For forty years, between 1882 and 1922, Alaska’s first successful large-scale, low-grade gold mine operated on Douglas Island, across Gastineau Channel from downtown Juneau.
Discovered 14 years after the 1867 purchase of Alaska, and 17 years prior to the famed Klondike Gold Rush, the Treadwell created a base of jobs and commerce that produced enormous wealth, drawing literally thousands of people – miners, merchants and visitors – to Alaska. Experienced miners from around the world flocked to Treadwell, drawn by the promise of good wages and living conditions.
Unlike the boom & bust Klondike (1897-1899) the Treadwell offered secure employment with dependable wages and a company town in which to live. It was Alaska’s first development project and was the original catalyst for Alaska development and investment.
By 1900, Treadwell’s contiguous four mine, five mill complex included the Treadwell (240 + 300 stamps); the 700-Foot Mine (150 stamps); Mexican Mine (120 stamps) and the Ready Bullion Mine (150 stamps) for a total of 960 thundering stamps.
Treadwell’s Lasting Legacy
The 1890 Census (the first U.S. census taken in Alaska) presented the first in-depth documenting of the United States’ newest acquisition. The census credited the presence of the Treadwell mines and the stream of curious tourists for spurring the development of Alaska: “Treadwell’s stimulative effect upon mining and tributary industries created a freight movement which enabled a steamship company to inaugurate regular trips and then blossom to …lucrative excursion service which has done more than any means toward….attracting capital for investments.” As the first enterprise to attract large capital, the Treadwell marked the turning point in Alaska’s fortunes.
The existence of the Treadwell helped launch a lucrative Alaska shipping industry – bringing in equipment, manpower and materials – and shipping out gold bullion. Also, and almost instantly, an important and lucrative tourism trade was ushered in as well.
In 1890, the steamships delivered 5,000 curious tourists to the dock at Treadwell where 240 pounding stamps were creating the town’s trademark roar.
When gold was selling for $20.67 per ounce, the Treadwell complex of four mines and five mills in forty years produced 3.3 million ounces – nearly $67 million in gold. In today’s (2018) dollars, that would be over $4 billion.
The Treadwell was successful because it had: The resource – a massive ore body; an abundant supply of water for processing ore and providing energy for hydropower; and access to transportation – an adjacent deep water port.
The 1848 discovery of gold in California began the migration of 300,000 men, women, and children west. Some found success in the goldfields of California and Nevada while an intrepid few continued the journey north.
Gold was discovered near present-day Wrangell in 1861 and by 1875 several hundred gold seekers were exploring the region’s creeks. The first big strike – in Gastineau Channel in 1880 – electrified the world and in ten years transformed the idea of Alaska from a frozen wasteland to a mother lode of riches and potential.
On May 1, 1881, on Douglas Island, a French-Canadian prospector, Pierre Joseph Erussard (“French Pete”), staked the Parris (later changed to Paris) lode claim on the site of what is now known as the “Glory Hole.” On September 13, 1881, Erussard sold his claim to John Treadwell, a California carpenter with mining experience.
Treadwell took ore samples to San Francisco for testing and on December 27, 1881, the Alaska Mill & Mining Company was organized. Five California mining men bought $10,000 worth of stock in the company and with that money, Treadwell purchased a 5-stamp mill and other equipment which he brought north in May 1882. The test mill was erected on the shores of Paris Creek and before long he realized that the vein was much wider than he had originally believed.
By 1885, 120 stamps had been added and by 1887, another 120 stamps (240 total) were operating at the original site.
There seemed to be an inexhaustible source of ore – but it was low grade – and took 8.5 tons of ore to produce one ounce of gold. The owners figured out very early on that it would take capital, scientific expertise, and a skilled workforce to develop the site.
In 1889 a group of investors that included the Rothschild brothers purchased the mines of the Alaska Mill and Mining Company for $5 million. John Treadwell’s share from the sale was $1,500,000. He then returned to California. In 1890, the Alaska Mill and Mining Company was renamed the Alaska Treadwell Gold Mining Company (A.T.G.M. Co.) The new company put the A.T.G.M. Co stock on the London and Paris stock exchanges, raised capital for expansion and recruited Frederick Worthen Bradley as consulting engineer.