Treadwell Historic Trail: History buried in moss

Posted: Sunday, August 16, 2009

JUNEAU - At its height, the Treadwell Mine was the largest and most advanced gold mine in existence, employing approximately 2,000 men and women and producing $70 million worth of gold.

M Ichael Penn / Juneau Empire
M Ichael Penn / Juneau Empire

Now, however, its remains are covered in moss and graffiti.

The Treadwell Historic Trail stretches from Savikko Park through much of the Treadwell complex. It's a nice trail - relatively flat, wide and shady. The ruins of Treadwell are visible everywhere. Metal lies in the undergrowth, the fragments of walls and foundations rise between trees, the tower of the salt water pumping plant rises out in the channel.

I visited after SAGA volunteers spent more than a week clearing out undergrowth around the 300 stampmill and steamplant. And, apparently, I was lucky to get to see the impressive remains of these two buildings.

"Sometimes, in the middle of the summer we have a hard time finding the stuff it's so overgrown," said Cam Byrnes, a local photographer who works for Gastineau Guiding, which leads groups of tourists through the area.

Burns said before SAGA came through the steamplant - a 1913 concrete and steal structure that measured 100 by 135 feet - was difficult to see in the undergrowth.

The 200 Stampmill was built in 1899 and housed the largest number of stamps ever held under one roof. The stamps, which crushed the ore gathered from the mines and gathered the gold on mercury-coated plates, were so loud that patrons of Douglas Café had to shout to be heard. All that remains of the stampmill are the foundations and metal littering the ground.

The area is used by dog walkers, tourists, the high school cross country team, cross-country skiers and any Juneauite who enjoys a nice walk, but the history of the mining complex is almost as obscure as its ruins.

A "Treadwell Mine Historic Trail Walking Tour Map and Historic Guide" can be purchased at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum for only $1 if you want to make the effort. It's 20 pages of discription and photographs that is easy to read, though not easy to use.

It works with numbers posted throughout the trail, and each number has a neat little discription in the guide - if you can find it on the trail. It's like a scavenger hunt. In my two hours on the trail, I managed to find five of the 22 numbers.

The most intact building on the trail, the New Office Building (still looking for its number), is two-stories tall in faded yellow paint. It's open to the elements, the walls crumbling. A corner of the roof is caving in and graffiti and campfire ashes coat the inside.

Built in 1915 to house the mining offices which previously had been in a part of the company store, it was here the accountants and mining engineers worked. Right next door are the vaults where gold, company books, records and engineering maps were stored. The vault doors are now in the lobby of Alaska Electric Light and Power.

The recently cleared area to the right of the New Office Building was Treadwell Plaza, the center of town and site of Fourth of July celebrations. The Superintendent's mansion was by the plaza and was "said to have been the most outstanding mansion in Alaska when built," according to the guidebook, though nothing remains of this wooden structure that burned (like most of the buildings at Treadwell) in the 1926 Douglas fire.

No trip to the Treadwell area is complete without a stop by the Glory Hole. The miners blasted the rock from the sides of this 1700-foot long,420-foot across and 450-foot deep open pit mine.

Trees have since grown back in the Glory Hole, and a waterfall supplies the lake at the bottom.

At the end of the trail is the cave-in site, a circular indentation in the shore almost like a natural harbor. It was here on April 21, 1917, that a high tide flooded three of the four mines, effectively ending the Treadwell era.

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