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Reliving gold’s glory at the Treadwell Mine, 100 years later

By Liz Raines Photojournalist: Cale Green - 9:05 PM April 20, 2017

People in Juneau are getting ready to celebrate a big anniversary.

Friday marks 100 years since the collapse of the Treadwell Gold Mine complex on Douglas Island, connected today to downtown Juneau by a bridge.

Treadwell launched Alaska into the national spotlight in 1882, but its prosperity was cut short suddenly on April 21, 1917.

The foundations of Alaska’s capital were figuratively set in gold from the mine. Easy access and quick energy from surrounding waters made Douglas the perfect site for a gold mine. And Treadwell wasn’t just any mine. At the time, it was the largest of its kind in the world.

“Treadwell was quite the enterprise, and it was actually Alaska’s first major development project,” said Paulette Simpson, president of the Treadwell Historic Preservation and Restoration Society.

The project started in 1882, when John Treadwell, of California, brought in a five-stamp mill to test the Douglas dirt. It was a sophisticated piece of machinery for its time. Grinding and testing the earth, Treadwell and the developing town of Douglas were about to strike it big:  over 3 million ounces of gold, valued today at more than $4 billion.

According to Simpson, the mine drew workers from around the world because wages were among the highest in the nation for the time.

“It was a wonderful place to live and the stories that were written down indicate that people had a wonderful life here,” she said.

Life around the mine was wonderful, until one day– one hundred years ago– it was over.

Treadwell’s 2000 employees enjoyed modern luxuries like a gym and pool, known as the natatorium. It was there that the first signs came, one century ago, that something was about to go terribly wrong.

“The women were swimming in the swimming pool that day, and all of a sudden the water drained out,” said Simpson. “The workmen were sent to do repairs, and then it became obvious that there was something going on that was causing the flood, and that’s why they sounded the alarm and were able to pull everyone out; one miner was unaccounted for.”

Three of Treadwell’s four mines caved in.

“It was a combination of three things: the mining stopes, which weakened the support for the mine, and the natural fault running through, and, then, the exceptionally high tides. That’s what did it,” Simpson explained.

The flooding forced the fall of a cornerstone of Alaska’s booming economy and made for front-page news stories across the country.

“It was a big deal at the time,” Simpson said.

Throughout time, first-hand accounts of the mine have faded. But even a century later, the pillars of the mine that made Alaska’s capital city famous are still standing strong.

The Treadwell Historic Preservation and Restoration Society will commemorate the 100th anniversary with a variety of activities through July, including walking tours and a miner’s ball this weekend. 

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