Treadwell Gold Mine in Juneau, Alaska

The first time I witnessed the Treadwell site it struck me like a gorgeous industrial graveyard.  When mining operations were over in 1922, everything was left in its place.  Giant gears lie rusting in the tall grass.  Buildings of aged concrete which once housed an empire stand bare; with re-enforcing steel rebar jutting from gaping cracks.  Shoes cobbled for men a century ago blend with the rocks along the shores of the Gastineau Channel.  This place had been very much alive, this was quite clear.  The skeleton buildings, artifacts, and dock pilings are a capsule of a different time in the land of great adventure.  This is the Treadwell gold mine on Douglas Island.  It is a story of a gold strike, a prosperous boom, and a literal collapse.

In 1881 a man named John Treadwell set his feet on Alaskan soil for the first time.  A transplanted Canadian carpenter, Treadwell sailed from San Francisco to look into the real possibility of the golden tales that trickled down the coast.  What he found was more than he could imagine and purchased the land by paying off a shipping debt equivalent to $200 for a Frenchman name Pierre Joseph Erussard. 

Treadwell didn’t look back as he gained the investors necessary to set up a full scale operation.  Through superior engineering methods the mining operations would reach depths of over 2,400 feet underground, following the vein for all the gold it would give them.  To separate the riches from the dirt, Treadwell invested in “stamps” or large metal presses that would literally crush the rock down to sand-sized granules.  He eventually went on to purchase over thirty stamps, making it the largest stamp operation in the world.

 Including stamping, the processing system was assembled in accordance with the factory method.  Treadwell was one of the first mining operations in the world to do so.  With the mine tailings, comprised mainly of rock sediment, a sandy beach was created on Douglas Island, which can still be enjoyed to this day.  All told the Treadwell mine pulled over a hundred tons of pure gold equal to roughly $66 million dollars from the ground before closing down operations in 1922.

The most innovative facet of the Treadwell operation was their labor practices.  Treadwell did not take an average approach towards the care of his workforce.  The towns of Treadwell and Douglas were founded to service the workers.  For employees with families small houses were available with running water and electricity.  All miners also enjoyed health benefits, above average wages, and sports teams.  Most interestingly the miners were all given membership to the Treadwell Club.  This luxury facility included perks such as a full library, sauna, indoor pool, billiards room, bowling alley, and a theatre that would seat 500.

As I stand on Douglas Island I come back to admiring the attractively abandoned building in front of me.  A caved- in tunnel beneath the Gastineau Channel, flooding a majority of the shafts and miraculously killing no one, all but brought the operations to a halt in 1917.  The Treadwell site shut down mining operations for good in 1922, leaving many things rusting and lying beautifully where they were last placed to this day.  The whole site is open to visitors, leading them amidst the tremendous beauty of the Alaskan forest. The site is maintained by the Treadwell Historic Society preserving many walking trails leading to interesting stops in the history of this once world leading gold mine.  They offer a self guided walking tour with information on buildings and artifacts at numbered stops along the way.  The Treadwell mine site on Douglas Island is a five minute drive from downtown Juneau and a leisurely ten minute walk leaving from sandy beach.


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