Mining at Thane set records - briefly

Posted: Wednesday, May 19, 2004

By the early 1900s, the multi-million-dollar Juneau Gold Belt was a string of Christmas lights, a narrow 100-mile-long area stretching from Windham Bay in the south to Berners Bay in the north. The lights glittered from Juneau, Thane, Douglas, Treadwell, Windham Bay, Point Sherman and a half a dozen other spots. The Treadwell was world-famous, and there was a demand for documentation. So Juneau-based photographers Lloyd Winter and Percy Pond were kept hopping seeking out new angles; they took 1,200 separate shots of mining and 655 of the Juneau Gold Belt District and the Juneau-Douglas town sites. Of the town called Thane they took nine shots. Perhaps the most unusual (87-1262) shows a man holding a golf bag at the Million Dollar Golf Course at Thane.

Thane was the site of the massive Alaska-Gastineau Mining Company's mill. It was considered a "support camp" rather than a mine proper. Thane is about four miles southeast of downtown Juneau, reached by a highway perched on a narrow strip between mountains and water. One source says it was founded in 1881 by prospectors digging up promising quartz, and was first called "Sheep Creek." However, according to "The Sheep Creek Trail," an undated brochure by David Stone and Rick Fredericksen, Thane was built in 1912-13 to support the operations of the Alaska Gastineau Mine and the Perseverance Mine. It had docks and wharves along the shoreline to serve the needs of the mining operation. Six-hundred feet to the northwest was its centerpiece, the Alaska Gastineau Mill, completed in 1915 to treat ores from the mine in Silver Bow Basin. The mill treated an average of 8,000 tons of ore per day, the ore averaging 0.05 troy ounce of gold per ton. (The framework of the coarse crusher plant can still be glimpsed above the mill.)

It was renamed in 1914 after Alaska Gastineau's ambitious general manager, Bartlett Thane (1878-1927). As a newly minted college graduate, "Bart" Thane began his mining career in 1898 at the Sumdum Mine, and subsequently managed the Ebner and Eagle River Mines. Eventually he was managing the Perseverance Mine. At its peak, the little mill town of Thane had 700 to 800 residents, Stone and Fredericksen say.

Earl Redman's "History of the Mines and Miners in the Juneau Gold Belt" describes the incredible difficulties of building the Sheep Creek tunnel, as well as the Salmon Creek dam and hydro plant. Both were needed before the Alaska Gastineau mill could swing into operation. The main mill foundation required 15,000 yards of cement. Work went well, but heavy rain during the fall of 1914 slowed work on the building. The mill began operations on Feb. 19, 1915, using flint pebbles shipped from Denmark to grind the ore. With this innovation, Thane was able to recover 90.7 percent of the gold in the ore his mill masticated.

During September 1915, Redman records, three world's records were broken by the mine and mill. "In the mine, 861 men working 81 drills broke a record total of 500,000 tons of ore into the stopes while the mill processed a record 160,000 tons. The third record was for low cost of production ... less than 60 cents [per ton]."

"The large mill at Thane was a beautiful sight at night," writes Trevor Davis of the late teens of the 20th century in "Looking Back on Juneau: The First Hundred Years." "It was lit up like a crystal palace. The Treadwell lights were also very pretty in the evening; but our own A.J. mill out shown the other two."

"Electric trains carried the ore from the Perseverance ore body through a ten thousand foot long tunnel to Sheep Creek Basin and then on to the mill," Davis writes of the Alaska Gastineau mill. "It was a very fine mill, and all the machinery worked like a clock."

Periodically there were problems such as the submarine landslide in August 1915 that sank a portion of the Thane dock in the Channel, and an avalanche in January 1917 that destroyed 3,000 feet of snow sheds sheltering the railroad near the Sheep Creek Tunnel.

The Alaska Gastineau Mine ceased operations in June 1921 as a result of problems flowing from World War I and the nature of the low-grade ore. There was also a problem with water, Davis says. The mill was designed for processing dry ore, and by the 1920s water was seeping into the ore body. "... the wet ore stuck to the machinery in the mill making all operations very difficult." Most of the facilities were then dismantled and sold for salvage value. The steel framework was dismantled and shipped south a few years later.

Today Thane is a bedroom community for Juneau, spread out along several miles of road. Although Thane now has only about 100 residents, in 1920 it was a thriving spot. As Dee Williams records in "Mama Minnie Field," the population of Juneau was 4,043. "Several ferries carried passengers and supplies between Juneau, Douglas and Thane, making a triangular trip every hour until midnight." The Trevor Davis photo collection includes a photo of the "Marion," the first steam ferry between Juneau and Douglas. It is a small craft - probably under 30 feet - with a scalloped fringe decorating its roof edge. It looks as if it might have held a dozen friendly folks.

Originally, one reached Thane only by hiking along the beach, by private boat or by ferry. In his book "Looking Back on Juneau," Davis writes of Juneau residents' enjoying summer rowboat trips to Sheep Creek with picnic baskets in the years before 1910. Avalanche danger in winter and early spring is still a factor in traveling the road.

To visit the Thane area, consult Mary Lou King's book of short walks around Juneau. The Sheep Creek Trail rises 1,900 feet to timberline and then along a level stretch where one can find old buildings or their footings, rusting machinery and aerial tram uprights. In 1986, according to King, "gold mining exploration activity began again in this area after a lapse of more than 45 years. In 1997 all work was discontinued, as it was determined that re-opening the mine would not be profitable."

Another walk into history is the Bishop Point/Dupont Trail. The trailhead lies at the end of Thane Road, with easy access to a glorious waterfall. (After the waterfall, there are many roots and rocks in the trail, so watch your step.) About 1.5 miles from the trailhead, a branch to the right leads to the remains of the old Dupont wharf. In the summer of 1914 the Dupont Powder Company built a powder magazine and wharf where they stored powder for the local mines. (The idea was to store powder far from habitations. The concrete footings of the powder magazine can be seen in the woods, back from the curve of beach.)

•Southeast Sagas is a series that appears in the Juneau Empire every other Wednesday. Its aim is to profile people and describe events that help to shed light on the varied history of this region of Alaska.

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