(E) My father, Peter Miscovich, came to the U.S. from Croatia in 1903
My father, PeterMiscovich, came to the
U.S. from Croatia in1903
A life on the claims
Alaskana interview: JOHN MISCOVICH
Interviewed By Sharon Bushell
(Published: November 3, 2002)
My father, Peter Miscovich, came to the U.S. from Croatia in 1903. He was a hard worker, mining for copper in Montana, gold in California and coal in Washington. In 1910, he saw a newspaper article about the gold rush in Iditarod, Alaska. He got there as quickly as possible via steamship and riverboat. He began a correspondence with my mother and brought her over from Croatia. They were married in Iditarod in 1912. They set up on the Discovery claim and started raising a family: four boys and three girls. I was born on the Discovery claim near Flat in 1918.
Between 1910 and 1914, about 6,000 people moved into the area. Iditarod was eight miles to the west, too far for the miners to get supplies, so Flat became the supply center, and the two towns were connected by a tramway. For a while, Flat became quite a large city of about 1,500. It had a telephone system, two stores, a hotel, restaurant, pool hall, laundry and jail.
There was also an elementary school in Flat, run by teachers brought in from the Midwest. For several years the Miscovich family accounted for most of its students.
I was given my first job when I was 4, pulling the handle of the bellows for the blacksmith's forge. I also took care of dogs and sawed wood. There was always lots to do, and even the youngest kids were expected to do their share.
The town started losing people when World War I began. By the end of World War II, Flat had dwindled to about 15 people, including children. Now it's a ghost town, and what was once the thriving city of Iditarod is a moose pasture.
I was 13 when we moved 360 miles away to Fairbanks in order that we older children could go to high school. Dad stayed to work the mines. My mother arranged for a young bush pilot, Bob Ellis, to pick up my older brother George and me in late September. We flew out in a little two-seater, open-cockpit plane to Anchorage. From there we flew in a Fairchild 71 on floats, landing on the Chena Slough. It was my first trip out of Flat.
It was quite a transformation for a young man; there was lots to see and do in Fairbanks: movies, lots of automobiles, a big school. In the summers we all went back to Flat and worked in the mines. There were some seasons when things went well, but other seasons were pretty lean. We had to settle for what we could dream of instead of what we could have.
In 1935 my dad got the first diesel tractor and ripper in Alaska. He brought the first big excavator in 1937. He was then able to increase production, and at that point he became a successful miner.
My father was truly a self-made man. He was an inventor and a self-taught student of law and finances. It means a lot to our family that he's to be inducted into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame in Anchorage on Nov. 7.
I guess I leaned toward being self-taught, too. I dropped out of high school before graduation and returned to Flat. We were placer mining, using a hydraulic "giant," which controlled water under pressure. The early giants were manually operated. They had been in use since 1870, in the early days of mining in California. I used to stand at the handle of one for 10 hours a day, and I kept thinking there had to be a better way. I visualized one that could work on its own water power, nonstop.
Starting in 1941, I spent a lot of time redesigning the giant. I had to quit for 31/2 years while I was in the military. As soon as I was discharged, I came back to Flat, and eventually I was able to make the giant operate automatically 24 hours a day. What it amounted to is really very simple. The old giant didn't have any ball bearings on its movements. I added ball bearings for both vertical and horizontal, and that made it possible to go to any number of drives: air, oil, water, electric. It opened up a whole new world.
I have to credit the (Fairbanks newspaper) Jessen's Weekly; when I tested my "Intelligiant" out at Cripple Creek in 1953, Maurey Smith and Ernie Jessens gave me a full-page story. It got into a couple of worldwide mining magazines, and from there things began to happen on a large scale.
I took my equipment to a phosphate operation at the request of the International Mineral Corp. of Chicago. From there I went to Orange, Calif., and began working with the John Stang Manufacturing Co. as a design application and consulting engineer. I developed the basic design and, with the help of other engineers, developed about 150 applications for firefighting, for the military, the oil refineries, major earthmoving operations and the missile program.
Now, with the threat of chemical attack on our country, it could be very useful in dealing with decontamination. We have several thousand of them throughout the United States, on fireboats, firetrucks, on snorkels, on all kinds of land-based equipment. When the hijackers hit the World Trade Center, the Intelligiant played an important role, and I'm very proud of that.
I met my wife, Mary, while I was working on some of the early equipment in California. She, too, was from Croatia. My father had been a friend of her uncle's back in the old country. After my father died, I went to visit the uncle, who didn't happen to be home. When Mary met me at the door, I was so stunned by her beauty, the only thing I could think of to say was, "How do you do?" She looked at me in such an odd way, and when I came to my senses, I realized she didn't speak English.
Of course, after that, I wasn't too interested in going back to visit the uncle; Mary was my predominant interest. We courted for quite a while, but it took me two years to convince her to leave California and come to Alaska. And her uncle never did approve . . . until our first son was born.
One of my greatest worries when I first brought her into this country was that, unlike when my dad brought my mother into Flat, Mary could fly out if she decided it wasn't the place for her. But we've had a great marriage. We raised our four children in Flat, and Mary was always very resourceful when it came to the problems of living in the Bush.
We now live between two homes, one in California and one in Flat. Each April we return to Flat; we're the only ones who have lived there for the last 43 years. We actually live in our mining camp near the Discovery claim. As I said, Flat is now a ghost town, but it's still a very compelling place. There are dozens of wind-torn, busted-down structures surrounded by a new growth of birch, spruce, alders and cottonwoods.
You have to be careful when you live as remote as we do. You have to watch your step and also your health. The weather dictates when you fly in and out. We now have a satellite phone, and that's a great help.
All in all, things have turned out well for me. Sure, I was successful when it came to mining gold, and for that I'm grateful. But the Intelligiant was much more personally rewarding; that was a real accomplishment. But best of all, I have my family. That's where the real gold is.
Sharon Bushell lives and writes in Homer. For information about "We Alaskans," a collection of her Daily News articles about Alaska pioneers, go towww.wealaskans.com.