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Binkley vs. Reeves dispute leads to costly Fairbanks court fight

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS -- Two of the biggest names in Fairbanks tourism are facing off this week in a courtroom battle over legal access to historic mining property at a major tourist attraction.

The fight pits the Binkley family, current owners of Gold Dredge No. 8, against the former owner of the dredge, John Reeves.  Compromise has been as hard to come by in this case as in the standoff between the two Houses of Congress. 

The dispute sounds simple: Reeves argues he has a 100-foot easement to build a road on a lot the Binkleys own next to the dredge, while the Binkleys contend the easement is no longer valid.

The two sides have spent a fortune arguing the point in pre-trial proceedings going back more than a year, creating volumes of court documents with conflicting interpretations about land law and access. The site in question is covered in tailings, like much of the Goldstream Valley floor. But it is valuable to both sides because it is next to the dredge, a proven winner in drawing tourists.

Two families with histories of innovation

Mediation attempts failed to end the dispute, which is why there is a non-jury trial taking place before Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Bethany Harbison, with Mike Kramer representing the Binkleys and Joe Sheehan representing Reeves.

Former State Sen. John Binkley and his son, Ryan, who has taken over many of the Binkley family company operations, sat at the platintiff’s table with Kramer this week, while Reeves sat across from them, next to Sheehan.

Each family has a long track record in Alaska and a history of innovation.

The Binkleys own the Riverboat Discovery and have provided tours on the Chena River for decades. The family also operates Gold Dredge No. 8, about 10 miles north of Fairbanks on the Old Steese Highway, which is also one of the major tourist attractions in Interior Alaska.

They own the dredge through an LLC called Godspeed Properties, which is named after the first boat Mary and the late Jim Binkley, John Binkley's parents, converted for tours on the Chena River, starting in 1950. The Binkley family operations are the backbone of the tourism business in Fairbanks. They had a separate gold-panning operation down the road near Fox, but closed that and consolidated operations at the dredge in 2012.

Built in 1928

The dredge they bought was built in 1928 by Bethlehem Steel, one of the last remnants of the large-scale industrial placer mining era in Fairbanks. The 1,000-ton dredge dug and floated its way 4.5 miles along the Goldstream Valley before coming to a stop in 1959, collecting millions of ounces of gold along the way.

Reeves and his wife, Ramona, developed Gold Dredge No. 8 into a tourist attraction in 1982. They later sold the property to Holland America, which in turn sold it to the Binkleys four years ago.

Reeves and his family were among those featured on the short-lived "Goldfathers" cable TV show. He has a reputation in Fairbanks as a battler, once winning millions from the oil companies in a lawsuit in which he proved that they took his idea for a Fairbanks pipeline viewing center and unfairly cut him out of the deal. 

When the Binkleys bought the gold dredge, they also purchased a lot just north of it from contractor Alice Ellingson, who had a gold and gravel operation with her late husband, Harold Ellingson.

She had purchased the lot from Alaska Gold in 1986,  granting that company a 100-foot easement along the southern boundary.

One of Alaska's largest private landowners

Alaska Gold was the corporate descendant of the mining firm that acquired thousands of acres of mining claims throughout the Fairbanks area in the 1920s before Gold Dredge No. 8 and its giant brethren began reshaping the Fairbanks landscape.

The connection to the current land dispute is that a decade ago, Reeves purchased the extensive real estate holdings of Alaska Gold, which made him one of the largest private landowners in Alaska.

When he purchased all of that property in 2002, he also acquired that company’s rights for easements. In his view, that includes the 100-foot easement on the lot that the Binkleys now own next to the dredge.

Reeves said he wants the road to get access to other property he owns beyond the dredge. It has tourism potential, he says.

But the Binkleys say he wants to run big trucks hauling waste material past their dredge to the commercial landfill Reeves owns in the vicinity.

For the Binkleys, a key part of the tourist experience is the trip on the small-scale train that takes tens of thousands of visitors several hundred yards from the parking lot to the dredge and back.

The road proposed by Reeves would cross the Binkley train tracks coming and going, which were installed in 2012. The tracks are now in an area enclosed largely by gravel berms made up of the mining tailings that cover much of the valley. The berms give the site and the train tracks a sense of isolation.

“Fairbanks Gold plans to raise the grade of the claimed easement by 2.5 feet and begin moving dump trucks across it to haul landfill material,” the Binkleys said in a complaint filed Aug. 1, 2012.  “This plan frustrates the dual purposes of Godspeed Properties in (1) the commercial use of the property and (2) the preservation of a National Historical Site.”

The train tracks and other items are interfering with his easement, according to Reeves.

The Binkleys contend that from 1986 to 2002, when the Ellingsons had the property and before Reeves acquired the Alaska Gold access rights, the Ellingsons blocked part of it with gold and gravel mining equipment — set up on a foundation — and Alaska Gold did not take steps to defend the easement from encroachment either from the Ellingsons or from Reeves, when he owned the dredge.

The Binkleys assert that the easement has long since been abandoned, while Reeves says that is not so. It will be up to the judge to decide.

Ellingson testified Monday that she was uncomfortable being in the middle of a lawsuit between the Binkleys and Reeves, as she has been friendly with both sides for many years.

One sign of that attitude is that while Ellingson was called as a witness by the Binkleys, when her testimony was finished it was Ramona Reeves who helped her carry some of her belongings out of the courtroom.

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com.  Follow him on Twitter @DermotMCole