Southeast Sagas: The Treadwell

Alaska's renowned first large-scale, low-grade gold mine

Posted: Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Juneau is the buckle on a "gold belt" of mineral-bearing ore boasting the remains of dozens of hard-rock gold mines. One of the most famous is the Treadwell on Douglas Island. Although most of the area is today obscured by overgrowth, its story is an important chapter in mining history.

The mine is named for John Treadwell (1842-1927), a native of New Brunswick, Canada, who in 1881 was grubstaked by San Francisco bankers to head north and buy up likely mineral prospects. Treadwell bought the Parris Claim from Pierre "French Pete" Erussard for $400 or $500, taking advantage of the fact that Erussard owed a freight bill of that amount for goods for his store. The claim or "lode" was an outcropping of gold-bearing quartz about a quarter mile from the beach on Gastineau Channel. The 22 sacks of rock samples Treadwell took back to California assayed at an ounce of gold per ton - well worth developing.

Treadwell and two partners set up a five-stamp reduction mill in May 1882. Lode gold mining began in 1884 with an open-pit operation. The deep pit became known as the Glory Hole. Treadwell gradually matched the Parris Claim with other claims and developed them into a combination pit and large underground-tunnel mine christened the Treadwell Mine. Ultimately the operation expanded to four mines whose ore was crushed in five mills dropping 880 stamps, with nearly 2,000 employees. The complex eventually yielded a ton of gold, making it the second-largest gold producer in Alaska's history. Visitors reported that the main pit was so deep, men working at the bottom seemed "scarcely larger than flies."

In September 1901, one miner, C. G. Johnson, earned the nickname "256-Foot Johnson" when he fell that distance and "was not hurt much."

Treadwell was a common stop for early cruise ships. When the Harriman Expedition steamed up the Inside Passage in 1899, the steady din of the Treadwell caught the passengers' attention. On the recommendation of the Expedition's mining engineer, Walter Devereux, the expedition toured the mine, marveling at its size and level of activity. Several remarked on the effect the mine had on the surrounding forest, which had been clear-cut. The air above the channel was clouded with haze. The sound of the equipment was so loud, John Burroughs said, that Niagara Falls was "only a soft hum" in comparison.

London actress/novelist Elizabeth Robins visited in August 1900 on a quest to locate her brothers, prospectors in Nome. She ventured with a guide "Up into the top of one of the high wooden buildings, [to] see how the crude ore is sent down a chute into a crusher like a gigantic coffee mill; [which] cracks it up to the proper size to feed into the stamp...." At that time the ore yielded gold worth $2 to $3 a ton. It was smelted in Tacoma.

Robins considered Treadwell "an instance of man's triumph over nature and hard conditions by the application of capital and perseverance."

Nothing was allowed to stand in the way of the mine. In 1901 the company sued to eject all Tlingits from their fish camps on Treadwell Beach, and then burned the "Indian shacks."

Operating 363 days a year, around the clock, Treadwell was powered by coal from British Columbia and water from the Treadwell Ditch, a 15-mile canal begun in 1889. Men worked in chambers lit by candles and lanterns. In June 1912, helmets with carbide lights replaced the thousands of candles burned every day.

The town of Treadwell was located just south of modern Douglas. It had a population of 1,222 in 1910. The complex included a swimming pool - or "natatorium" - with meeting room and fireplace, a mess hall on pilings, a Turkish bath, tennis courts and a library of 15,000 books. Boardwalks connected family residences, bunkhouses, machine shops and other structures.

Mining engineers of the day knew little about moving and supporting enormous burdens of rock. Tunnels went as deep as 540 feet. Eventually, during a night of extreme high tides in April 1917, three of the four mines caved in. But there had been warnings. Rock columns were seen to be deteriorating as early as 1909. The Treadwell dock collapsed March 9, 1917. The Daily Alaska Dispatch reported April 21 that the Treadwell earth had "settled a little," but a mine representative said "no harm threatened." Yet just before midnight, a gaping hole opened between the 700 Mill and No. 4 bunkhouse and sea water rushed in. The Fire Hall and the natatorium slumped into the hole. About 350 men were underground at the time.

One of the witnesses was Hannah Breece, whose story is told in "A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska." Breece noted that one miner died. "His children were my pupils. The mining company gave their mother ten thousand dollars so the children could be raised without want."

After the Treadwell disaster, city services were disrupted and snow was allowed to pile up on the streets until it reached 15 feet deep. "People reached their doorways down below by steps cut into the hard-packed snow," Breece wrote. "One stormy night, picking my way down the steps to my door, I slipped and broke my leg."

The cave-in put 1,000 miners out of work. About 150 struggled on at the Ready Bullion until 1922.

Although many tourists who visit Juneau now do not grasp its mining heritage, Treadwell is world-famous in mining circles. It is mentioned in more than 60 sites on the World Wide Web. For information on gravel trails in the area, for example, look at Trail Mix's www.juneautrails.org/tm_trails.html. For historic photos, see www.juneau.lib.ak.us/history/treadwell_photos3.htm.

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



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