In the summer of 1880 George Pilz sent Richard Harris and Joseph Juneau from Sitka to the Gastineau Channel to look for gold. They worked north from Cape Fanshaw to a point near Berners Bay. They found a small quantity of placer gold and some float ore in a stream they named Gold Creek. They returned to Sitka with little to show for the time spent. They explained that they had run out of supplies and the Devil’s Club was just too dense to follow up Gold Creek. After George Pilz spoke to Chief Kowee of the Auke tribe, it was clear that gold was there in abundance if only Harris and Juneau would follow instructions, stay off the booze, and leave the Auke women alone. Pilz sent them back in September for a second look. The only reason he didn’t send someone else was there were no others to send and he was ill. During that trip, Harris and Juneau found lots of gold and staked claims in Silver Bow Basin and on the mountainside above it. On Oct. 18, 1880, Harris and Juneau developed a town site claim of 160 acres which they named Harrisburg. Each took a lot on the waterfront, on what became known as Miners Cove. Harris’ lot was somewhere near the present First National Bank on Front Street. He also took a lot on what became Telephone Hill and later built a home there.
It didn’t take long for word to get out that gold had been located on the Gastineau Channel. On Dec. 1, 1880, five men left Sitka in a 25-foot dugout canoe. They were Frank Berry, Antone Marks, John Prior, James Rosewall and William Meehan. They battled Taku winds most of the way which caused them to stop to rest on Douglas Island. While there, they discovered gold. That winter, they returned and took out 88 ounces from what they called Ready Bullion Beach.
In March 1881, Berry and his partners staked claims on Gold Creek and Berry took several town lots in the new town of Harrisburg. One lot was on Fourth Street where the Assembly Apartments now stand; another was a lot on Third Street. James Rosewall took the corner lot of that block but he and Berry swapped the lots, with Berry owning the corner location. That fall, Berry sold his interest in the Ready Bullion placers and lode claims in the same area to William T. Coleman of San Francisco. A few days after the sale, Berry, with the help of John Prior and James Rosewall, built a log cabin on his lot at Third and Main Streets. This cabin became Harrisburg/ Rockwell/ Juneau’s first regular schoolhouse and later was to become the historic Log Cabin Church.
Marks also claimed a town lot on Telephone Hill, just off Main Street, and with John Prior had a pair of lode claims on Mount Roberts. For many years he lived in Douglas and is believed to have died there, although the date of his death is not recorded.
Prior was married and had three children. His wife and children were living in Sitka when he left with the others to find gold. In April 1881, Prior claimed a lot right next to Rosewell’s lot. Later that summer, he purchased another lot located on Fourth and Main Streets. This lot is now occupied by the Juneau City Museum. He built a log cabin for his family to live in; on that lot he later replaced it with a frame cottage. Prior continued mining until about 1903 when at age 66 and after coming down with asthma, he retired. He died at the family home at Fourth and Main on Feb. 21, 1910.
On Feb. 8, 1881, Rosewall attended a meeting of the miners and took an oath that he was an American citizen. For two or three seasons, Rosewall worked placers on Gold Creek and those on Douglas Island.He later went to the Yukon and was there during the Klondike Gold Rush. In 1902 he left Dawson and wintered in Juneau. He built a house in Douglas and then for the next 10 years would prospect or work placers in places around Southeast Alaska or Canada, wintering back in Douglas. There is no record of when or where he died.
The fifth person in the dugout canoe headed for the Gastineau Channel was William Meehan. As mentioned earlier, they camped on Douglas Island next to a creek where Meehan made the first discovery of placer gold on the island.
The story that has been told was that after the camp was set up Meehan decided to prospect the creek. Soon, he ran back to the camp with an assortment of colors in his pan, shouting, “Look boys, it’s almost the ready bullion.” Thus, they named the creek Ready Bullion.
Though Meehan was a nice enough guy that everyone liked, he could never settle down and actually work the gold out of his claim. There was always more gold to be found at the next claim or the next gulch, and his luck was terrible. When he staked poor ground he held onto it and when he staked rich ground he sold it for very little. One example was the Ready Bullion lode claim which he staked in early 1881 with Rosewall. This claim eventually proved to be one of the richest claims in the Treadwell Group. Meehan sold his interest in it for $5. Meehan continued to work claims on Gold Creek, Douglas Island and Lemon Creek until 1887. That year he left Juneau for the Yukon with 25 other men. That was the first year of mining on the Fortymile and though several of the men made good stakes, Meehan did not, and returned to Juneau almost broke. He sold his property on Telephone Hill to finance a trip for him and his new partner to the newly discovered Klondike. Meehan was killed by Natives in Canada after going over the Chilkoot Pass and camping at the headwaters of the McClintock River. His wounded partner escaped to alert the RCMP, which caught and hanged the accused.
Five good men left Sitka to follow in the footsteps of Richard Harris and Joseph Juneau; each in his own way impacted the history of what has now become the Capital City of Alaska. In most cases, the names of these individuals are lost in time. Yet, for the careful eye of the history-minded Juneauite, their marks can still be found.
It has been more than three years since I started this column. I have enjoyed every moment, but I need to cut back a bit in order to do more research. I want to take this moment to thank the Librarians at the State Office Building and the Mendenhall Mall Library. They were so very helpful and their suggestions, many times, opened historic areas I had not found or thought of. I want to thank the people at the Alaska Historical Collections at the State Office Building and the Sitka Historical Library. The pictures and historical information they found for me was fantastic. There were many others; the people at DOT, USFS, and USGS, all who I bothered time and again, who supplied me with tons of information. Finally, I want to thank my readers who sent nice letters, books, called me and gave great new ideas for additional research. I plan to keep writing, but at a slower pace.