 02) Mills first field experience was as an undergraduate student at Boston University in 1988. Mills compares field experiences in the Lower-48 states with Alaska and notes that there is more opportunity for field experience in Alaska. Jobs in the Lower-48 require a graduate degree. In Alaska, even undergraduate students get field work experience and jobs. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also provides fieldwork opportunities. BLM help funds undergraduate fieldwork. Robin has a cooperative partnership with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and teaches graduate classes in historical archaeology in the anthropology department.

field work -- first experience\ field work -- comparisons with\ Alaska\ Lower-48\ Bureau of Land Management (BLM) -- opportunities with\ University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) -- employed with\ teacher\ historical archaeology -- anthropology department|

Segment 03) Mills graduated from Boston University in 1989. There was no Internet or email communications. He and his wife, archeologist Mary Ann Sweeney, were looking at catalogs. They saw a flyer that had UAF as a graduate school for archeology. Alaska sounded exciting. 16 years later, they are still in Alaska.

Boston University -- undergraduate\ internet -- non existent\ wife -- Sweeney, Mary Ann\ archeologist\ advertisement -- graduate school\ flyer -- UAF\ Alaska -- relocated to\ UAF -- enrolled in\ graduate program -- archeology\ home -- Alaska|

Segment 04) Mills finished his master's degree in 1992 and completed his dissertation in 1998. Mills worked for different federal agencies while attending school, and worked for a private contract archaeology firm, Northern Land Use Research (NLUR). NLUR has employed dozens of student archeologists since being founded in 1991. He has worked for the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and for the Bureau of Land Management. He also worked with professor John Cook, who got Robin involved with the historic Coldfoot mining town site, which turned out to be central to Robin's doctoral research.

graduate degree -- completion of\ dissertation -- completion of\ federal agencies -- employed with\ National Park Service (NPS)\ Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)\ Bureau of Land Management (BLM)\ archaeological firms -- contractor\ Northern Land Use Research (NLUR) -- employed with\ NLUR -- opportunities with\ NLUR -- first private archeological firm\ Alaska\ Cook, John -- UAF professor\ Cook, John -- Coldfoot mining town site\ Coldfoot mining town site -- involved with\ dissertation|

Segment 05) Access to archeological sites is easier then in the past along the Haul Road. In the past, transportation was primarily helicopters and floatplanes. Mills was on contract to direct a field school for the UAF anthropology department during the summer of 1994. Another site in the Anaktuvuk Pass area was originally going to be the site of the field school. However, that fell through in the spring of 1994, so Coldfoot became the new location for his field school because it was road accessible. Robin approached the BLM, and BLM archaeologist John Cook told him of the Coldfoot site, which had road access and it had not been researched. Robin directed archaeology field schools at the Coldfoot site for six weeks in 1994, and 12 weeks in 1995. The Dalton Highway (Haul Road) provided the access road to the Coldfoot site.

Haul Road -- benefits of\ access -- archeological sites\ transportation -- changes in\ past -- primary transportation\ helicopters\ float planes\ UAF field school -- contractor with\ UAF field school -- responsible for\ field school -- UAF anthropology department\ Anaktuvuk Pass -- original site location\ Coldfoot -- field school site\ Coldfoot -- accessible\ archeologists -- description of\ artifacts\ culture\ history\ anthropology\ BLM archaeologist -- Cook, John\ Coldfoot site -- involved with\ archeological field school -- purpose of\ Coldfoot site -- duration|

Segment 06) The field of historic archeology of mining sites was practically non-existent in Alaska in 1994. The Coldfoot site was an opportunity that was unique and different -- an original research topic. In Alaska, the field of archaeological inquiry is still wide open relative to the rest of the United States. For instance, very little work has been done on twentieth century archeology in Alaska, and of that, even less on mining archeology. The Klondike Gold Rush was pivotal to opening Alaska and mining opened up the territory in Alaska.

mining historic archeology -- specialty\ new\ Coldfoot site -- original research topic\ Alaska -- opportunities with\ archaeological\ Lower-48 -- limited opportunities\ twentieth century archeology -- opportunities in\ Klondike Gold Rush -- influence of\ migration -- people\ mining -- significance\ Alaska\ territory -- opened up\ winter trail -- Alaska Road Commission\ winter trail -- route\ Koyukuk mining district to Fairbanks|

Segment 07) Coldfoot site was virtually untouched by archaeologists. The site had been picked over for bottles and other interesting artifacts heavily by construction workers during the construction of the Dalton Highway. Otherwise, the site was virtually intact. The site had 30 archeological features; 14-15 cabin ruins, trash pits, and outhouse depressions. None of these features from this old gold rush town site had been investigated. Moreover, no one up to his initial research in 1994 had investigated a small mining town site in Alaska. Gold Rush mining archeology started in Alaska in 1992 with the Barnette Street Project in downtown Fairbanks. That research was done by archeologists from Northern Land Use Research.

Coldfoot site -- untouched by archaeologists\ artifacts -- removal of\ Coldfoot site - archeological features\ cabin ruins\ trash pits\ outhouse\ investigation -- first ever\ Coldfoot site -- mining town\ Gold Rush mining archeology -- started in\ Northern Land Use Research (NLUR) -- cultural resource firm\ NLUR -- responsible for|

Segment 08) What was Coldfoot before it turned into the truck stop that it is today? Coldfoot was founded in 1900, peaked in 1904, and in 1907 declined. This was a gold rush town where people rushed into an area to mine gold, hoping for quick riches, then departed after a year or so for other areas to mine (which happened throughout western US, Alaska, and Canada). From the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, there were gold rushes all over the world. Mining towns provide for and supported the miners and were centers for transportation, political, economic, and social services. In Coldfoot in 1902, there were 80 buildings -- general stores, brothels, saloons, mail, and freighting services. Miners neeed goods, entertainment, and supplies. Coldfoot was a high population gold rush town for a short period, but then the miners and support services moved elsewhere. When Coldfoot declined, the people shifted upstream for new mining opportunities near Wiseman. Prospectors are always looking for new discoveries. In 1907, one of the big strikes in the upper Koyukuk was located in the Nolan Creek area further upstream from Coldfoot. Essentially, the services followed the mining activity northward, and that is why Wiseman was founded.

Coldfoot -- history of\ founded\ mining -- effects of\ population -- changes in\ Coldfoot -- service community\ Coldfoot -- changes in\ Wiseman -- gold discovery|

Segment 09) Mills excavated 16 features in 1994, 1995 and 1997 -- cabins, trash pits, outhouse depressions. He eventually determined that what he was studying at the Coldfoot site was the post-gold rush time-period. His original interest was in "what happened to Coldfoot during the boom period". There were very few historic documents and few photographs of Coldfoot during its gold rush. Known records include the federal Post Office leaving in 1912, the jail, and the relocation of federal employees to Wiseman. The last trade-stop services closed down in 1920. The archeology, on the other hand, helped illuminate the post-boom period after 1904.

Coldfoot site -- excavation\ features -- discovery of\ features -- number of\ types of\ Coldfoot site -- findings\ post-gold rush time-period\ historic documents -- minimal\ historic records -- location of\ Coldfoot site -- history of|

Segment 10) With archeology, the crew examines material remains, some that are not recorded in historic records. An old miner and a Native couple lived in Coldfoot during the 1940s, using the standing cabins as firewood. Robin was able to document that Coldfoot was founded in 1899, and occupied until the 1930s. So the question is -- who occupied it, what was the population? The U.S. Census has provided some clues, which have names of the people who lived in Coldfoot. Based on the 1910, 1920, and 1930 US Census, there were more Alaska Natives moving into the old town site. Post-boom Coldfoot essentially became an Alaska Native community, where during the gold rush it was more Euro-American. Part of the mystery is not having a very clear census, merely hints of a population that lived there.

archeology -- purpose of\ responsible for\ Coldfoot site -- results of\ documentation -- the addition of\ historic records\ records -- information on\ founding of\ population of\ research -- on-going\ question -- occupants\ US Census -- informative\ occupants -- names of\ occupants -- changes in\ diverse\ findings -- non-conclusive\ Coldfoot -- changes in|

Segment 11) Historic archeology demonstrates and illustrates what people often do not see in historic records. Historic archeology gives the extra dimension that people may overlook. It investigates the period of time when people were in the area before, during, and after the gold rush.

historic archeology -- description of\ importance of\ Coldfoot site -- investigation of\ Coldfoot site -- application of\ historic archeology|

Segment 12) The challenge is the welding together of materials and linking together existing historic documents (photographs, diaries, census, documents, newspapers, and oral recordings). More can be learned by gathering the oral story component from people who lived in the Alatna, Allakaket, upper Koyukuk, and Wiseman area. Because of Mills' interest in the Gold Rush history, he wants to view letters, diaries, photographs from people and communities that have not been approached. "If people knew there was a place to archive and make public their own personal historic documents, then we could learn even more. Project Jukebox, and other oral history projects, offers that opportunity". Investigating a site is continuous. People who have traveled along the Haul Road can contact BLM or the Coldfoot Visitor Center to say they have something to offer that relates to the history of the area.

archeology -- challenges with\ historic records -- connecting with\ linking to\ materials -- types of\ written\ oral\ image\ Gold Rush History -- interest in\ historic documents -- archival of\ archiving -- importance of\ Project Jukebox -- oral history\ Haul Road -- interest in\ historic records\ tourists -- involvement with\ oral history|

Segment 13) The Coldfoot town-site was originally called Slate Creek. The town is at the mouth of Slate Creek on the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River. Gold Rush prospectors came to Coldfoot by way of the Koyukuk River, and those who got "cold feet" left the area. Those who stayed renamed the town Coldfoot.

Coldfoot town-site -- Slate Creek\ location\ Coldfoot -- naming of|

Segment 14) Robin talked with miners who revisited the upper Koyukuk area in the 1960s, before the construction of the Haul Road . The Coldfoot airstrip may not have been in operation at that time. Miners traveled with small jump planes along the natural river gravel bars in the 1960s before the pipeline. Wiseman has remained a viable community, whereas Coldfoot did not. In Coldfoot, there is a gap between 1930s and 1960s when there were a few Euro-American occupants. World War II precipitated the decline of prospectors to mining communities due to Executive Order (1942) to close down non-essential mining explorations. The 1960s saw a renewed interest in the upper Koyukuk area -- due to gold and oil discovery north of Coldfoot.

Haul Road -- pre-construction\ miners -- oral history\ Koyukuk area\ miners -- transportation\ planes\ Wiseman -- history of\ viable\ Coldfoot -- historic gaps\ World War II -- effected mining\ prospectors -- decrease in\ mining -- resurgence of\ Koyukuk area -- renewed interest\ gold discovery\ oil discovery -- north of Coldfoot|

Segment 15) Today in Coldfoot, there is the Coldfoot Truck Stop that was opened by Dick Mackey. When Robin arrived in 1994, the Dalton Highway was not opened to the public north of Atigun Pass. Summer 1995, the Dalton Highway was opened to the public. The University of Alaska excavated at Coldfoot in 1994, 1995, and 1997. Robin has been annually involved with the site since 1999, and was hired by BLM in the fall of 1999.

Coldfoot Truck Stop -- history of\ services -- the need for\ Mackey, Dick -- opened Coldfoot Truck Stop\ lease -- awarding of\ Dalton Highway -- limited public access\ public access -- date of\ UAF -- excavated at Coldfoot site\ duration\ BLM -- excavated Coldfoot site\ annual -- involvement with\ BLM -- employed with|

Segment 16) In spring 1999, the Koyukuk River shifted upstream at the Coldfoot site. The stable riverbank, where the Coldfoot site had been for over 100 years, began eroding. Since 1999, Robin has been measuring the erosion rate. He completed salvage excavations in 2000, 2001, 2003, and 2006. Now, the site is a salvage operation. The erosion is encroaching on the Coldfoot airstrip. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has placed riprap to protect the airstrip and possibly the Coldfoot site. More than half the old town site has eroded since 1999.

Koyukuk River -- changes in\ shifting\ Coldfoot site -- impacted by\ Coldfoot site -- century old\ Coldfoot site -- erosion of\ erosion rate -- rapid\ causes\ Coldfoot -- salvage operation\ Coldfoot airstrip -- erosion of\ Department of Transportation (DOT) -- riprap\ airstrip -- protection of\ Coldfoot town site -- remaining features|

Segment 17) Coldfoot facilities are available for crews working with the state and federal agencies. BLM built the Marion Creek administration site north of the Coldfoot Truck Stop. National Park Service has housing for seasonal workers and full-time rangers. BLM has cabins for seasonal workers. US Fish and Wildlife Service has facilities. There are enough facilities for biologists, archeologists, geologists, hydrologists, fisheries, and other seasonal workers. Coldfoot is considered a hub. "Build it and they will come". A visitor can now travel to Coldfoot and stay in reasonable comfort. During the construction of the Haul Road and pipeline, Dick Mackey started the Coldfoot Truck Stop to provide fuel for truckers delivering supplies.

Coldfoot Truck Stop -- service facility\ BLM -- Marion Creek campground\ NPS -- housing\ seasonal workers\ rangers\ BLM -- housing\ cabins\ seasonal workers\ US Fish and Wildlife Service -- amenities\ Coldfoot -- facilitates many\ biologists\ geologists\ archeologist\ hydrologists\ fisheries\ seasonal workers\ Coldfoot -- hub\ provisions\ Coldfoot Truck Stop -- started as\ purpose of\ provide fuel for truckers|

Segment 18) Robin was not in Alaska during the construction of the Haul Road. He explains archeologists can now do archeology in the Koyukuk area more conveniently than in the past (before the Haul Road). Marion Creek campground (north of Coldfoot) is a base for several public agencies. Since having these amenities, travel is more affordable and comfortable.

Haul Road -- benefits of\ archeology -- Koyukuk area\ Marion Creek campground -- base for several public agencies\ travel -- changes in\ positive|

Segment 19) Travel used to take 9 hours to drive from Fairbanks to Coldfoot. Mills experienced many flat tires back in those days. "Most of the Haul Road south of Coldfoot was paved with chip seal, which with the permafrost is now heaving up. When freshly put in (with chip seal) travel would take only four hours to drive from Fairbanks to Coldfoot". Today, the drive is longer due to the deterioration of the road.

Haul Road -- highway\ travel -- story of\ travel -- Fairbanks to Coldfoot\ travel time -- nine hour drive\ Haul Road -- changes in\ maintenance -- story of\ flat tires -- numerous\ chip seal -- benefits of\ permafrost -- effects of\ Haul Road -- deterioration of\ travel time -- variation\ road -- condition of|

Segment 20) Robin begins the story about "the 100-year flood" that occurred at Coldfoot in 1994. He was instructing an archeological field school at the Coldfoot site when the heavy rains and flooding began. This is part one of the story.

Segment 21) Robin continues the story of" the 100-year flood" that occurred at Coldfoot in 1994. This is part two of the story.

Segment 22) Reasons for archeological field schools sponsored by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Segment 23) Traveling the Haul Road to Coldfoot for work versus for pleasure.

project jukebox logo Return to Top | Project Jukebox | UAF Rasmuson Library | © Copyright Information | © 2007 UAF Oral History Department