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Accumulated Fragments: Douglas Island's deep and sometimes dark history

Posted: March 11, 2012 - 12:00am

When I decided to write about Douglas Island I asked myself who it could have been named for. The first thing that came to mind was David Douglas, the famous Scottish botanist (1799-1834) that the Douglas Fir was named after. That turned out to be wrong.

I knew that Richard Harris had mentioned Douglas Island in his 1881 writings, so the naming had to have been before that. It turns out, Douglas Island was named for John Douglas by Capt. George Vancouver.

John Douglas (July 14, 1721 – May 18, 1807) was a Scottish scholar and later became Bishop of Salisbury.

John Whidby, master of the Discovery during Vancouver’s expedition, was the first to sight the island in 1794; well, the first white man at least.

It is likely that the Gastineau Channel was choked with icebergs when Captain George Vancouver explored the area. Vancouver was heading north in 1794 to Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, then worked his way south through the area now called Juneau. Although he was unable to pass through Gastineau Channel he did sail around Douglas Island enough to confirm it to be an island.

There is archaeological evidence that people have lived in Southeast Alaska for at least the last 10,000 years. The people that inhabited the region had a hunting and gathering, subsistence lifestyle. They also used some sort of watercraft for transportation because, in addition to living on the mainland, they inhabited the islands.

At the time of European contact, the Natives who lived in Southeast Alaska were the Tlingit and the Haida peoples. The Haida were located in southwestern part of Southeast Alaska on the southern half of Prince of Wales Island across Dixon Entrance and the Queen Charlotte Islands. The rest of Southeast Alaska was inhabited by Tlingit. The Tlingit that inhabited the area that is now the City and Borough of Juneau, at the time of the first European contact, were the Auk, Taku, and Sumdum peoples.

It is unclear how many people lived in these groups or how long they lived in this area. In 1967 an Auk by the name of Phillip Joseph wrote an article about the history of the Auk people for the New Alaskan Magazine. In this article he suggests that the Auks have been in the Auke Bay area for approximately 400 years.

The 1880 census lists three villages for the Auks. They were located on Admiralty Island at Young Bay, on Douglas Island possibly at Fish Creek, and on the mainland north of Auke Bay at what is now the Auke Village Recreation Area. This last site was the main winter village for the Auk. The other group that inhabited Douglas Island intermittently were the Taku. They were known to use the south end of the island but no record exists of a village, though the island was their traditional burial ground.

On Dec. 17, 1880, a group of prospectors made their way up Gastineau Channel headed for the great new discovery in Gold Creek and Silver Bow Basin. They stopped for the night along Douglas Island about 3 miles below the infant town, then known as Harrisburgh but later renamed Juneau. A stream emptied into the channel near their anchorage and, to pass the time, Billy Meehan took his gold pan ashore to see what he could see.

What he saw was enough gold to entice his party to spend the winter placer mining the rich gravel where the stream they named Ready Bullion poured out onto the beach. Meehan, James Rosewall, John Prior, and Frank Berry formed the Ready Bullion Beach Co. and over the winter sluiced about $1,200 worth of gold from the beach gravel. In February, Rosewall and Meehan located the Ready Bullion lode claim while Prior and T.C. Doran staked the Golden Chariot claim on the adjacent ground. These two claims formed the core of the Ready Bullion Mine a dozen years later.

On May 1, 1881 Pierre Erussard (French Pete) staked the Paris Lode and the rush began. Ed Bean and Sol Mathews staked claims on one side of the Paris lode while Henry Borien located the Bear’s Nest on the other. G. Picket, D. Mitchell and Stillman Lewis located the Mexican Quartz claim south of Bean and Mathews claims. In August of 1881, John Treadwell came to the area representing some San Francisco mining investors. By September, he had purchased Erussard’s Parris claims and the claims of Bean and Mathews.

In 1882, Treadwell formed the Alaska Mill and Mining Company and brought up a five-stamp mill but immediately ran into trouble with lack of water for power. The placer miners in the area needed the same water for their sluicing operations. Treadwell requested help from the Navy, the only authority in the area, to solve the problem. Cmdr. E.C. Merriman, commander of the U.S.S. Adams in Sitka, came to Douglas Island in September 1882 and fashioned a compromise. The placer miners had use of the water for 12 hours during the day and Treadwell had its use at night. It was also agreed that the placer miners would only sluice the surface and not blast into the lode.

At about the same time Treadwell began development of the Treadwell Ditch. This ditch was to become a 15-mile trench that would collect the waters of all the streams from Fish Creek to the mine for use in powering the mine and mill machinery. The supervisor of this mammoth project was Ike Cropley for whom Cropley Lake is named.

By the end of 1883, the placer miners had removed about $45,000 worth of gold from their sluices. Treadwell was also doing well and had started development of a 120-stamp mill. Expansion continued and, by 1886, Treadwell, John Fry, James Freeborn, C.F. Stone, and T.J. Hay formed the Mexican Gold and Silver Mining Company. The Paris, or Treadwell Mine, as it was becoming known, doubled the size of its mill to 240 stamps by 1887. A chlorination plant was added in 1889 to extract the gold the stamps were unable to crush out. The final piece of the Treadwell ditch that connected the ditch to Fish Creek was completed. Over 300 people worked on that project that year.

During the early years at the Treadwell, labor was a seasonal problem. There were ample men to work the mine in the winter but, with the spring thaw, the white miners went prospecting for their own diggings and the Natives moved off to their fish camps.

Treadwell solved this problem by hiring Chinese workers who had come to Juneau. The Chinese workers were more dependable than the others because they usually worked all year. Racial prejudice and the worry about lost jobs by white miners began creating problems in 1885. A navy gunboat from Sitka was sent to keep piece and all remained quiet until January 1886.

Then, a log house on Second Street in Juneau, where several Chinese workers slept, was blown up.

No one was injured, but several Chinese workers escaped to Douglas that night and some Juneau residents placed guards on a bakery owned by China Joe. Then on Aug. 6, a group of 105 men from Juneau crossed to Douglas. The mob dragged 80 Chinese workers from Douglas plus seven more from Juneau and packed them aboard two small ships, the schooner Nellie Martin and the sloop Charlie with just the clothes on their backs and sent them down the Gastineau Channel.

When Treadwell discovered what the Juneau mob had done, he sent a boat out to catch the ships and give the departing refugees 15 sacks of rice, which was the only food they were to have. The refugees were never heard from again and nothing was done to prosecute the bigoted mob leaders. Only one Chinese man, whose shop had been guarded, China Joe, remained. He continued to operate his bakery for over 20 years and became a well-known and loved character in Juneau.

This is part 1 of a two-part column on the history of Douglas Island. Part 2 will be published next Sunday.

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