John Treadwell, famed founder of the Treadwell Gold Mines, was a California carpenter with 12 years' experience in placer and lode mining in California and Nevada before he landed in Alaska in 1881. Drawn by stories of the 1880 Juneau gold strike and a second discovery on Douglas Island one year later, Treadwell made his way north with the financial backing of John D. Fry, a San Francisco banker. The venture would change his life and livelihood forever.
Treadwell was born in 1842, in St. Andrews, Charlotte County, New Brunswick, Canada, to a carpenter who built the Treadwell Inn. Like his father, Treadwell took up carpentry. The younger Treadwell and his wife, Freda, moved to California, where their son Charles was born in 1876. In the summer of 1881, while Treadwell was overseeing home construction for the banker Fry, news of the gold strike on Douglas Island reached San Francisco. Fry, along with a few other investors, paid Treadwell's way to Alaska to look over possible mining prospects.
In his book The Founding of Juneau, Alaska historian Robert N. DeArmond described a man who identified the excellent opportunities before him and acted swiftly:
"Treadwell's name first appears in the Juneau records on September 13, 1881, when he purchased from Pierre Joseph Erussard the Paris lode claim on Douglas Island," wrote DeArmond. "A week later Treadwell formed a partnership with Erussard, D.P. Mitchell and Dave Martin, called the San Francisco Company, and staked four gulch placers on Ground Hog Gulch. A few days later Treadwell and Mitchell staked two more placer claims in the same area. He evidently intended to work the placers as he built a house on the trail below Silver Bow Basin, but for some reason the plans changed. ln October he sold the house to Charles Wells for $200 and thereafter devoted his attention to the Douglas Island property."
By December, Treadwell decided to move back to Douglas, where he purchased two more lode claims and took samples of the dirt back to San Francisco for a mill test. Seeing the richness of the dirt for themselves, five California investors purchased $10,000 worth of stock in Treadwell's business. One of the men was Fry, the banker who had grubstaked Treadwell only months earlier. With the money, the men established the Alaska Mill & Mining Company. Treadwell returned to Alaska and purchased a five-mill stamp. Before long, he realized that the vein of gold was much larger than first thought. Moving quickly, with approval from his stockholders, he bought the adjacent claims and built a larger mine.
Described as a likeable man who never drank or smoked, Treadwell was getting rich thanks to the Alaska Mill & Mining Company. By May 1882, he bought out his stockholders and changed the name to Treadwell Gold Mines.
The Treadwell and Ready Bullion Mines across the channel on Douglas Island became world-scale mines, operating from 1882 to 1917 and employing over 2,000 people. The towns of Douglas and Treadwell existed to house the miners and their families, making the towns' combined populations greater than that of Juneau.
The Treadwell employees were paid well, received company health benefits, and for employees with families, enjoyed private cottages complete with electricity and running water. Along with these lavish living conditions, Treadwell employees were given membership in the Treadwell Club -- a social club equipped with a gymnasium, swimming pool, dance hall, 500-seat theater, billiards room, bowling alley, sauna, library, and Turkish baths.
The Treadwell gold mine became the largest in the world, employing the most technically advanced methods of the day and reaching veins as deep as 2,400 feet below the surface. While in operation, the Treadwell mine brought in more than 3 million ounces (100 tons) of gold.
In 1889, John Treadwell sold his interest in the Treadwell properties for $1.5 million and returned to California. From there he investigated the potential of coal properties in Kachemak Bay, without success. In a gamble that would later ruin him, Treadwell then partnered with his brother James and started a trust company that went broke. In 1914, living in New York City, Treadwell filed a voluntary petition of bankruptcy listing his liabilities as $2,931,000 and his assets as zero. Even without Treadwell's leadership, the mine continued to flourish and branch out into several other gold mines. In 1916, the Alaska-Juneau Gold Mine was built on the mainland, and it became the largest operation of its kind in the world. The Treadwell mines appeared to be played out by 1916 -- the gold was sparser and harder to get to. Finally a disastrous event in 1917 closed the mine forever when a cave-in and flood destroyed most of the operation.
In its 35 years, the Treadwell Gold Mines produced $66 million in gold, making it the largest gold mine in the world and the second largest gold mine in Alaska history.
A decade after his great mine closed, John Treadwell, bankrupt and living in a hotel in New York City, died on November 6, 1927. He was 85 years old.