Alaska! Gold Rush! When we hear the name Alaska, images from old black and white gold rush photos come to mind. Hard-bitten miners with long scraggly beards panning for gold, knee deep in turbulent, frigid rivers. Young men with carbide lamps on their helmets, drilling and blasting deep inside hard rock underground mines.
And these images indeed capture the gold miner’s hardscrabble life in Alaska when it was the epicenter of the United State’s gold mining industry from the late 1800s to 1944. In this time it has accumulated a fascinating and exciting history, much of which is still evident today. I recently visited Juneau, in S.E. Alaska to see its gold mining history for myself and was not disappointed with my experience.
Tourism operators have realized the importance of resurrecting Juneau’s gold mining history and have, guided by historians, opened up some outstanding mining tours and museums that bring Alaska’s remarkable gold mining legacy back to life.
You’ll find Alaska’s mining heritage everywhere in Juneau, a town literally built on tailings from gold mines (which is why the locals will tell you Juneau was built on gold). By the end of my five-day visit, I’d had a healthy dose of the area’s mining history and been on some excellent gold mining history and panning tours, including venturing inside a historic mine that was one of the most famous in the world.
Last Chance Gold Mining Museum
I start my Juneau gold mining experience at the Last Chance Mining Museum; a few minutes drive into the rugged mountains behind Juneau. Now called the Jualpa Mine Camp National Historic District, this steep, rugged tree covered valley is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. We drive over a bridge made of large wooden planks with a hair raising drop down into the canyon below, and arrive at the museum’s dirt parking lot after a 15-minute drive along winding gravel roads.
In the early days, when placer mining thrived in Gold Creek, it must have taken the miners all day just to get here, and they’d have had to walk along the riverbank and up narrow, steep mountain trails just to get to their claims. Later, when the area switched to hard rock mining, a small railroad tunnel was carved through the mountain to transport the miners to work every morning, from Juneau.
A large open-sided shed next to the parking lot contains a Pelton Wheel Compressor used in the old Ebner Adit which was located a short distance up Perseverance Trail. This impulse water wheel drove the compressor’s crankshaft, with 2,600 cubic feet of air per minute, at 100lbs psi, to power the pneumatic mining drills, hoists, and hammers.
After a short walk, we come to a bridge overlooking Gold Creek, a swiftly flowing, and five-yard wide river. With its rocky bed and gravel banks, this is gold country if I ever saw it, and I learn this was the actual site of Joe Juneau and Richard Harris’s original gold discovery. Looking down from the bridge, we see several tour groups from the jumbo size cruise liners that are perpetually berthed alongside Juneau’s downtown docks. The tourists excitedly swish and swirl their rusty old pans, finding small traces of gold in the bottom of their pans, which they get to keep.
Crossing the 50-yard long, rough-hewn board bridge we meet two “real” miners from the Coeur Alaska mine at Kensington, about 40 miles north of Juneau. Taylor (24 years old) is a driller and his buddy Levi (28) is a mine roof bolter operator. They tell me about the great dorm life they lead when they are on duty, the good money they make, and are clearly excited about gold mining. I’m not so sure that their counterparts in the 1880s would have displayed the same enthusiasm! They’ve come to look at the Last Chance Museum to see how it was done back in the day.
Ascending a short, steep flight of concrete stairs, we see three huge corrugated iron sheds looming above us. Our guide greets us and tells us that her beautiful white Great Pyreneese dog, Sabina, had two wandering bears bailed up in the trees yesterday, right next to the museum. Welcome to Alaska!
Located in the mine’s old compressor building, the Last Chance Mining Museum is absolutely crammed, floor to ceiling, with thousands of old pieces of gold mining equipment. They range from small to enormous and the gadgets make the museum look like the setting for a Steampunk Convention.
Part of the Alaska-Juneau Gold Mining Company, commonly referred to as the AJ Mine, this was the largest of the local hard rock mines. In its time the AJ Mine was the largest low-grade ore producer in the world.
The Deep North ore body inside the mountains was so extensive that 108 miles of tunnels were blasted out of the hard rock face. The other two parts of the AJ Mine are the mill on the hillside above downtown Juneau (which produced the tailings that modern day Juneau is built upon), and the Jualpa (JUneau ALaska PennsylvaniA) Mine Camp located between the ore body and mill in Last Chance Basin, above Gold Creek.
AJ Gold Mining Company
The AJ Gold Mining Company was really an agglomeration of 23 claims, first organized on May 6, 1897. Drilling started in 1911 to access the Deep North ore in Silver Bow Basin and mining operations continued non-stop, except for July 4 and Christmas until the mine’s closure on April 9 1944. A shortage of men caused by World War II and the price of gold, fixed at $35 per ounce, no longer made mining profitable.
Between 1897 and 1935, $30 million of gold was mined here, but costs were high, $11 million. Nevertheless, the company persevered and between 1935 and 1944, another $50 million of gold was mined. In their time, these were the most modern mines in the world.
The miners earned $100/month (better pay than the Ford Motor Company), of which $27 went back to the company for clothing and lodging, and they were well treated, even having a large library, where many of them—being from seventeen countries including Norway, Austria, Denmark, Slovenia, Montenegro, Finland, Italy and France—learned to read, write, and speak English. The mine companies formed minor league baseball teams, recruiting some outstanding players, because a lot of money was bet on these games.
Now owned by the City of Juneau, and operated by the Gastineau Channel Historical Society, the Last Chance Mining Museum’s goal is to preserve its mining artifacts and educate people about Juneau’s proud mining industry. Inside the cavernous room, I wander around, fascinated by the strange assortment of equipment.
The huge Main Air Compressor stands out above all the metal artifacts. It’s a huge 11-ton, 10.5-foot diameter tall metal wheel attached by thick wires to the Compressor Motor. Built by Ingersoll-Rand Corporation in New York, this was one of the largest compressors in the world. It took one year to reach the mine, transported by steamship to San Francisco, and then by rail to its eventual housing at the AJ Mine. This marvel of engineering, built in 1914, could produce 4,000 cubic feet of air per minute at a pressure of 100lb psi. It powered the pneumatic drills, jackhammers, and winches in the mine.
The 750-horsepower, 18-ton General Electric Compressor Motor wheel that powered the compressor could generate 2,200 volts of electricity. Other artifacts and equipment spread out through the museum include a metal lathe for fabricating mining equipment, wooden patterns for casting parts for equipment and tools, a sharpening machine for sharpening saws, knives, axes, picks, a drill sharpener, and a forge and furnace.
In a corner of the museum is a replica of the AJ Mine Adit, the mine entrance. The original mine entrances are sealed off to the public, so this replica was created to give the visitor an idea of what a mine was like. Walking through, I see historic photographs, a wide display of hand tools that were used in the shops for maintaining the mining equipment, pneumatic drilling equipment, and ancient picks and rock samples.
Elsewhere in the museum are Wood Stave Water Pipes and Needle Valves, used for milling, cooling equipment and fire fighting. Alongside are round metal objects shaped like cannonballs, used for pulverizing and crushing large ore rock in large cylinders. Several rusted carbide headlamps are displayed in a glass-topped cabinet. These had an unfortunate habit of exploding occasionally, making them quite dangerous for the miners. No one can tell me if exploding helmets actually killed any miners, but I imagine they would cause at the least, a concussion and at best a rather nasty headache.
A glass fronted display case behind the museum counter contains dozens of core samples used to analyze the ore. A sign indicates the various bell signals used for hoisting, stopping or lowering the skip (miner’s elevator cage), or for when an accident has happened, or when blasting is about to take place.
Outside the museum, I walk up some stairs to see what remains of the metal railcars used to transport the miners to and from work every day, and to transport the ore cars to the crushing mill. Awaiting restoration, these rusting old brown hulks are overgrown by grass, brush and trees. The cars are quite small, and the miners would squeeze themselves inside, sit on the hard wooden seats, to be jostled to their mine face. One can only imagine the early morning conversations the rough and tumble miners had.
Gold Mining Museum
I have visits to two museums scheduled, to bring me up to speed on Juneau’s mining history. The Juneau-Douglas City Museum gives a concise and thorough history of the town, and enabled me to frame my experience at the Last Chance Museum into context. As one might expect, its major focus of is on its mining history, with plenty of old photographs, interactive exhibits, dioramas, and displays about Hands On Mining, to show the pioneer life as it was back in the mining days.
You can read stories about the mines from sliding panels, and a large colorful display shows the types of rock at the Treadwell Mine. Glass cases contain typical clothing worn by miners, and some of their equipment.
I learn about Hand Jacking used in the 1880s (where a hand drill and black powder were used to break up the rock surface). Double Jacking must have required complete faith in the accuracy of the miner’s partner—this technique involved a miner gripping the drill steel while the second miner swung an 8-pound hammer at it.
This mining technique must have caused some horrific accidents. From Sheila Kelly’s book Treadwell Gold, I am reminded of the list of pay outs to injured employees: For the loss of one hand ($500), the loss of either arm above elbow ($650), the loss of an arm below the elbow ($500), the loss of a thumb ($200), and the loss of any finger ($150).
Another gallery tells how geologists and surveyors performed daily assays to determine the gold content of the ore. They crushed the ore with a hammer called a Muller, then mixed it with lead oxide reagents, and fired the sample in a crucible, at 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. The reagents picked up the gold and silver, sending it to the bottom.
The gold and silver residue was then pounded into a small cup called a button. The button was placed in a cupel and returned to the furnace, leaving a small bead of gold in the bottom of the cupel, called a dore bead. This assay was weighed on a fine scale, then nitric acid was used to dissolve the silver, and the gold was then weighed again. The scales were so delicate they could weigh a pencil mark on a single sheet of tissue paper or a single hair.
A Rock Drilling exhibit shows how hand tools were gradually replaced by air powered piston-driven pneumatic tools. The pneumatic drills used a four-point bit to break the rock. There’s an exhibit on how miners use steel rods to bolt the mineshaft surface together to prevent falls, using rock-bolting machines—a dangerous task that only the most skilled miners perform.
A miniature stamp mill demonstrates how huge pistons were used in stamp mills to pound and crush the ore into little rocks and then into beach like sand to extract the gold. The first stamp mill was used in the Treadwell Mine in 1882. By 1900 it had 880 stamps, running 24 hours a day, 363 days a year. In 1911 the Treadwell mine milled 1.3 million tons of ore, averaging 5,000 tones per day. The stamps must have made a terrifying din, as they weighed 1,050 pounds each, and dropped 95 times per minute—when the “stamps” were closed down on Christmas day and the 4th of July, the residents complained of the eerie quiet!
Alaska State Museum
The Alaska State Museum, a large white concrete building with art nouveau decorations sculpted into its walls, is only a ten-minute walk from the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, and is equally impressive. Although not as focused on mining as the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, it gives a polished, in-depth recounting of the state’s history and natural history, including Native Cultures, History Galleries, a For Kids Only section, and much more.
The mining gallery features many artifacts and mineral specimens, and a recreation of a mining office, with an ore-carrying cart standing on rails in front. Reader boards describe the miner’s life, describing the two main types of gold mining, and how the placer miners staked their claims. Claims were generally rectangular shaped, and went along both sides of the creek. I learn that placer gold only accounted for 1% of all gold recovered in Alaska.
It is in these museums that I learn the colorful story of how Juneau’s gold rush started. Entrepreneur and mining engineer, George Pilz, had seen from naturalist John Muir’s notes that the native Indians in the area used gold tipped bullets; Pilz sent prospectors Joe Juneau and his partner Richard Harris to look for gold.
The gold exploration expedition by this dynamic duo got off to a rather dubious start when they traded the grubstake given them by Pilz, for native hooch. Eventually, after returning empty handed (and presumably somewhat hung over), Pilz in a remarkable display of faith and trust promptly sent them back again. Their guide, Auk Tlingit chief Kowee (or Kaa wa.ee) led the pair to the Silver Bow Basin, where they literally struck placer gold, and staked the first claims there in 1880.
Like so many of the gold rush adventurers, Joe Juneau was an interesting character that loved to spend his gold money as fast as he earned it. The town was originally named Harrisburg, and then Rockwell; but Juneau, seeking some sort of immortality, called a miner’s meeting on December 14, 1881. He liquored up the miners with rotgut whiskey, and had the town’s name changed yet again, to Juneau, receiving 47 of the 72 votes cast. Joe Juneau moved to Dawson City during the Klondike Gold Rush, and opened a small restaurant. After passing away in 1899 from pneumonia, his remains were returned to Juneau, where he is buried in the Evergreen Cemetery.
In June 1881, William Stewart and two partners staked placer claims in the Last Chance Basin, further up the river, where the Last Chance Mine would later be launched.
AJ Gold Mining and Gastineau Mill Tour
It’s time now, to get back into the mountains and see the remnants of another gold mine on the AJ Mine and Gastineau Mill Tour, and learn how to pan for gold. Our bus takes us up a steep trail on Mount Roberts to what remains of the Alaska Gastineau Mill. We stop at a series of reader boards, surrounded by lush rain forest and an awesome view down over the shimmering Gastineau Channel. A young guide shows us large black and white photos outlining the different types of gold mining.
He demonstrates how to operate a sluice box, and then moves on to describe hydraulic mining, dredging, open pit mining, and underground hard rock gold mining. Then we walk across to the Railroad Superintendent’s House, an old abandoned wooden ghost house tucked away in the forest, overgrown with moss and evergreens, leaning at a drunken angle from its slide a few yards down the mountainside.
Next we drive two minutes down the dirt trail and stop at the enormous rusting steel girders and concrete skeleton of the former mill, rammed up against the steep mountainside. It was here that the ore carts opened to pour their contents into a rotating pebble mill, where the rocks were crushed into a sand-like product, which was sifted and washed to collect the gold. An old photo shows that this was one monster of a mill in its time, and for a short period the Alaska Gastineau was the largest gold mine in the world.
This revolutionary plant introduced new technologies to the mining industry, opening for business in 1915. The company’s shares went from $10 each in 1912 to $40.75 in 1915. This mill, exceeding all expectations, processed 10,000 tones of ore per day, using a rotating pebble mill. By 1921, the post war inflation and gold price of $20.67 per ounce forced the mine to close. The Gastineau Mill recovered 500,000 ounces of gold from 12 million tons of ore.
Next, we’re whisked further down the hill for a tour inside the historic Gastineau Mine conveyor tunnel shaft, one of the highlights of the day. It’s the only hard rock gold mining tour in S.E. Alaska. Our guide is a Bill Paxton movie star lookalike, and a “real” miner from the Midwest. He shows us the disk system the miners used to indicate if they were still in the mine or not. They took their disk with them and returned it to their numbered spot on the board before they left each day. If someone’s disk was missing at the end of the shift, a search was launched.
Our guide hams up his stories and demonstrations, keeping them interesting. After we don hard hats we enter the cool, 50 degree Fahrenheit, 360-foot-long mine shaft. Inside the mineshaft, 20 feet wide and ten feet high, our voices and the gravel crunching under our shoes echo down its length. Our guide stops to demonstrate how work was done in the mines. He saws a joist, operates a bone rattling pneumatic drill, and dumps ore into a hopper ore cart.
Our tour ends with a gold panning demonstration under a wooden, open sided shed, with long metal troughs running through the middle. The troughs, three feet wide and 9 inches deep, are packed with river gravel and dirt spread across the bottom and filled with cold glacial river water. Our guide demonstrates how to pan, getting the right balance of swirling, swishing, and dunking. Everyone finds specks of gold, which we put into small glass vials. This exciting tour gave us a real insight into the gold mining life.
Next I opt for the Steamboat Tour, ably led by Captain John L. George, a perfect summary for my Juneau gold rush experience. We sit inside a turn-of-the-century, wood-fired passenger steamboat as it chugs sedately along the Gastineau Channel at 3.5 knots. Wearing a black vest complete with silver watch chain and captain’s hat, Captain George tells us how these steamboats were a common form of transport back in the day, ferrying miners and their families across the channel.
As he feeds small blocks of wood into the boiler, he tells about the remains of the three gold mines that were sprinkled along the channel. The Treadwell Mine, across the Gastineau Channel from Juneau on the shores of Douglas Island, was a thriving mine that rivaled its big neighbors in Juneau.
Three thousand people lived in the bustling company town, which had a library, tennis courts, a general store and an indoor heated swimming pool. The miners finished their shifts 45 minutes before the ones on the Juneau side, enabling the miners to have a quick bath, dress up, and take a ferry across to Juneau to beat the other miners to the bars and brothels.
Starting in 1909, however, the mine experienced a large number of large-scale underground cave-ins in its 45 miles of tunnels and caverns, which culminated in “the big one” on April 20, 1917. As most of this mine was below sea level, the salt water cascaded in, and fortunately, every miner bar one made it, shaken and bedraggled, to the surface. The Natatorium and several nearby houses disappeared into the rapidly growing sinkhole, giving the women who were swimming in it at the time somewhat of a fright, but all managed to scramble out in time.
The town slumped badly after mining ceased, and then its death knoll was sounded with a bad fire in 1926. There is nothing left of the town today except some foundations and old bits of wood lying around.
Our steamboat chugs back to its moorage literally under the bow of one of the behemoth cruise ships, capping off my Juneau Gold Rush adventure. Mining operations in the Juneau Gold Belt ceased by 1944, after 75 years of large and small operations. All told, the Juneau mines produced 6.8 million ounces of gold, $158 million, leaving volumes of stories and history about the gold boom days.
Also highly recommended is the gold panning expedition to Gold Creek with Alaska Travel Adventures.
Where to Stay:
For the complete experience, stay at the historic Silverbow Hotel, a beautiful 1914 boutique hotel with 11 rooms decorated with antiques and period wallpaper. Situated in the heart of downtown Juneau, its old furnishings and creaking floors help you relive the good old days of mining in Juneau. The bakery next door is not to be missed.
Last Chance Mining Museum & Historical Park, Mary Lou King, Garry Gillette, and Renee Hughes. 2009.
Treadwell Gold: An Alaskan Saga of Riches and Ruin. Sheila Kelly. University of Alaska Press. 2010.
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