Jerry Harmon thinks he's struck a Tourism Gold Mine

Posted: Tuesday, April 25, 2000

It doesn't look like anybody will take more gold out of the Alaska-Juneau gold mine anytime soon.

But Jerry Harmon hopes to bring some cash in to the Alaska-Gastineau mine.

Harmon, an employee of Kvaerner Environmental, the firm hired by would-be developer Echo Bay Alaska to seal up the A-J mine, is making the transition to a tourism income next month.

Kvaerner is nearly done with its reclamation project. But Harmon is extending his 15-year association with Juneau mines.

Harmon and his wife, Beverly, have started a new company, and within a month, they plan to run their first tours to the old Gastineau mill and an ore-conveyor tunnel that were part of mine operations once based above Thane Road. Demonstrations of old mining equipment and historical commentary will be included.

This wasn't the way Harmon expected to make a living in the year 2000.

A cook, carver of ivory and whalebone, meat cutter, purchasing agent and general jack-of-all-trades, Harmon came to Juneau in 1985 with the intent of helping reopen the A-J. Once the backbone of the capital city's economy, the A-J bought out and absorbed the Alaska-Gastineau mine before shutting down operations in 1944.

Harmon worked for Watts, Griffis and McOuat, a mining consultant, and for Echo Bay, and he supervised construction of the road up to the mine.

But more than $100 million later, with gold prices depressed and environmentalists applying pressure, Echo Bay decided it couldn't make the project work, and pulled the plug in 1997.

``I'm a little disappointed,'' Harmon said. ``(But) I don't have any hard feelings with anybody in Juneau.''

Now that his assignment with Kvaerner is coming to a close, he said, ``It was either leave Juneau or find something else to do.''

AJT Mining Properties, a sister company to Alaska Electric Light & Power, agreed to lease the land necessary for the tourism venture.

``It's a historic property, and it's got a great history behind it, and I think he's got a great way to tell the story,'' said Bill Corbus, president of AJT.

John Mazor, president of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the Harmons' venture is part of a national trend toward historical tours. Mazor said the Alaska visitor industry could do much more to take advantage of the region's natural resources history. There would be a market for historical packages involving timber and fishing, he said.

Mine historian David Stone said the Alaska-Gastineau operation, closed in 1921, was revolutionary for its milling technology, which involved rotating cylinders and flint pebbles or steel balls to pulverize rock. The mill produced 10,000 tons of ore a day, a phenomenal rate at the time, and did so more cheaply than anticipated, Stone said. ``It totally changed the way milling was done.''

Harmon is counting on cruise ship passengers for much of his business.

Late last week, he was negotiating with Princess Tours on an arrangement under which Princess would sell the tour on board its cruise ships and use its buses to take passengers down Thane Road to Sheep Creek Road, where the drive to the mining property begins.

The tours will take about two and a half hours, including transportation, and cost about $50, Harmon said. He promised a discount for local residents.

Harmon is developing the project gradually, and plans incremental improvements. He will have a temporary gift shop and headquarters within a couple of weeks.

But he is putting off until next year his plan to build a museum to show mining equipment.

He is also considering putting in a small rail system in the tunnel so tourists can sit while they observe exhibits and demonstrations.

Although he's new to tourism, Harmon doesn't sound worried about whether the tours will find a market. ``I've always had the best job in Alaska.''

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