The Golden Years : Mining's in His Blood, but It Hasn't Claimed His Soul

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gold fever. A sickness that can strike otherwise normal people to cause loss of all rational judgment. An affliction that makes thieves out of people who otherwise wouldn't steal, turns country against country and blasts families apart.

So says John Miscovich, a modern-day gold miner who has prospected his father's 1910 Alaskan claim for more than seven decades.

"Gold is a noble metal and has been respected from Day 1 around the world," said the Alaskan resident, who winters in Orange. "But in the wrong hands, it can be a very evil one. It can develop situations unlike anything else. The closest thing to it is diamonds, but even diamonds won't do it. It's an unbelievable spell."

Fortunately, he doesn't have it.

"It's always been a business to me," he said.

Miscovich, 74, sat in his memorabilia-lined home office and reminisced about his family's long gold-mining career near Flat, a once-booming interior town about 300 air miles from Anchorage. On the walls were dozens of family photographs, in addition to pictures of his invention, the Intelligiant, a hydraulic monitor for mining that is now used in many other industries worldwide.

"They say there's a relationship between your body chemistry and the chemistry of gold," he said, smiling. "It's like a magnet. You have to be very careful around gold that it doesn't become an addiction."

But gold is simply a product, said Miscovich, a product that has supported his family and his father's family before him for 82 years.

"By no means did we get rich," he said. "The first 25 years were a real struggle in every sense of the word."

The tale of the Alaskan Miscoviches trails back to Croatia in 1903. Peter Miscovich, John's father, was 18 then and wanted to avoid being drafted into the military.

"Some other Yugoslavs had already left for America and written back to say how wonderful it was, how free it was. (Dad) got enough money to get in a boat and head to New York," Miscovich said.

There, the elder Miscovich worked as a stevedore. Drawn by news from other Croatian immigrants, he then tried copper mining in Montana, gold mining in California and coal mining in Washington. Unhappy with working underground in all three jobs, he in 1910 saw a newspaper article about the gold rush in Iditarod, Alaska.

"He quit the mine, went to Seattle and traveled in steerage to St. Michael, Alaska where the ocean boat terminated," said Miscovich. "From there, he took a sternwheeler riverboat and traveled 2,000 miles up the Yukon and Iditarod rivers to Iditarod, about 8 miles from the gold strike."

In Iditarod, Miscovich's father bought supplies and headed by foot through the mosquito-infested tundra to the Discovery Claim near the town of Flat. He staked out about 40 acres there and thus started his career as a gold miner.

"Alaska was tough country," said Miscovich. "You had to be very resourceful. The winters were like Siberia, six months of dark, dark dreary winter. There were none of the facilities we all take so for granted--no hospital, no indoor plumbing, no electricity. It was all candles and lanterns and dog teams to bring the mail over once or twice a month."

In 1912, another Yugoslav arrived. When Peter Miscovich saw a picture of this man's sister, he asked him to write and ask her to be Miscovich's wife. She accepted, traveled to Flat and married Peter Miscovich in December, 1912.

"He didn't know her, but he liked the photograph," said his son, laughing. "He was a good judge of good-looking women."

Miscovich said during the height of the gold stampede, from 1910 until 1914, about 6,000 people moved into the area. And once the last riverboat left in October, the only way out was to walk.

Everyone came for the gold, he said.

"Practically everyone had the gold fever in one form or another," he said. "But when they saw there was no ground left, they got into other businesses."

Iditarod rapidly grew to an incorporated city with 17 saloons, a telegraph system and three newspapers. Flat had a telephone system, two stores, a hotel, restaurant, pool hall, laundry and a jail. Discovery had saloons and hotels.

"It was all quite busy," said Miscovich. "There were gold robberies and crooked gambling, which was quite exciting in Flat, but it was so remote that it didn't have as many problems as other areas did."

In 1918, many people left. World War I "took a lot of people out of there," he said. "Plus, there just wasn't enough gold for everyone."

By the start of World War II, there were only about 200 people left, Miscovich said. The government took machinery and shut down industries not related to defense. After the war, Flat faded away to about 15 people, including children, he said.

As people dropped their claims, Peter Miscovich took them over. Little by little, the miner acquired 1,400 acres, the entire valley of Otter Creek.

Today, Iditarod is a virtual ghost town, with only one building recognizable as an original structure. And in Flat, about 60 structures are ghost buildings, wind-torn, tattered and caved in, he said.

But seeing the deserted town doesn't make him feel depressed.

"The buildings are a monument to what went on here," he said. "I get a good deal of enjoyment looking at them and remembering. . . ."

Born in 1918, John Miscovich was the third of seven children delivered by midwives on the various mining claims owned by his father. There, the children went to work at early ages and attended an elementary school in Flat.

"There were never more than 12 children in school at a time," he said. "And seven of them were our family. I was the best student in my class. I was the only student in my class."

Miscovich's first job, at age 4, was to pull the handle of the bellows that produced air for the blacksmith's forge. In the summer, he worked the mine. In the winter, he sawed wood, took care of dogs and was a janitor at the elementary school, a job for which he was paid 50 cents a day.

When Miscovich was 14 and ready for high school, all seven children moved to Fairbanks with Miscovich's mother and flew back each summer to work the mines. Miscovich said his family was very poor then.

"We lived in this environment and dreamed a lot about other things," he said. "We had lots of wishes, but all you could do was wish. Sure, there were some seasons when things went well, but it was truly a day-to-day struggle."

Yet his father kept going, said Miscovich, because gold mining is a business where one is free.

"You can work from sunrise to sunset, and in Alaska, that can be 24 hours a day," he said. "It's that drive, that if you do strike something better, you'll make it. Every miner, no matter how bad it is, will say, 'Well, next year is going to be better.' That may go on for 50 years."

Things finally turned around for the Miscoviches in 1935, when the family switched from strictly hydraulic mining, or mining with water, to using heavy machinery.

"Dad got the first diesel tractor and ripper in Alaska that year," Miscovich said. "He then brought in the first big excavator in 1937. He could now increase production and expand as well. He was successful after that."

Miscovich said his father, who died in 1950, was an inventor and an astute student of law and finances.

"He was a self-educated and self-made man," said Miscovich.

John Miscovich is his father's son. He also failed to complete high school, but his mining invention, the Intelligiant, has affected other industries in more than 250 categories around the world, he said, including fire engines and fireboats.

"It's the same equipment used in early California mining back in 1870," he said. "But no one had ever improved it until I came along. It opened up a whole new area of application for a new tool."

Miscovich said the process used to free gold from riverbed deposits, creek channels and high benches is Placer mining, a method that uses water to disintegrate gold particles from the earth. For many years, the naturally flowing water was controlled by boards, logs or planks and other devices.

Then, in 1870, a hydraulic "giant" was invented, the first step toward control of water under pressure.

Miscovich said early giants were manually operated. As a young boy, he would stand at the handle for 10 hours a day in the rain and cold, fighting mosquitos.

"I kept thinking there had to be a better way," he said.

In 1941, Miscovich redesigned the giant to operate automatically 24 hours a day. In 1946, after returning from World War II, he moved several million yards of Flat Creek with his Intelligiant.

After an article on the new product appeared in World Mining magazine, the International and Mineral Corp. of Chicago asked Miscovich to bring the equipment to their phosphate operation in Florida. The success of that venture led Miscovich to Orange County to negotiate a royalty contract with a manufacturing company here.

For the next 30 years, Miscovich would travel around the world to consult on various new applications for the Intelligiant.

"I made more money from mining, but the Intelligiant was the most personally rewarding," he said. "It's not the financial success you have that matters, it's what you've accomplished."

Miscovich in 1990 received a Distinguished Service Award from the Anchorage-based Alaska Miners Assn.

"John is a spark plug," said Steven Borell, executive director of the 1,000-member organization. "His family is a bit of a vanishing breed in Alaska. Starting way back with his father, John's family has been out there scratching and making a living while continually pushing on the edge of the envelope of technology."

"The Miscoviches," said Borell, "have made a real impact on the state of Alaska."

Today, Miscovich lobbies for environmentally sound mineral development, fights to increase mineral engineering programs at colleges and has a new mining project on his claim in the works.

Each April, he and his wife travel from Orange to Flat, where they live in the 16-building mining camp that includes a mess hall, the family home and garage. The Golden Horn Mine Co. is still a family affair, with Miscovich's four children pitching in.

"It's still very remote," said Miscovich. "You have to everything fly in. There are still no roads and everything we do is by bush airplane."

But a lot of the gold is gone after miners extracted about 1 1/2 million ounces out of the area over the past eight decades. And no one knows how much is left, said Miscovich.

Sometimes, the excitement comes back, such as the day in 1985 he found a 28-ounce gold nugget, the largest ever taken on his claim.

"All in all, it's still kind of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story," he said. "But it's been interesting for me."

He smiled.

"I still treat gold as a product," he said. "Now, if I had had gold fever. . . ."

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