“Great things come from small beginnings,” as the saying goes. In the case of Usibelli Coal Mine (UCM), this expression is exactly right. The story of UCM starts with an Italian immigrant, Emil Usibelli. He came to Alaska in search of work, and ended up building a company that would become a major source of energy for our state and it’s still going strong today.
Emil first came to the United States with his mother and six siblings in 1907 when he was 14 years old. The family traveled to Washington state, joining his father, who had immigrated ahead of them. Emil experienced coal mining for the first time in Washington and then tried out silver mining in Canada. He also spent time working in the lumber trade with his brother.
With the onset of the Great Depression, Emil went where the prospect of work was more promising. Moving to Alaska in 1935, he found work as a miner at the Evan Jones Mine near Palmer in the Matanuska Valley. Before long he travelled north and joined the Healy River Coal Company as an underground coal miner in Suntrana. Here, Emil experienced a setback a couple years later when he fractured his back in a mining accident. He returned to work after it healed, but was soon let go because his injury made his employment a liability. Instead, the company gave Emil a contract to supply timber for the underground mine supports. In 1938, this type of work was done by hand using a crosscut saw, also known as a “misery whip.” Fortunately for Emil, he was not averse to hard labor.
It wasn’t until 1943, eight years after Emil arrived in Alaska, that Usibelli Coal Mine saw its true beginnings. Emil, and his partner, T.E. Sandford, received a contract with Ladd Army Airfield (now Fort Wainwright) in Fairbanks for 10,000 tons of coal. It was during World War II and the military wanted to diversify their supply of coal within the state.
Just how small was the beginning of Emil Usibelli’s coal mine? With just one tractor and one truck they fulfilled their first contract. In 1948 Emil bought Sandford’s share of the company and Usibelli Coal Mine was officially incorporated. Not only did Emil start small in terms of equipment, but his methods were unconventional. The predominant mindset in Alaska in those days was that mining was done underground. When Emil began surface mining, his operation was looked upon with skepticism. For him to thwart convention was a bold step, but a successful one. According to UCM they have “conducted surface mining operations exclusively since 1962.”
Most Alaskans are well aware of the catastrophe that hit Alaska on the 27th of March in 1964. For the Usibelli family, that fateful day had an even bigger impact. Just a few hours before the Good Friday Earthquake, the second largest quake in recorded history, Emil Usibelli was killed in a mining accident at the Usibelli Coal Mine. Emil’s son, 25-year-old Joe Usibelli, was on his way back to Alaska, after attending graduate school at Stanford University, when he received a telegram at the U.S.-Canadian border informing him of his father’s death. With that news, Joe became the company’s new president. In a public interview at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Joe admitted that at the time he felt ready to lead the company, but in hindsight, he really wasn’t. He remembers being thankful there were many good people working for the mine who did know what they were doing.
When Joe took over UCM, the mine was producing 300,000 tons of coal a year. This was significantly more than when the mine had its first contract with the Army, but Joe still saw room for growth and improvement. When it came to equipment, Emil and Joe had different philosophies. While Emil had thought it better to fix what was broken, Joe saw the value of modernization, and through the following years phased in bigger and better equipment that would set a precedent for the future.
One of the more notable pieces of heavy equipment to join the UCM fleet was the 1300W Bucyrus-Erie Walking Dragline. This engineering marvel is a huge, effective, mobile dirt mover that UCM says is “the largest land mobile machine in Alaska.” Just to illustrate how immense the 2,100 ton machine really is, according to UCM it took 26 railcars and 40 trucks to bring the dragline to Healy and then it took 11 months to assemble. In 1978 the dragline was finally put to use. The investment was well worth the wait as it is still in operation today. The dragline is “powered solely by electricity,” and is an obvious source of pride for UCM, as it should be. UCM estimates the dragline has moved over 144 million bank cubic yards of dirt, and, with another illustration, UCM says the equivalent volume is about the same as covering 81,322 football fields with dirt one foot deep.
UCM is actively working in the Nenana coal fields from the Suntrana Formation near Healy, Alaska, 115 miles south of Fairbanks. In Healy UCM holds five active permits: Poker Flats, Gold Run Pass, Two Bull Ridge, Jumbo Dome, and Rosalie mines. The name of Two Bull Ridge has everything to do with the story behind its discovery and the success UCM engineer, John Wood, and shop foreman, Leo Mollier, had while hunting in the area. On Labor Day of 1972 they both landed bull moose with 60 plus inch racks. Two years later, in 1974, exploration began and thick coal seams were discovered. From Two Bull Ridge and other leased property in the Healy area, UCM estimates there are more than 700 million tons of surface mineable coal reserves. At their current rate of production of approximately 2 million tons per year, UCM has determined there is enough coal for the next 350 years or more.
Coal produced from UCM is a large source of energy for the interior region of Alaska. In the City of Fairbanks, UCM supplies coal to cogeneration (heat and electricity) plants at Fort Wainwright, Eielson Air Force Base, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Another major customer in Fairbanks is Aurora Energy, LLC, whose Power Plant and District Heat system provides steam and hot water for space heat to the downtown Fairbanks area. Along with fulfilling Alaska’s coal needs, Usibelli currently exports approximately half of their coal produced each year to South Korea, Japan, and Chile.
The year of 1977 saw the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Seven years earlier, UCM had already begun its own land reclamation program and has done extensive research on effective methods. “Land disturbed by mining, road construction or other activities is re-contoured, fertilized, and seeded with a carefully researched mixture of grasses and plants designed to stabilize and condition the soil until native Alaskan species take over.” According to UCM, they have “reclaimed more than 5,500 acres and planted more than 500,000 seedlings” since 1970. For the Usibelli family, Healy, Alaska is not only a place of work, but it is where they live. Through UCM’s stewardship of the land, one can see the positive influence, pride, and care they have for their home.
In 1987, Joe Usibelli Jr. succeeded his father as president of UCM, and he continues to hold that position today. It has been 72 years since Emil Usibelli accepted the 10,000 ton contract from the Army. For the past 44 years UCM has been the only commercial coal mine operating in the state of Alaska. The Usibelli family has come a long way from their small beginning.