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"What's big and red and eats rock?" Kirk "Ziggy" Ziegenfuss asked eight visitors to Alaska last week as they stood at the entrance to the long-closed ore conveyor tunnel at the Alaska Gastineau Mill site. The group had no guesses.
"A big, red rock eater!" Ziegenfuss answered, laughing at his own joke and transforming the nervous smiles of the tourists into genuine grins.
It was not the first joke the group had heard on the tour, which took them down Thane Road from the cruise-ship docks and up a path to the remains of the Alaska Gastineau Mill. But it was one of the first they heard from Ziegenfuss, who met them at the entrance to a 360-foot-long ore conveyor tunnel that went straight into Mount Roberts.
Ziegenfuss, who has spent most of his life working in the mining industry, dressed for the part of a mining guide - his work boots, oil skins and red suspenders looked as though they had been worn through many hours of hard labor. But his smile and friendly demeanor helped him connect with those on the tour, from the log-hauler from California and his nurse wife to the veterinarian from West Virginia to a young, hip-looking couple from Vancouver, B.C.
As the group donned hard hats and bundled up in parkas and gloves to enter the 36.5-degree mine, Ziegenfuss "brassed in" - changed a brass nameplate from "out" to "in" pegs on a board outside of the mine. The tags of other miners were on the "in" pegs as well.
"We haven't seen them in years," Ziegenfuss laughed.
Jerry and Bev Harmon opened the AJ Mine Gastineau Mill Tour three summers ago. In its heyday, from 1915 to 1921, the mill processed 10,000 tons of ore daily, with an average yield of one ounce of gold per 16 tons of ore. Now it processes an average of 63 guests per day during the summer season, each paying between $59 and $89 for the three-hour tour, depending on which cruise ship sold them the ticket.
Most of the guests are tourists who booked through the ships. Some are independent travelers, though, and quite a few are locals, said Jerry Harmon.
Juneau residents pay $49 for the tour, and benefit from a two-for-the-price-of-one deal on weekends throughout the summer. Kids under 12 are half-price. Local visitors come to learn a bit of Juneau's history and to explore some of their own back yard, Harmon said.
"This is isolated," he said. "Most people don't even know this old mill is here."
Princess Tours, which coordinates ticket sales for the operation, asks locals to meet the mining tour bus at the Alaska State Museum or the cruise ship dock. Once the group of up to 16 people is settled in the bus, the tour begins with the driver heading past the Thane Road rock dump and explaining some of Juneau's history.
The bus' first stop on the tour is also the highest - 750 feet above sea level on the side of Mount Roberts. The stop showcases the railroad superintendent's house and features a talk on the types of mining done in Alaska.
The bus then follows the same path the ore from Mount Roberts once did - down the mountain to the coarse ore-crushing plant. There, a guide explains how the plant managed to process 10,000 tons in 24 hours, every day of the year except July 4 and Christmas holidays, for six years.
Next, the visitors meet Ziegenfuss, enter a mining tunnel and get a live demonstration of the milling technique used with the ore. They then are shuttled to the ruins of the main mill building, where ore was crushed to a fine sand and the gold, which was in the form of a fine powder, was packed into bags and shipped to San Francisco for processing.
In addition to giving visitors a scenic view of Gastineau Channel and Stephens Passage and informing them about mining techniques, the tour provides little-known Juneau tidbits, such as the fact that a room the size of the Seattle Kingdome is nestled somewhere underneath Mount Roberts, which Ziegenfuss revealed between demonstrations of the mine's ventilation system and the use of a jackleg drill. He also told visitors some of the tunnels that begin on the side of Mount Roberts and Sheep Mountain end at points along the Perseverance Trail.
For more information about the AJ Mine Gastineau Mill Tour, contact Princess Tours at 463-3900, or email@example.com.
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.