When one thinks of noteworthy Juneau pioneers, many names come to mind. But one deeply intriguing character, barely known and rarely mentioned, was recently recognized for his key role in the transformation of a remote mining camp to a capital city.
It happened last week when the Alaska Miners Association came to Juneau for their annual convention and trade show. For three days Centennial Hall was abuzz with talk of recent discoveries and expansions, rare earth elements, the price of gold and the usual discussions about the challenges of permitting and development.
A conference event that went largely unnoticed, however, was the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame Foundation’s induction of its 80th member. Before a group of some forty conference attendees, Foundation president Tom Bundtzen from Fairbanks spoke about the organization’s mission to capture the biographies of Alaska’s mining luminaries and chronicle the history of one of our state’s oldest and most important industries.
Foundation board member and local mining historian David Stone profiled the 2011 honoree - a man whose early efforts to acquire outside investment resulted in the development of Alaska’s first successful large-scale mining project – located across the bridge from the convention center on Douglas Island.
“Captain” Thomas Mein was born in Scotland in 1838 and immigrated with his family to New York when he was three years old. In 1859 Nevada’s Comstock Lode lured the young man west and by 1867 he was managing one of the world’s largest hydraulic mines near Nevada City, California. After marrying an Irish immigrant who bore him four sons, the family eventually settled in Oakland, California where Mein became an expert in mine management, mostly for British owners. In 1886 Mein came to Alaska.
Four years earlier John Treadwell and two partners had formed the Alaska Mill and Mining Company and erected the first 5-stamp mill on the shores of Paris Creek – now the waterfall cascading from the top of the Treadwell Glory Hole. From his arrival in 1886 until his death, Mein was a consulting engineer for the mine. During his tenure he helped lay the foundation for the venture’s success by securing the capital necessary to finance critical infrastructure for the promising enterprise.
Mein pioneered low-cost milling techniques and transitioned the primary power source from hydro-mechanical to hydroelectric. He expanded the mills in number and capacity and by 1888 the Treadwell was the world’s largest gold mining operation – a distinction it held for twenty-five years. In 1889 Mein arranged the purchase of the properties from John Treadwell and his partners and established the Alaska-Treadwell Gold Mining Company.
In 1896, Mein’s business partner, Robert Duncan, along with company attorney John Malony, assistant mine superintendent John Parker Corbus and his father Andrew Taylor Corbus formed the Alaska Electric Light & Power Company – the first electric utility in Alaska – still in operation today and still utilizing some of the original hydroelectric plants established to power the mines.
An 1898 U.S. Department of the Interior Alaska gold field survey noted the following: “The Alaska Treadwell is justly famous both for its large yield and its economical working. Thus, for the year ending May 1894, the profit was nearly 60 per cent of the total yield; yet the ore ran only $3.20 per ton; but the total expense of treatment was only $1.35. That the expense per ton, nevertheless, be so small is a triumph of intelligent organization and labor, largely due to Mr. Thomas Mein who was formerly superintendent.”
Success did not come without tragedy. Although the Treadwell Mine boasted an overall good safety record for the day, in 1891 Thomas Mein’s oldest son was injured in a Treadwell mine accident and died of tetanus. A few years later another son was killed in an explosion in the Treadwell. The youngest son died of miner’s consumption.
In addition to his work in the U.S., Mein managed and developed mines in Venezuela and South Africa. He died in Oakland in 1900.
To honor his great grandfather, the grandson of Mein’s only surviving son traveled to Juneau for the Hall of Fame induction. Thomas Tucker Mein concluded the program by sharing stories handed down from generations and expressed profound gratitude to the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame for the recognition bestowed on his family.
One hopes that Juneau – and Alaska – can continue to attract exceptional individuals like Mein to come, or, in the case of some promising kids, to stay here. Interestingly, the industry that gave Juneau its beginning is on the upswing. The Kensington gold mine is finally in production; Greens Creek mine (silver, zinc, lead and gold) is now Juneau’s largest private employer and there is even talk of re-opening the Alaska-Juneau gold mine. With sufficient vision and will, Juneau’s future could outperform its past.