Ronald Herbert Engstrom
Ron Engstrom passed away unexpectedly at Basin Creek, Alaska, his home of over 40 years. A lifelong Alaskan and second-generation miner, he was a master mechanic, seasoned heavy equipment operator, Adjutant/Captain (ret.) in the Alaska Army National Guard 1st Battalion Infantry Nome Post, and an Arctic Cat Snowmobile salesman. Ron served his hometown as a Nome volunteer fireman from 1963 through 1978 and was elected in 1974 to several terms as a City Councilman, an honor he valued greatly.
But, most of all, he was a gold miner.
He was born in Nome to parents Herb and Elsie Engstrom while they were mining at Santa Clara Creek in the Kougarok Mining District. After a season at Pajara Creek, Herb thought there might be richer ground south at Basin Creek, so he staked claims there and made it their forever family home.
The Engstroms operated the Giant up the cut at Basin Creek for several years before buying the dredge in 1960. Grandpa, Ron, family friend Vernon Carlson and others moved it to Basin Creek, which took 14 trips, 50 miles round-trip to place it in its final home.
By age 8, Dad had learned to operate the dozer and drive a car. (He didn’t know how to ride a bike but later bragged that he was a better dozer hand than Herb. We’re not sure whether he ever learned to ride a bike.) When they built the runway at Basin Creek before the Kougarok Road was constructed, Grandpa raised Dad’s pay from 10 cents a day to $1.00 as a reward. And he didn’t have to help with the dishes anymore.
Alaska Sen. Donny Olson, son of Dad’s dear friend Martin Olson of Golovin, remembers, “Many grateful pilots used Basin Creek Airport as an alternative over the years when we were unable to land in Nome due to fog or other reasons. We were aware that a well-maintained airport was just 12 air miles away. The only thing better than the runway was the cheerful welcome that Ron and Lorena had when we landed.”
For many years, Herb and Elsie and the children wintered in Seattle, traveling on marine vessels SS Alaska, SS Aleutian, SS Baranof and SS Victoria. Sister Joan Salzwedel remembers Ron would be crawling and running around while everyone else onboard was seasick. Grandma Elsie once found him sitting on the ropes over the Bering Sea. He didn’t fall in and spoke about those sea voyages all his life. Back in Nome for the winter in 1947, he remembers a local miner nicknamed “Coyote” hiking up to Basin Creek to tell the family that WWII was over. He was 10 years old.
At Nome High School in the 1950s, Dad was a cool dude who drove a 4-door Plymouth sedan – blue and white with white leather seats, Nanook colors – and the student body president. Ron played forward on the basketball team. They reached the championship tournament his senior year and played the top-seeded Class B Division team from the Kodiak Naval Station. Ron caused an unintentional injury to Kodiak’s top player and Nome won. Everyone credited Ron for the win.
During those years, Ron ran a snow plane around camp (push prop and bench seat in the back with no brakes). The original is in daughter Janice’s hangar, waiting to be replicated. The wooden prop hangs on the wall in the office. He had learned to fly in Seattle and bought a PA12 in Nome, which he treasured. Sadly, it was destroyed in the fall storm of November 1974.
After high school, he enrolled at UAF to pursue his interest in Architecture. But because Grandpa and the mine needed him, he only attended one semester. However, that interest and his keen mind helped him make the dredge a model of mining innovation and efficiency.
In 1959, Ron enlisted in the Alaska Army National Guard and attended OCS training at Fort Benning, GA. What he remembered most were the spiders: “They were as big as my hand!” He returned home as Captain/Adjutant, 1st Scout Battalion, #297 Infantry, Nome Post. While in that position, he built runways and roads in several surrounding villages.
In 1962, Ron met the love of his life, Lorena Gloria Mills. According to Dad, they were “a perfect match” except that she was six years older than he and refused to marry him. He didn’t care and pursued her diligently. When she moved to Kotzebue to work for the BIA, he flew his PA12 to visit every weekend. After several close bad weather calls, he told her “You better marry me or I might crash on one of these trips.” That did the trick! They married at Friends Church in Kotzebue on June 15, 1963. When Lorena fell ill in 2010, Ron cared for her lovingly until her death in 2017. He missed her terribly and kept her ashes on the windowsill at Basin Creek, awaiting their reunion.
In 1963, flooding rendered the dredge inoperable. Ron and Herb devised a scheme to make the mine pay: tourism. That led to 10 years of a memorable partnership with Westours/Alaska Airlines that brought more than 50,000 visitors to Basin Creek to visit a gold mine, learn to pan for gold and enjoy the Engstroms’ extraordinary hospitality.
In the late 1970s, while working for RCA at the White Alice site on Anvil Mountain, Ron opened Engstrom Arctic Cat Sales. He sold more machines than any other franchise in the United States and was known throughout the region as a fair and honest businessman. He closed the business in the early 1980s to focus on mining and construction work through IUOE Local 302. In addition to seasonal projects, he cleared snow each spring for the State of Alaska. He continued that work for several decades.
“Ron Lad” (his CB handle, bestowed by Roscoe J. Wilke aka “Running Dumb”) shared an enormous circle of friends from high school through the Bering Sea Club years (aka “the Office”) who rallied a local crew for epic camping trips. The group would convoy north to the Kuzitrin River and Cottonwood and south to Safety Ferry and Council for Christmas trees. In recent years, after selling Lorena’s house in town and moving to Basin Creek he had a cadre of folk who helped when they were needed, shared coffee and stories when he visited and were steadfast friends.
Ron is preceded in death by his parents, Herbert Leopold and Helga “Elsie” Engstrom, infant brother Daniel, daughter Ronna Lynn Engstrom and beloved wife Lorena. Grieving his death are daughters Linda Koenig (Steven with son Dylan), Janice Bendixen (Ralph and sons Collin and Dana), granddaughter Elliott Alyssa Engstrom and sister Joan Salwedel and extended family.
The family sends our heartfelt appreciation to Dad’s posse who helped on that sad day and over the years since Lorena’s death. Information on the burial at Basin Creek this summer will follow. As Dad would say, “Bring your shovels.”