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

March 20, 1992|LESLIE KNOWLTON HERZOG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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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