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The cave-in that closed Alaska's biggest gold mine

The Treadwell Historic Preservation and Restoration Society restored the shell of the Treadwell pumphouse. Mt. Roberts serves as backdrop. (Katie Bausler)

The Treadwell Historic Preservation and Restoration Society restored the shell of the Treadwell pumphouse. Mt. Roberts serves as backdrop. (Katie Bausler)

DOUGLAS ISLAND — Down the street from our home here is a popular spot for runners and after-work strollers. The forested Treadwell Historic Trail runs along Gastineau Channel across from downtown Juneau. The trees along the trail are resilient alder that grow in the aftermath of glacial recession, or in this case, an earthen nervous breakdown.

If you look straight ahead as you make your way along the dirt, you might miss what's alongside — crumbling cinder blocks covered with green moss, gnarled rusty train tracks, steel poles marking off the fence around what were tennis courts, hollowed-out buildings fading into the recesses of time.

You are walking through what was the biggest and most profitable hard-rock gold-mining operation in the world and the bustling community that supported it. What strikes me about the ruins down the street is that unlike ancient Rome or Greece or Egypt, the past they represent was not that long ago.

24/7 operation

The Treadwell mines and company town were founded and established by John Treadwell, a carpenter and prospector from San Francisco. He bought the claim for $400. From 1882 to 1922, the mines employed up to 2,000 miners from 17 countries. The thundering stamp mills ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except Fourth of July and Christmas.

The Treadwell mines and company town came to a spectacular end on April 21, 1917, when a massive cave-in flooded three of four underground mines, 2,300 feet deep. They’d yielded 10 million tons of ore. The void was filled with an estimated 3 million tons of seawater. Failure of unstable underground rock pillars and an extreme high tide led to the collapse. (Alaska State Library / Harry F. Snyder Photograph Collection P38-100)
The Treadwell mines and company town came to a spectacular end on April 21, 1917, when a massive cave-in flooded three of four underground mines, 2,300 feet deep. They’d yielded 10 million tons of ore. The void was filled with an estimated 3 million tons of seawater. Failure of unstable underground rock pillars and an extreme high tide led to the collapse. (Alaska State Library / Harry F. Snyder Photograph Collection P38-100)

The company paid employees well and provided a community that in its heyday had an indoor swimming pool, Turkish baths, sauna and a department store that brought in the finest toys and gifts from San Francisco. Off-shift, miners, supervisors and their families enjoyed the Treadwell Club, with billiards, dancing and movies. It even had a special room for writing letters and reading.

I imagine the wife of a hoist operator in that room, musing on her first impressions of Treadwell when she arrived on a steam ship from Washington state in January 1913. "I'll never forget the next morning when daylight came and I looked out across Gastineau Channel and saw the white mountains looming up," she wrote. "It seemed they were just at my feet. It was breathtaking and frightening all at once."

The unsigned "A Treadwell Wife Remembers" is published in the bible of Southeast Alaska mining history, "Hard Rock Gold," by the late David Stone. Stone died suddenly of a heart attack at age of 55 in 2012, when the Treadwell Historic Preservation and Restoration Society was just getting underway.

"David left too early," laments my Douglas neighbor and society member, Paulette Simpson. For going on a decade, Simpson and a small but determined group have been stepping toward their goal of turning the area into a historic park. They've erected colorful, descriptive signs with period photos, restored the shell of an iconic pump house at the end of what was the biggest deep-water port in Alaska, and are now raising money and restoring the only intact office building.

80 acres of mine tailings

On a recent sunny Monday evening, Simpson meets me for a walk along the trail. "This is the best time of year to see what's left — after the snows melt and before the summer overgrowth," she notes. Simpson bubbles with tales of the bygone era of industrial romance and company-town amenities. Between the mine's financial success, the several period newspapers in Douglas and Juneau, and the many preserved and archived photographs, the story of Treadwell "is all there," Simpson says. "It's just a matter of taking the time."

The historic trail parallels Sandy Beach. Parts of machines that ran the mines and broken dishes from the dining hall emerge at low tide. The most coveted place for dog walkers in Douglas is not really sandy at all, but really is the result of 80 acres of mine tailings. Over the course of four decades, the Treadwell mines crushed a world record 26 million tons of rock, which produced $70 million worth of gold.

Seven years ago, University of Alaska Press published "Treadwell Gold" by Sheila Kelly, the most complete account and only book about life in Treadwell. The book was the culmination of decades of research inspired by family history. Kelly's father was born in Treadwell in 1899, and her grandfather was the mine machinist.

A retired environmental educator, the Seattle resident says she was at first more interested in the daily life of the residents than in the mining. In writing the book, she learned that the mines and the Tlingit Indian village between Treadwell and Douglas were written up in the Pacific Steamship Co. travel brochure.

Gold 'poor substitute for lead bullets'

She also learned that the Alaska Native Tlingits who lived in the village adjacent to Treadwell had been in the area for at least 9,000 years.

Several Tlingit people worked in the mines. However, as Kelly writes, "The Tlingit did not understand the excitement and greed that gold set off in white men who were coming into the area. Hunting was the Native's primary occupation, and they found gold a poor substitute for lead bullets."

Kelly was in town recently to consult on a play by Perseverance Theatre based on her book.

"Treadwell is a great story. And I felt I had both a privilege and responsibility to pull it together," she said. "I wanted to bring the town alive."

Signs prepared by the Treadwell Historic Preservation and Restoration Society welcome visitors and provide informative snapshots of life in the company town between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Katie Bausler)
Signs prepared by the Treadwell Historic Preservation and Restoration Society welcome visitors and provide informative snapshots of life in the company town between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Katie Bausler)

When Kelly's father was boy, he could get a fresh California orange or his shoes repaired at the company store, remembered as the largest and most well-stocked merchandiser in Alaska.

To get a drink or deposit their pay, mining families had to go next door to Douglas, which among the usual amenities, had bars, churches and a hospital.

Today's Douglas has a bar, pizza place, burger joint, library, post office, car repair, hair salon, regional theater, costume shop and a handful of gas pumps.

But what I'd give for a grocery store with fresh produce, let alone a place to re-sole my favorite boots in the neighborhood …

Spectacular end

The Treadwell mines and company town came to a spectacular end a century ago, on April 21, 1917, when a massive cave-in flooded three of four underground mines, 2,300 feet deep. They'd yielded 10 million tons of ore. The void was filled with an estimated 3 million tons of seawater. Failure of unstable underground rock pillars and an extreme high tide led to the collapse.

In the days preceding the disaster, the earth offered enough signals that all but one of the miners escaped. (And his death was disputed; the mine's official stance was that he had left town. A jury found in favor of the man's wife and awarded her damages. Some sources even today, however, still claim no one died.)

The cave-in also claimed the natatorium and fire hall. "The drama of the cave-in was that the town and the people lived right on top of the mines," Kelly said.

The office building is the only edifice that survived the fires that wiped out Treadwell in 1926. The Treadwell Historic Preservation and Restoration Society is in the process of renovating the building as a public open-air shelter and gathering space. (Katie Bausler)
The office building is the only edifice that survived the fires that wiped out Treadwell in 1926. The Treadwell Historic Preservation and Restoration Society is in the process of renovating the building as a public open-air shelter and gathering space. (Katie Bausler)

On a recent Friday, people gathered at the site to read passages from Kelly's chapter on the cave-in.

Mine geologist Livingston Wenecke rushed to the site, inched his way out on the tram trestle that was precariously strung over the hole, and shone a light down into the widening cauldron. He watched a mass of mud and water accumulate and then slide away with a deep rumble. As the muck was gulped down, the lower regions underground belched a blast of air that had the musty odor of the deep reaches of the mine.

Fires fueled by Douglas' notorious Taku winds wiped out what was left of Treadwell on Oct. 10, 1926.

Freelance writer Katie Bausler is a devoted resident of the island kingdom of rainy Douglas, Alaska.

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