Southeast Sagas: A Tale of Two Tunnels

Whether producing electric power or transporting gold, tunnels made important contributions to Juneau's growth

Posted: Friday, September 12, 2003

Much of Juneau's history is hiding in the underbrush - literally. That is, history often takes the form of feats of engineering. And, when these feats are no longer in use, grass, shrubs and, ultimately, trees reclaim the ground.

This is a tale of two tunnels which were important in their heyday but are no longer active: The Gold Creek Tunnel behind downtown Juneau and the Nugget Creek Tunnel near Mendenhall Glacier.

The Gold Creek Tunnel was brought to fruition by Ben Stewart (1878-1976), an engineer and the father of Juneau resident Judge Thomas Stewart.

"In 1910, my father was hired by Fred Bradley to re-survey the Alaska Juneau mining claims," Judge Stewart said. "He did a very fine job of it, and resurrected their claims. It was supposed to be a one-season job, but then they hired him to survey the main tramming tunnel for moving the ore from the glory hole on the flanks of Gastineau Peak in Perseverance Basin to the mill (now the overgrown ruins to the right of the Mt. Roberts Tram). It was drilled simultaneously from both ends. It has a one-percent grade (from start to finish) to make it easier for the trains."

"My father told me that at 2 o'clock one morning he had a call from the man who was running the drilling crews that he expected to break through soon," Stewart added. "And indeed they did - and the floors were only one inch apart."

Ben Stewart was the fifth son of the man who was the first Episcopal missionary in Missoula, Mont., where Ben was born and raised. After earning his degree in mining engineering, he went to work for the U.S. Geological Survey and surveyed the heights of some of the peaks in the Glacier National Park region.

About 1905, he became assistant chief of the USGS party that surveyed the Amargosa Desert, which includes Death Valley. He was the first to determine the depth below sea level for the Valley. Later, he worked for the Sunshine Mine in Idaho, where he met Fred Bradley.

To survey the tunnel route accurately, Ben Stewart had to chain level from sea level up over Mount Roberts and down into the basin. Conscientiously, he did this three times to check his figures, Tom Stewart said.

"The terrain was so steep that he would sometimes get three feet of chain out, and the plumb bob would be hanging down eight feet."

The Gold Creek Tunnel was begun in August 1911 and finished two years later at a cost of $10.49 per foot. It measured nine feet high by seven feet wide and was driven 6,538 feet into Mt. Roberts. In its heyday, this marvel carried trains of 40 10-ton cars of gold-bearing quartz. A train ran every hour, 24 hours a day.

With this success under his belt, Ben Stewart became an independent mining engineer. In 1919, he was appointed Territorial Mining Inspector, the second in the history of the Territory. He stayed with that job until he retired in 1949.

Hikers on the East Glacier Trail glimpse bits and pieces of the Nugget Creek hydroelectric project. For instance, near the trailhead is the A.J. Waterfall.

Hike close to the falls to see one of the only structures remaining - a building containing a hoist used to pull rail cars containing supplies and repair materials along a tramway. Along the rest of the trail, peer into the underbrush for remnants such as lengths of lumber, rusting pipe, bits of tramway and enameled wash basins nearly obscured by moss.

The Nugget Creek Tunnel was a contemporary of the Gold Creek Tunnel but built for a different purpose: producing electric power. It was drilled by the Treadwell Mine on Douglas Island. Power traveled 15 miles from the Nugget Creek powerhouse to the mine. Chief engineer was Charley Preston, said David Stone, vice president of consumer affairs for AEL&P and an authority on local mining history.

Stone's book, "Hard Rock Gold," notes that Frederick Worthen Bradley was again involved. In 1900, Bradley purchased a large interest in the Alaska Juneau Gold Mining Company or "A.J." and became its president.

The following year, he became president of the Alaska Treadwell Co. Bradley bought the water rights to claims in the Mendenhall Glacier area in 1910, and designed the 15-mile transmission line.

He also took financial gambles that resulted in building the great A.J. Mill on the Mt. Roberts mountainside in 1916 and the steam power plant below it.

The goal for Nugget Creek was to harness its water power - those thunderous splashes that delight visitors today. Ship Creek had already been harnessed, but more power was needed.

"Both are what we call run-of-the-river plants," Stone said in a recent interview. "There is no storage, so there's not much produced during the winter months."

During the other seven months, the Nugget Creek plant could produce about 2.5 megawatts with its two water wheels.

Harnessing the creek meant erecting a log crib dam near the top of the falls and building wooden and metal pipe and two valves. The smaller valve was used to flush out silt that tended to build up behind the dam. It was a 650-foot tunnel drilled from behind the dam, through the ridge from Nugget to the Mendenhall Valley. That tunnel/valve became the waterfall seen today.

Work began on the Nugget Creek power plant in the fall of 1911. The site was considered the middle of nowhere, at the end of a dirt road, with its own sawmill.

At first the tunnel was cut by hand. Later, compressed-air drills went to work. The first electricity was produced late in 1912. The entire project cost $600,000. The plant was run by three operators who lived side-by-side in three houses next to the operation.

"Normally the water flowed straight down the pipeline to a fore-bay which transmitted the water down the hill to the power plant," Stone said.

"But the plant had a design flaw: The water contained so much silt that it would eat up the water wheels," he said.

Despite its flaw, the hydroelectric plant operated from 1914 to 1944. It became an A.J. plant in 1928 when A.J. bought out all of Treadwell's assets.

The power plant was located a short distance from today's visitor center.

"The Forest Service didn't like it there because they felt it was hazardous as visitors increased in number, so they forced A.J. Industries to tear it down in 1965," Stone added.

The power plant's foundations can still be found - if you enjoy bushwhacking.



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