Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Alaska Books: Treadwell Gold

In Juneau, drive across the bridge to Douglas Island.  Turn south down the Gastineau Channel and follow the road through the former town of Douglas.  After passing the Douglas Boat Harbor, you come across a large sand beach that looks completely out of place with the rest of the local area.  Today, it is a popular dog walking spot.  But starting 130 years ago, it was Alaska's first major economic site.  It is the former company town of Treadwell.  Nowadays most of what remains is the pilings of the docks, a shell of an old office building, and various "Mayan-like" ruins gathering moss.  Back then it was a thriving community based around the mining of gold.  A new book out last year has brought this community back to life.  

Cover of the book

Treadwell Gold, by Sheila Kelly, follows the town from creation through its heyday and ultimate demise.  Kelly, whose father was born in Treadwell, crafts her narrative around her family.  She tracks the founding of the town, built by a San Francisco businessmen led by John Treadwell.  In an era where most Alaska mining was placer mining on the surface, Treadwell was the site of capital intensive hard rock mining where workers tunneled deep into the ground.  Rock brought to the surface would be crushed in the giant stamps, and gold extracted from the rubble through chemical processes.  In its time, Treadwell was the largest mining operation of its kind in the world.  But in 1917, sea water from the Gastineau Channel flooded in the mine shaft, effectively destroying the site.  Slowly the towns people, including the Kellys, left Treadwell.  In 1926, what remained of the town was destroyed by the a fire which swept through the town of Douglas.

Treadwell in 1908

Kelly's book brings this lost town back to life.  We see how the people of Treadwell lived, spending their days down in the mines, working in the machine shop on the docks, or spending some leisure time at the Treadwell Club swimming pool.  The book is filled with fantastic photos documenting every aspect of town life.  We get to know the miners and foremen, the issues such union rights, and how Treadwell fits in Alaska history.  I highly recommend this book.

The area of the mine collapse

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