July 13 – Well, it looked like our streak of good weather was over. The skies were showing a few clouds and the forecasters were calling for rain. The weather wasn’t the only bad news – when the campground host stopped by to check on the bathroom near our site he asked us if we had been ‘visited’ overnight. A bear had been through the campground and had trashed a site and gotten their food. We weren’t surprised as we had noticed several campsites that were not being bear safe – they left their coolers and stoves out. We started the day at the State Museum which featured exhibits on State history and native tribes. There was a temporary exhibit featuring the works of two photographers who had worked out of Skagway during the gold rush days. They traveled throughout the Inside Passage and documented the growth of cities and native practices. There was also a fresnel lens that had been saved from a lighthouse when it was automated. When we left the museum the wind was blowing something fierce, the change was happening and it looked like it was going to be bad.
We braved the winds and headed for the House of Wickersham, which was the final residence of Judge James Wickersham. The Judge was the first federal judge appointed to serve in the Alaska region. His district stretched south all the way to northern California. He was well respected as a judge and before Alaska became a state, he was elected as their representative to Congress. In Congress he pushed for statehood and when Alaska became a state he was their congressman. The house stayed in the family after his death and the first floor is in much the same condition as it was during his life. Our final scheduled stop was the Juneau-Douglas Museum. Across the Gastineau Channel from Juneau is Douglas Island and its city is Douglas. The small museum, which is run by the local historical society, features an exhibit on mining techniques and history as well as some history of the area. We finished the museum at 5:00 (actually they closed then, we would have stayed longer). The wind had died out and the perpetual cloudiness was back. It wasn’t raining yet, just an occasional mist, and it was still warm so we decided to drive over to Douglass Island and check out a trail that had been recommended and see if we wanted to hike it on another day.
Douglas Island was the home of the Treadwell Mines – a collection of four mines and five processing plants. These mines contained the best ore of any in the Juneau area (all mines in Juneau produced low grade ore which meant that it took tons of ore to produce one ounce of gold). Each of the three major mining companies in Juneau were only successful for a short time and each one was closed by a different event. The Treadwell mines were on land alongside of the Gastineau Channel, following good veins of ore that ran under the channel. Tests of the water that they pumped out of the mines started showing an increase in salinity, which meant that more and more sea water was finding its way into the mines through cracks that were developing. While the company was working on finding the leaks and securing them (a process that would take several months) they were also going back into some mines and taking out ore that had been left to provide structural support and not bracing them. The leaks continued to get worse and then people started noticing that buildings built along the tidal flats on pilings above the mines were shifting. On one afternoon the natatorium (indoor swimming pool) which was made of wood and on pilings suddenly cracked and burst. Later that evening during a very high tide the mines underneath gave way and swallowed up the natatorium and the fire house. Three of the mines were interconnected and the managers had ignored recommendations to put in bulkheads so all three were filled with seawater. The company tried to survive with just one mine, but soon was out of business. There is a break in the shoreline with a deep cove that is clearly visible today where the cave in occurred.
The trail we were looking at was actually an old service road that wove along the shore and from it you could see the remains of the buildings (two major fires in the area destroyed all the wooden buildings and much of the machinery was sold as scrap metal to the Japanese just before World War II). The trail was very interesting and since the weather was holding, we decided to explore the area. Many of the remains were labeled with numbers that corresponded to a guide, but there were none to be found so we had to guess at what we were looking at. The trail had several forks and we took one that ran up a hill. In the distance we could see some sort of large machine and followed a narrow path to it. It turned out to be the remains of the huge steam powered main winch that served three of the mines. We later learned that there were only two winches this big ever made and that this is the only one left. The pictures don’t convey just how big it was! At another spot just off the trail we found the old ore storage hopper, a large (½ of a football field) sized concrete hopper that raw ore was dumped into until it was needed at a mill (once a mill was started it needed a constant supply of ore 24/7). Some of the loading doors that the ore came out of were still intact. Finally we came upon the cave in site, even without a map we knew what we were looking at. There were the ruins of a number of other smaller buildings all around and several piles of odd parts. The trail was a fascinating experience, by the time we were done we had spent three hours exploring. With the rain starting and not enough light to take pictures, we headed back to camp. As we were getting ready for bed we heard a woman’s voice in the distance yelling “Bear! Bear!” It had come back for more, but it wasn’t close to us.
July 14 – The truck was due for an oil change and we had set up an appointment for 9am. On the way to the dealer Dave saw a bear in someone’s driveway, but we didn’t have time for a picture. While this was a brown bear, it was what is called a ‘glacier bear’ – it had adapted to life on the nearby glaciers and its coat was white. The oil change took around an hour and when we were quite surprised when the guys at the service desk complimented us on the cabinets. They had seen the web address on the back of the truck and had checked out the website. As we left they wished Dave a happy birthday (“whenever it happens”). Thanks guys!
Having been captivated by the Treadwell Trail the day before, we went back to the Visitor’s Information Center to see if they knew where we could get a copy of the guide to the trail. As it turns out, the Juneau-Douglas museum had them. If only we had known. We went to the museum and picked up a guide. Most of our guesses on what we saw were right. Several of the things we saw weren’t in the guide. The last thing on our list of things to see in Juneau was the St. Nicholas Chapel, a small Russian orthodox chapel. When we arrived on the grounds, a small sign said that they were closed for a funeral. We figured that the funeral would take a few hours so got the computer out of the truck and sent in a few more pages. While checking E-mail we were quite surprised to have gotten a message from a Juneau resident who saw the truck and checked out the website. He welcomed us to his “rainy little city”. For lunch we tried a little pizza place along the docks that smelled great. The calzones were good! We returned to the Chapel to find it closed. With most of the day still ahead of us, we decided to explore the surrounding area. We followed the main road south until it ended near what used to be the town of Thane. The town was named after Bart Thane, who had been the mine manager of the Alaska Gastineau Mining Company. He was an excellent mining engineer and promoter who had managed to make the company very profitable, building a huge processing plant along the shore. The company met its demise when World War I hit and they lost their labor force to the war effort. The town of Thane started shrinking shortly after the mine closed and today it is a few houses and one store. Having gone as far south as we could go, we headed north, stopping in town for ice cream cones (we never did get any in Sitka). About 22 miles north of town was the Shrine of St. Therese, the patron saint of Alaska. The shrine sits on a small island and is built of glacial stone. After the shrine we continued north until the road ended at which we point we headed back to camp, stopping to get some groceries on the way.