Joining the Survey: The Assembled Exams
Scott: While you were still at Caltech, I believe you had some early contacts with the
U.S. Geological Survey, which eventually led to your going to Alaska in 1942,
interrupting work on the Ph.D. thesis. Say a few words about that, and the
process of joining the Survey in 1942.
Wallace: Yes, I think this would be of some significance, not because of me, but because
of the recruitment process USGS then followed. I think it was in the spring of
1939 that I first took the Survey's "assembled" or written exam. The assembled
exam was given for those people who wanted to work for the Survey or be a
geologist for any federal agency. The exam would usually be given at some
conveniently located high school, and monitors from the government stood by.
Usually a dozen or more students assembled to take the written exam. When I
took it, the exam included multiple choice questions, and a geologic map to
analyze. Earlier it had been a tradition to give essay-type questions. I have an
old exam from the turn of the century in which applicants were expected to
translate a page of German and French, as well.
Over time the essay-type questions became too cumbersome to use and
grade, and the exam became multiple choice. Subjects were from all parts of
geology, including chemistry, physics, mineralogy, paleontology. It was a very
difficult exam, and it included the interpretation of a geologic map. The USGS
produced a special colored map just for the exam, and the students were asked to
interpret the map--to make statements about what sort of minerals the region
could produce, and what the structure would be like, where water might be, etc.
I always believed that the map interpretation was a very significant part of the
Scott: The exam included a demonstration of ability to read a geologic map?
Wallace: Yes, not only ability to read it, but also to understand and interpret it, and to pick flaws in it. I thought this part was very valuable, but the whole exam was excellent. One had to get 70 to pass and be placed on the list. Those assembled exams were traditional in the U.S. Geological Survey for many decades, but they since have stopped that, and the unassembled process of grading has been used for decades. The unassembled exam involves tabulating credits for experience and education.
Scott: You mean the "unassembled" exam is basically a matter of tabulating credits?
Wallace: Yes, there is not much more to it than that. I later got involved in the committee
to write the questions for the assembled exams, draw up the maps, and so on,
which was an interesting exercise in itself.
Wallace: The assembled exam was not just for the Survey, although the Survey put it
together. It was for any geologic job in the government and formed the basis for
a government list of eligible people. As a result of the 1939 exam, in 1940 I
received an offer to work for the Bureau of Mines. I mention that occasion,
because that was one decision I made in my life that was very important. I had
more or less drifted before that, moving from one place to the next with
professors and others guiding me, but here was a definite job offer, and the real
possibility of starting a career.
I had finished the master's degree and could have had that very nice job
with the Bureau of Mines. I had nothing against the job, but finally decided that
I wanted to get a Ph.D. That was a major decision for me. With war looming
and the draft shaping up, it would have been easy to choose that nice job with
the Bureau of Mines. I realized that by not taking it, I would have a very "iffy"
several years or maybe many years--we had no idea how long the war would go
on. Despite the uncertainties ahead, I decided to take the gamble and try for the
Wallace: I think the next USGS exam was given in the fall of 1941, at a high school in
Los Angeles. I had finished most of my work for the Ph.D. by then, and so
found the exam rather easy. In the spring of 1942 I got the Survey's offer to work in Alaska, which led directly to my experiences on the Kuskokwim River
in 1942, 1943 and 1944.
In May 1942 when I left Caltech I went to Seattle, Washington, to join
Wallace Cady. We were assigned to Alaska to work on the strategic mineral
programs aimed at finding and helping develop minerals needed for the war
effort. Our target was quicksilver, or mercury. A very small quicksilver mine
was being started on the Kuskokwim River, near the town of Sleetmute, and that
was where we went.
Wallace: We began by examining the local quicksilver deposit, and then enlarged the
study to analyze the potential for more quicksilver in an enormous region
referred to as the Central Kuskokwim region. Also in the field party in 1942
were Joe Hoare and Stan Johnson, plus our cook, Jacques Robertson, then a
student. A year later George Gryc joined me. (In May 1993 George celebrated
his 50th anniversary with USGS.)
The whole central Kuskokwim region seemed to have potential for
cinnabar--the ore of quicksilver--but that was not known for sure. There were
just a few scattered deposits of cinnabar, which gave us the first clues. This
project became a major exploration. When we left Seattle it was during wartime
and of course all the ships were loaded and overflowing with military supplies.
We had to buy all of our food, packs, field clothes, boat parts and other things in
Seattle, and haul them to Anchorage. The equipment was unloaded at the harbor
at Seward then hauled to Anchorage by Alaska Railroad. Because of a shortage
of help on the railroad in 1942, at Anchorage we actually had to rummage
through dozens of freight cars to find our things, and had to unload them
ourselves. We then chartered a small plane from Woodley Air to fly the supplies
over the Alaska Range to the Central Kuskokwim region.
Scott: Say a word or two about the location, the geography, and the setting. Also, how
did you get to the Kuskokwim region, and how did you get around while you
Wallace: The Kuskokwim is the second great river in Alaska, after the Yukon. It heads in
the Alaska Range west and northwest of Anchorage and flows southwesterly
between that range and the Kuskokwim Mountains, in a general way paralleling
the Yukon River to the north of it. It flows into Kuskokwim Bay, which opens
on the Bering Sea. At the beginning of each season we generally flew to McGrath, Sleetmute, Crooked Creek or Aniak by small plane, landing either on
the river with floats or on river bars with wheels. Those are all small camps or
communities along the river, Sleetmute being roughly 200 airline miles upriver,
and McGrath 100 miles or more still further upstream.
It was an amazing adventure, but it especially struck me as I felt
transported back in time to Mark Twain on the Mississippi River. A big wood-burning, stern-wheeled paddle boat, the Wallace Langley, plied the Kuskokwim
River between Bethel in the lower Kuskokwim delta and McGrath. The boat's
route along the meandering river was approximately 600 miles, or twice the
airline distance between the delta area and McGrath. The steamboat pushed a
barge or two ahead of it, so that it could move the enormous load of fuel, food
and all the yearly supplies needed by villages, fish camps, and fur-trading posts
along the river.
We rode the Wallace Langley from time to time between Bethel and
Sleetmute or Aniak. The boat had six or seven comfortable cabins aboard, and
we ate at the mess hall with the captain. For change of scene we would climb
out over the load on the barge and settle down on a sack or box to watch the
river ahead. The crew took soundings in the many shallow reaches of the river
in the "Mark Twain" tradition. In following the deep channels along the cut
banks, the river flowed so fast that upstream progress could scarcely be detected.
When the boat stopped at a camp for wood fuel, we would get off and
explore. Villages and camps were few and far between, and most had a dozen or
fewer families, except for Bethel, Aniak and Sleetmute, which had larger
populations. Bethel had a population of perhaps a little over 100, and Aniak and
Sleetmute had smaller populations, perhaps about 50 each. When we arrived in
McGrath in 1942, the town was bustling with construction crews of Morrison-Knudsen Corp., who were building an airfield. All told, McGrath's population
was probably about 100. We were able to eat and bunk at the camp. During the
next few years the McGrath field served as a stop on the military air-ferry route
to the USSR.
Scott: Where did you start?
Wallace: In 1942 Wally Cady was the party chief. The field party included Joe Hoare,
Stan Johnson, and me with Jacques Robertson serving as cook for the gang. We
centered our effort around the Sleetmute quicksilver district, then in later years
moved outward. George Gryc joined me in 1943. Wally Cady and Joe Hoare
made extensive trips into the back country. George and I set up camps upstream
and downstream from Crooked Creek, where Sam Parent ran the trading post.
Most of the shacks that served as homes were downstream of the trading post.
Their open lavatories were perched out over the river. River water also was
their water supply. It was truly primitive.
Scott: Say a few words about how you worked, day to day.
Wallace: Much of our 1943 work was studying the outcrops of rock along the banks of the
Kuskokwim River. For that we used a 20-foot flat-bottomed, poling boat
equipped with a 35-horsepower Evinrude outboard motor or "kicker". That boat
was also our main vehicle for all of our river travel. It could carry an enormous
load; our entire camp equipment, tents, Yukon stove, axes, guns and plane table
and explorer's alidade, large quantities of gasoline, and a several-months supply
Scott: What is an explorer's alidade?
Wallace: An alidade is a surveying instrument including a telescope and vertical angle
scales. It is used in conjunction with a "plane table"--a flat board mounted on
adjustable tripod legs--for topographic and geologic mapping. In the
"explorer's" model the telescope is only a few inches high off the plane table in
order to have an instrument of suitable dimensions for easy carrying.
We also used that boat to explore and study the geology along major
tributaries such as the Oskawalik and Holokuk Rivers. Those rivers were
shallow, and we ruined many shear pins when the propeller on the Evenrude
struck rocks. We often had to resort to wading and lining (manually pulling) the
boat up the river.
Back packing was the main means of travel to off-river sites such as the
Horn and Russian Mountains. The pack frames we used were of wood and
rather heavy and clumsy by today's standards of light, well-formed aluminum
frames and light, strong synthetic fabrics. From our base camps, where we had
fairly good-sized wall tents, we would take several-day side trips carrying packs
and equipped with pup tents and K-rations (a military prepared packaged food).
Speaking of equipment and such, I want to add a note about radio communication. Approximately weekly mail served as our only contact with the outside world during the summer of 1942. Having been into ham radio since 1931, I knew what radio communication could do for us in our field work, so during the winter of 1942-1943, I got busy and built a very small one-tube crystal-controlled cw (code) transmitter and a two-tube receiver run off a "B" battery. John B. Mertie, an old-time Alaskan geologist, let me use his work bench in his home in Maryland to do the building, because I was rooming in a one-bedroom place, I believe with Bob Chapman. I got permission to use radio frequencies assigned to the Department of the Interior for native schools, and was assigned the call letters KWYD. The military's Alaskan Communications System agreed for me to check in daily on code with their station at Flat. With a length of wire tied to our tent pole and strung to some willows along the river, I had great success talking to Felix at Flat. He had an excellent "fist" on code, and I had always prided myself on mine. So our radio became the first successful one for the USGS in Alaska. I believe that John Mertie had tried unsuccessfully a few years before. Station KWYD served wonderfully for everything from getting medical advice to ordering "kicker" parts from Seattle.
In 1944 Ed Webber joined me. While passing through McGrath that year we found wrecked planes littering the airfield edges. We rescued belts of machine-gun ammunition that fitted our rifle--a 30-06 I believe. During that summer we often sat in front of our tent amusing ourselves by shooting tracer bullets so they would bounce or skip off the river surface and sail off into the twilight.
Ed once talked me into doing field work from about 7:00 pm to 7:00 am. The idea was that we could do without a sleeping bag by sleeping when the sun was up, and be cooler when hiking while the sun was down. We would eat lunch about midnight when it was a little too dark to do field work efficiently. What a terrible idea that turned out to be! We were so cold trying to sleep in our small pup tent, we lit our very small stove in the confined space, with difficulty coiled our legs around the stove, boiled some tea water and ate chocolate bars trying to get a little heat generated.
Ed was a wonderful, enthusiastic partner, a good petrologist and a fine
linguist who learned the native Athapaskan language easily--something I tried to
but failed to do--danced with verve at the native dances, and flew his own plane.
I envied Ed's intensity for living, which few could match. I was surprised when,
decades after he left the USGS, he ended his life by, I was told, diving his plane
into the ground. I don't know what happened.
You asked earlier about how we got around, so I might say a word about
flying with bush pilots. Each season we would fly to and from the Kuskokwim
region with bush pilots, several of whom have become Alaska legends. There
was Bob Reeve who picked us up at McGrath one year with his Ford Trimotor
plane. He already had a load of cement in sacks, but agreed that if we could
somehow lie or sit on the concrete, he would take us to Anchorage. Typical of
such trips, we ended up spending many days at an emergency field (Farewell, I
believe) west of the Alaska Range, waiting for the weather over the mountains to
clear. On such occasions pocket books were in great demand.
Frank Barr was another pilot who hauled us and our gear many times in
his old pot-bellied Pilgrim. He carried the weekly mail at least one summer. I
wrote my first will while on the usually faithful Pilgrim when it developed
engine trouble hundreds of miles from any air field. Trudy and I had just been
married, and my first reaction, when I thought we were headed for a crash into
the muskeg, was to grab a piece of paper and make a will for my new wife, even though I had nothing to leave her. After what seemed like ages, Frank
tried a reserve magneto and the Pilgrim was soon under full power again.
Everyone who has worked in the wilds of Alaska has plane stories, bear
stories, and disaster stories related to rivers and lakes. I won't start my own list
here, and will resist the temptation to tell my story about challenging a bear
while all alone and stark naked, except for my hat. I'll just report that I
Scott: You were on the staff of the USGS throughout these Alaskan adventures, which
were the summer phase of your main USGS project?
Wallace: Yes. The pattern was to do field work in the summer, and headquarter in
Washington, D. C., where we curated specimens, did petrographic and chemical
analyses of rocks, and wrote reports. It was felt that it took about two months in
the office and lab for every month spent in the field.
Scott: Applying those proportions, it would have taken the rest of the year in
Washington to back up each summer's work on site in Alaska.
Wallace: Yes. Those were about the right proportions for that type of venture and
Wallace: The Alaskan field work was true exploration. In 1942, after we landed at
Sleetmute and settled into camp at Ossie Willis' cabin, we started out on a
traverse to the south, in the direction of Barometer Mountain. There were no
maps, and aerial photos covering that particular region had not yet been taken.
Only when you are without maps can you really appreciate what maps mean.
That was about the last time anywhere in the United States one could set out into
the wilds without any idea what was over the next ridge. We knew that major
streams were coming out of the mountains in the distance, but we had no idea as
to their drainage patterns. I cherish the memory of that--it was like being with
Lewis and Clark when they were trying to guess what would be the best route
west. Where would the easiest pass be found? Where could we get through with
our poling boats?
Scott: In time, did you get base maps to help you get around in the region?
Wallace: Finally, but we had a long way to go to get adequate base maps, and spent weeks and weeks in the winter of 1942-1943 in Washington, D.C., making crude planimetric (regular) maps from these distorted oblique aerial photos
called "trimetrigon" photos. This was reconnaissance-type photography in which
shots were taken off the two sides of the plane, plus a vertical shot of the area
directly below. While this was a great boon, for much of the area covered many
streams and hills could be seen only far out near the horizon in oblique side-view
As bad as the results were, for all the years of our work they were the
only base maps we had on which to record and analyze geology. Indeed, our
final geologic map used these maps as base. We had a simple optical instrument
we used to rectify the oblique photos, but accuracy was extremely poor at the far
horizons. In our exploration and mapping, we gave names to unnamed valleys
and peaks. Near the end of the project we submitted these to the Board on
Geographic Names for formal recognition and acceptance.
In 1942 a group of topographers headed by Toivo Ranta joined us at
Willis' cabin, then headed out to establish control points for the maps that began
to be developed from aerial photos. Before we had the trimet photos, however,
and before we made our crude maps from aerial photos, we just set out over the
hills and found out what was there.
Our primary task, of course, was to figure out the geology. We collected
rock samples and recorded the dips and strikes of sedimentary beds. We
identified the trends, offsets and timing of faulting and folding, and the
association of minerals with igneous rocks and structure. Such a study is always
a difficult, fascinating, jigsaw puzzle.
Wallace: With base maps in hand, we started on the quicksilver exploration, mapping and
analyzing the basic geology, the distribution of intrusive rocks, sedimentary
basins, and structures. We covered an enormous area over a period of five
years, and produced a fairly good geologic map of an area of about 8,000 square
miles, an area of about the size of New Jersey. Many of the far reaches were
explored by Wallace Cady and Joseph Hoare, and they compiled the first
regional geologic map of an area approximately the size of Oregon. It was true
Scott: You conducted a basic geological survey of the region, but the real or immediate motivation behind it was to find cinnabar deposits, or areas with promise of such deposits?
Wallace: Yes. Find the setting, and then figure out how to focus on the most likely local
areas. There were a couple of prospectors who were very competent, aggressive
explorers. Russ Schaefer was one. God, how he covered ground with enormous
packs on his back! There were small widely scattered cinnabar deposits
throughout the region. We used that distribution to develop theories of how and
why the deposits formed where they did. When we arrived in 1942 the Red
Devil mine was just a little hole in the ground. We mapped it in great detail,
and helped the prospectors develop it. The area became one of the biggest
quicksilver sources for the war effort. This was a very direct and rapid response
to our investigation. Burr Webber of the U.S. Bureau of Mines was part of the
team and worked with us to advise on mining techniques.
For the most part, the prospectors were inexperienced in mining and ore
processing. They did not know how to go about starting from scratch to develop
a mine, or how a retort for quicksilver worked. They had no idea of the
chemistry involved. For example, Russ Schaefer built a small retort out of an oil
drum propped up on rocks so that a fire could be built beneath the drum. On one
end of the drum he built a door, and at the other end he ran a short line of drain
tile as a condenser where the mercury was supposed to precipitate after the
cinnabar (mercury sulfide) had been heated. He fired up, and for a few hours
everything worked fine, but the drain-tile pipe soon clogged up with black stuff.
I pointed out to Russ that in some way he must use up the sulfur--so as to free
the mercury from the sulfur--and allow the mercury to run into his collecting
In big retorts air is often used for this, but in Russ' small-scale operation,
air just carried the mercury fumes out to poison the environment, including us.
Mercury has very toxic effects on humans. Next we decided to try iron,
obtained from tin cans in the camp dump. When mixed with the cinnabar, the
iron did indeed take up the sulfur, and Russ began to get a good recovery of
mercury, which he shipped and sold to brokerage centers. The black stuff that
had clogged his condenser was metacinnabar. The residue of combined sulfur
and iron clearly was a form of marcasite, and sparkled like the fools gold it was.
Simple chemistry did work.
Our efforts were very successful, and the Kuskokwim region produced a lot of quicksilver for the war effort. We ended up producing a USGS "professional paper" about the Central Kuskokwim Region, its geology and potential for quicksilver and other minerals. (Cady, W.M., Wallace, R.E., Hoare, J M., Webber, E.J., The Central Kuskokwim River Region, Alaska,
U. S. Geological Survey, Professional Paper, n.286, 1955.)
Other stories go along with that Professional Paper, including the fact that it was the last USGS professional paper that included an extensive bird list, a plant list, a fish list, and so on. In the early decades of USGS exploration of untouched areas in the West, while the main focus was on rocks, minerals and geology, the format of USGS Professional Papers commonly included something about wildlife and vegetation. Although by 1942 the USGS had mostly dropped that format for the lower forty-eight states, we had started our exploration with that mode of publication in mind, as it was truly unexplored country.
Moreover, inasmuch as I was an avid birder, we prepared a long list of
birds, with some truly new ornithologic findings. Dr. Frederick C. Lincoln, of
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reviewed and checked my list. The director
of the Survey at that time was Tom Nolan, and being an avid birder himself, he
let our professional paper become the last one to include bird and plant lists.
Wallace: Another project came along in January or February 1945.
Scott: So the work along the Kuskokwim came to an end in the fall of 1944 or
thereabouts, and then you started on something else pretty soon. You might say
a word or two about the transition from one project to another.
Wallace: There is not a lot to say about the transition. We were just ordered by a Branch Chief to take on another piece of work for the war effort that the USGS had contracted or accepted to do. The Survey was, of course, involved in a whole set of different activities related to the war effort, one of which was to evaluate the petroleum potential of the North Slope of Alaska, where the Prudhoe Bay field eventually was found. This was the beginning of a major exploration, although the Survey had also done some early work there in the 1920s. The U.S. Navy wanted to look at the North Slope for its potential for oil and thus involved the USGS. The area was already part of a Naval Petroleum Reserve, and the Navy put up money for the geologic exploration in 1945.
In February 1945 I was sent up to Fairbanks to find an office and warehouse space. The USGS was going to be shipping all sorts of material--float boats, food, and you name it--for several expeditions along parallel rivers draining the north slope of the Brooks Range, from the divide north to the Arctic Ocean. We were to map structure, find promising structures and stratigraphic situations for petroleum and gas, and in general to assess the petroleum potential of the reserve. My partner of 1943 on the Kuskokwim,
George Gryc, was to play a leadership role in that effort for many decades. Off I went to Fairbanks in February of 1945, and, since that interrupted my social life in Washington, I asked my "social life" (my future wife Trudy) to join me. A month later Trudy came to Fairbanks and we were married the next day. (Incidentally, we returned to Fairbanks for the first time in 50 years to celebrate our golden wedding anniversary.)
Naturally that was very exciting. We had so many Alaskan adventures
that I can't begin to tell you about them all. I was in and out of Fairbanks, a real
hub of activity in early 1945. Russians were ferrying airplanes along the Alcan
route, and then took off from Fairbanks for the Soviet Union. We would run
into the Russians in Fairbanks buying shoes in the stores, and all sorts of things
that were in short supply in Russia. A Russian group had a house diagonally
across from where Trudy and I lived. Although they kept much to themselves,
we would see them around town every day, buying things.
There were a lot of other U.S. government women employees, and wives
of service people, so a government women's dorm was maintained in Fairbanks.
When I would go out in the field, Trudy would move into the government
women's dormitory. She worked for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in
Fairbanks under the direction of Larry Doheny, a character to remember. Then
when I was back in town, we would move into a hotel, or get a small apartment.
It was a very hectic year, but what great fun.
Wallace: In the spring of 1945, a few months before the first atomic bomb was exploded
in New Mexico, a USGS friend, Bob Coats, came to our hotel in Fairbanks and
asked me to come to his room. He said, "We have a new project for you that is
very hush-hush. It has to do with uranium." I already knew a considerable
amount about the uses of uranium, although Bob was not aware of that. By 1938
a lot of material had been published about the potential of atomic energy and the
atomic bomb. I had even given a couple of talks about it myself.
I remember a talk I gave in Washington, D.C., about the atom bomb and
the horror of it. It is a wonder that some agency didn't haul me into the pokey.
So the subject was not totally new to me when Bob came by in 1945. The
upshot was that I went off looking for uranium, sampling "heavy minerals" in
placer deposits. Particles of uranium-bearing minerals settle in sluice boxes and
gold pans along with other heavy minerals such as gold.
Scott: Were you looking at areas previously mined for something else, or in new areas?
How did you go about looking for uranium?
Wallace: We looked for uranium the way you would look for gold. We would pan
streams, and go to old mines where we could often find old sluice boxes, and
thus could easily collect the heavy mineral particles concentrated there. My
collections were all shipped back to Washington and analyzed for radioactivity.
For this project I went once again to the Kuskokwim River region, where I
already knew a lot about the geology. I also went far beyond the area we had
studied for quicksilver, to some gold placer regions.
On one expedition, Trudy joined me at McGrath and we flew to a little
trading post called Medfra, at the head of the Kuskokwim River, where a
Frenchman had a small trading post. Our small plane snagged a tree in landing,
but, fortunately, that did not cause us to crash. His French wife was an ex-prostitute and proud of it. The trading base consisted of a dozen or so natives.
The economy of a trading post was based on selling canned goods and staples to
the Indians at a high price, in trade for furs at low prices. The post did fairly
En route to meet me at McGrath, Trudy had to help the pilot deliver a
side of beef to a mining camp by opening the door of the plane and shoving the
package out to drop to the camp. Such deliveries continue today.
It was all a great adventure. Trudy and I hiked about twelve miles up into the mountains above Medfra, where there was a gold placer deposit that I wanted to test for uranium. The mine was temporarily closed, and the mine owners had told us just to make ourselves at home and to use their supplies such as they were. You might call that one of our honeymoons.
The first evening after starting a fire in the cook stove, we were surprised
by a knock on the door. We thought we were far from anyone. It was Mr.
Richardson, a prospector who lived a couple of miles down the hill beyond the
mine cabin in which we stayed. He said he was surprised to see smoke when he
approached the cabin. He climbed up the hill daily to listen to the news on the
camp's radio. He said that he had missed the whole of World War I, because he
did not learn about it until it was over.
We were invited down for dinner a few days later, and were treated to
strawberry wine, fresh strawberries for dessert, and a trip around his clearing
which was covered with strawberry plants. He said he planted strawberries
throughout the region just to see if they would grow, truly a Johnnie Appleseed
of the strawberry world. But Mr. Richardson himself was allergic to
We hiked in and were scheduled to be back to Medfra in about six days.
On our return, when we got within about two miles of Medfra and got on the log
road--more or less of a road, made of logs laid on the muskeg--ahead in the
distance we saw this great big old truck loaded with the whole town, perhaps a dozen people. They had decided we were a little late so drove the town's one
and only truck out to the end of the log road a few miles distance to meet us.
What a wonderful greeting.
Permafrost Study for the Military
Wallace: In August 1945, another project came into being. I mentioned that the U.S. Air
Force and the Soviets were ferrying planes over the Alaskan route to Russia.
They were having a lot of trouble with their airfield runways collapsing and
buildings falling apart because of permafrost thawing. So the USGS started a
program to study permafrost under the auspices of the Military Intelligence
Division of the Office of Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army.
I was put in charge of the program, and Bob Black, Max Elias and I took
over from Si Muller--Dr. S.W. Muller--a professor of paleontology at Stanford.
Born in Russia, he was fluent in Russian, so the Air Force had gotten him to
translate all the information in Russian about permafrost, and he had prepared a
fine manual. But he had done about all he could in the translation program, so
the Air Force turned the program over to USGS to continue, and to engage in
new geologic and field studies to evaluate and understand the problems at
We spent several weeks on a briefing trip with Si, going from Nome to
Edmonton and back, stopping at each of the airfields to see the permafrost
problems. We decided to examine three fields in more detail, Northway, Point
Spenser, and Galena. Following that selection of sites, Trudy and I went out to
Northway. Northway airfield was near the Canadian border, a little way off the
Alcan highway, where permafrost had given them a terrible time. Although it
had been a rather major field, by the time we got in there in October 1945, the
Air Force was closing it down.
So Trudy's and my second honeymoon was at Northway, Alaska, in the
fall of 1945. My assistant, John Zydick, and I worked outside even when it was
25 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. The Air Force provided us with a truck and
a Chevy sedan staff car. We drove from Fairbanks down to Northway on the
Alcan Highway. Unfortunately, John, who had just joined the Survey as a part-time employee, had never learned to drive. His learning experience was driving
this big truck on the Alcan Highway in the middle of winter.
Scott: He learned to drive under rather extreme conditions!
Wallace: Yes. Just a few miles out of Fairbanks, the first hill we went down, he spun out
of control, around and around and around. Fortunately there was no traffic
and he spun down the middle of the highway, and not off into the ditch. But he
learned fast and we got to Northway safely. We lived in a little prefab house
called a "Stout House." I think the designer was a Mr. Stout.
The temperature dropped to 50 below while we were there, and for one
week it did not get above 35 below. For storing our truck and car nightly, we
had full access to the airfield hangar, which was still being kept heated. The big
hangar doors opened so easily Trudy could slide them with just a slight push, and
we would drive our one little staff car in there to keep it warm--one lonely little
sedan in this gigantic hangar.
Despite the cold, we managed to get a lot done on the permafrost project. It was an interesting time. Bob Black went to Point Spenser out west of Nome, and Max Elias went to Galena, on the Yukon in central Alaska. These were other big air fields that were having serious problems with permafrost. We all returned to Washington, D.C. in December of 1945. We wrote several papers, and I believe we were very helpful to the military in analyzing permafrost problems.
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