What's up with that?

The Empire ponders Juneau's puzzles, unravels its mysteries and contemplates its conundrums.

Posted: Thursday, October 10, 2002

This week we continue our look at the stories behind North Douglas place names with a mountain honoring a man who led a remarkable life.

Douglas Island's highest peak was named Mount Ben Stewart in 1977 in memory of Benjamin Duane Stewart (1878-1976), who arrived in Juneau as a young mining engineer in 1910 and made a lasting impact on the state for the next 50 years.

Stewart - often called "B.D." by mining colleagues - was born in Missoula, Mont., and was a member of the first graduating class of the University of Montana campus there.

After graduation, he worked with U.S. Geological Survey crews, determining elevations of peaks around Montana's Glacier National Park region and surveying California's Death Valley.

Stewart's next job was as a mining engineer with the Sunshine Mine in Wallace, Idaho - near Coeur d'Alene. Then came a life-changing call from Juneau.

"The man who was launching the Alaska-Juneau mine, Frederick Worthen Bradley, contacted the Sunshine and asked for a recommendation of a qualified mining engineer," said Judge Tom Stewart of Juneau, Ben's son. "He came up here only expecting to be here a year or so. ... (But) he did such a successful job, they extended his contract and had him survey the main tunnel," Tom Stewart said.

That three-mile tunnel, which was used to transport ore from the mining area to the mill above Gastineau Channel, was about 24 feet wide and 16 feet high, his son said. It was drilled from both ends with a 1 percent downward grade, and he said his father's calculations, allowing the two tunnels to meet, were remarkably accurate.

"I can remember him telling me that the superintendent of the work called him at 2 o'clock in the morning and said they were about to break through," Tom Stewart recalled. "The floor was only an inch apart where they met."

Through the 1910s, Ben Stewart continued his work as a mining engineer around Juneau and Southeast Alaska. He served as mayor of Juneau in 1916 and was an early proponent of a Juneau-to-Douglas bridge to replace the existing ferry service. A bridge was finally built in 1935. Later, he was instrumental in building a new Juneau Public Library building, which now houses the city museum.

In 1919, Stewart was appointed territorial mine inspector for Alaska, a position which was later expanded into commissioner of mines. He held the post until he retired in 1949.

"He had authority over the entire territory, for mine safety primarily," his son said.

Among his achievements in that office was creating an assistance program for prospectors to facilitate the discovery of new mineral deposits.

"From his office, they got a grant that would enable them to go out in the field in the summer and go prospecting," Tom Stewart said.

After retirement, Ben Stewart moved to Sitka in 1953. He served as a delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention in 1955-56 and worked with Tom, who was elected secretary of that body. Ben Stewart remained in Sitka until 1966, and then moved to Sequim, Wash., where he remained active until he died in 1976.

"After he died, some of the old-time mining engineers around Alaska got in touch with me and said they wanted to name a mountain after him," Tom Stewart said.

When asked if it should be a monumental peak up north or a more modest peak closer to Juneau, Tom Stewart chose the latter. He said he didn't want Mount Ben Stewart to be lost in a veritable sea of white-capped mountains.

Stewart's contributions to Alaska and to mining continue to be recognized. Last month, Tom Stewart and several of his siblings traveled to Salt Lake City to be present at their father's induction into the National Mining Hall of Fame. A plaque honoring Ben Stewart now hangs in that museum, located in Leadville, Colo.

"He was a man of tremendous integrity," Tom Stewart said of his father. "He made it a point, as territorial mine inspector and commissioner of mines, never to own a single stock in a mining company (and) never to parlay what he learned about mineral potential from prospectors ... for his private gain."

If you want to read more details about the life of Ben Stewart, a short but thorough biography can be found on the Internet at imcg.wr.usgs.gov/usbmak/stewart.html.

The next time we pick up this topic, we'll head across the Fish Creek Valley to Mount Anderson and the renowned botanist behind that peak's name.

Andrew Krueger can be reached at akrueger@juneauempire.com. Send comments and questions for "What's Up With That" to whatsup@juneauempire.com.

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