John Treadwell, a California carpenter with a mining background, prospected, explored, developed and operated Alaska's first successful large-scale , low-grade gold mine. He played a major role in stimulating the economy of the Territory and its wilderness, as well as of the nation, through one of the most advanced operations of the American mining industry in the late 1800s.
Born in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada, Treadwell was building a house in 1881 in California for a prominent banker. At that time word came of a rich gold prospect across the Gastineau Channel from Juneau, Alaska's capital, on Douglas Island. The banker, John Fry, suggested Treadwell check it out.
He was not impressed and planned to return to San Francisco. While waiting for a ship, he met a French Canadian prospector who described the deposit but was down on his luck. Sight unseen, John gave the man $400 for the claim. Based on good assay results, he returned home and prepared to initiate a mining operation with Fry and an associate.
In May 1882 he returned to Alaska with a five-stamp mill and formed the Alaska Mill and Mining Company. Operations indicated the deposit could be profitable if worked on a large scale. A 120-stamp mill replaced the experimental one in 1883 and in 1887 another 120 stamps were added.
This was the beginning of the Treadwell Complex of four mines and five mills from which nearly $70 million in gold was mined. At peak capacity in 1914, the then-total of 960 stamps crushed 5,000 tons of rock dailya world record at the timewith an average value of $2.50 per ton.
Approximately 2000 men worked eight-hour shifts, seven days a week, 363 days a year, with no vacations. Christmas and July 4 were the only days off. In 1920 miners' wages averaged $100 per month, among the world's highest at that time.
The area known as Treadwell, during its 40-year evolution, grew from a single claim to a bustling community of workers and their families, complete with stores, mess halls, bunkhouses, a marching band and a natatorium.
Treadwell, however, had sold his interests in 1889 to the Alaska Gold Mining Company for a reported $1.5 million. His success had brought others into Alaska, creating new towns and national attention. His mining methods changed the industry.
In 1917 caving and flooding of the Treadwell Mines ended the operations. Treadwell was briefly involved in Western Alaska coal development but his venture was unsuccessful. Later he was involved in a bank but when it failed, he filed for bankruptcy.