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Yet, many writers of Alaska’s history depart from John Treadwell at a high point in his career, when he sold his shares in the mines and moved to California to pursue new endeavors. In the thirty-eight years that followed, Treadwell’s story not only took a startling turn, it left us with an enduring mystery.
After Alaska, millionaire John Treadwell’s life took a wrong turn 040517 AE 1 Kristy K. Griffin, for the Capital City Weekly Yet, many writers of Alaska’s history depart from John Treadwell at a high point in his career, when he sold his shares in the mines and moved to California to pursue new endeavors. In the thirty-eight years that followed, Treadwell’s story not only took a startling turn, it left us with an enduring mystery.

Six men, with John Treadwell seated second from right. Alaska State Library, Louis L. Stein photographs circa 1886-1912. Edward DeGroff. ASL-P172-16a.


Four miners with a drilling machine in the bottom of the glory hold; a portion of a drift (tunnel) shows at right. Photo taken circa 1915. Winter and Pond. Photographs, 1893-1943. ASL-P87-0357.


Treadwell Mine from the wharf. Paul Sincic. Photographs circa 1898-1915. Photo by Louis H. Pederson. ASL-P75-417.


The Treadwell natatorium before the 1917 cave-in. Winter and Pond photographs 1893-1943. Photo by Winter & Pond. ASL-PCA-117.


Treadwell Mine on April 22, 1917. The cave-in happened April 21 and 22. Harry F. Snyder Photograph Collection: Treadwell, Alaska, 1916-1918. Photo by Harry F. Snyder. ASL-PCA-38.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Story last updated at 4/3/2017 - 7:13 pm

After Alaska, millionaire John Treadwell’s life took a wrong turn

The legend of the Treadwell Mining Complex and its celebrated founder, John Treadwell, is solidified in the tomes of Alaska’s gold rush history. Born in Canada to a carpenter, Treadwell’s rise to fortune and fame in the mining industry epitomizes the ideal rags-to-riches fairytale. Yet, many writers of Alaska’s history depart from John Treadwell at a high point in his career, when he sold his shares in the mines and moved to California to pursue new endeavors. In the thirty-eight years that followed, Treadwell’s story not only took a startling turn, it left us with an enduring mystery.

In 1881, 39-year-old John Treadwell was working as a carpenter in California when he got news of the gold strike on Douglas Island in Southeast Alaska. Having gained experience in both California and Nevada mines, Treadwell set out for Alaska financed by John Fry, the same wealthy San Francisco banker for whom Treadwell was building a house. After surveying the Gastineau Channel region of Douglas Island, the unimpressed Treadwell waited to board a ship back to California when he happened to meet French Canadian prospector Pierre Joseph Erussard and bought from him the Parris Claim Lode for a mere $400.

Treadwell, Fry and their friend John Freeborn quickly formed the Alaska Mill and Mining Company. They purchased other claims in the region, and soon the Treadwell Complex was the largest in the world, with four mines and five stamp mills. At the peak of operations, 960 stamps crushed a record 5,000 tons of rock every day and 2,000 workers supported mining activities that ran twenty-four hours a day, 363 days out of the year. The largest hoist in the world centralized the lifting of ore from three of the mines in the Treadwell Complex, and state-of-the-art milling practices economized ore refining and maximized profits. In total, mining efforts at Treadwell produced one hundred tons of gold worth nearly seventy million dollars.

A bustling community sprang to life and the diverse town became home to people representing 17 nationalities. The wages paid to Treadwell miners were among the highest in the entire world. Single male miners lived in sizable furnished bunkhouses with electricity, steam heat, and regular cleaning service. Families lived in more than one hundred cottages provided by the company. The largest dining hall on the Pacific Coast, about half the size of a football field, serviced the mine’s round-the-clock operations by producing high-quality hearty meals at noon and midnight and packing lunches for the miners to take to work. The community even boasted its own marching band, bowling alley, tennis courts, dance hall, and Alaska’s first indoor swimming pool.

In 1889, Treadwell sold his interest in the mines for $1.5 million. After an unsuccessful venture into coal mining in western Alaska, Treadwell moves back to California, where his brother served as a director for the California Safe Deposit and Trust Company, established in 1882. In 1890, John and his brother James opened coal mines about forty miles west of Modesto, California. As in Alaska, Treadwell built a company town for the miners and their families. He named the town Tesla in honor of famous inventor Nikola Tesla. After building a railroad to Stockton, California and organizing the San Francisco and San Joaquin Coal Company, the Treadwell brothers’ Tesla Coal Mines became the leading coal producer in the state.

It seemed as if the Treadwell brothers could not lose. The same region that produced an average of 500 tons of coal every single day also held rich clay and sand deposits. They shipped the sand to the Pacific Window Glass Company in Stockton and built the Carnegie Brick and Pottery Company just four miles away from Tesla on a spur serviced by their railroad. The brothers owned a sprawling estate in nearby North Oakland. They invested in numerous business ventures and become well-known members of San Francisco’s elite class. But their winning streak was about to come to a screeching halt.

At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906 a devastating earthquake struck San Francisco and fires broke out around the city. From the terrace of their Oakland estate, the Treadwell family watched San Francisco burn. Like so many other businesses in California, the brothers found their assets financially impacted by the catastrophic event. James Treadwell’s California Safe Deposit and Trust Company lost many important ledgers and papers to the fire. For the Treadwell brothers, this may have been both a blessing and a curse. As the smoke cleared, and the company’s situation became apparent, many accused the bank of lying about the destruction of their documents as a convenient excuse to conceal shady business practices.

On Oct. 30, 1907, the California Safe Deposit and Trust Company closed its doors for the last time, allegedly strained by economic loss resulting from the earthquake and subsequent fires. The bank held $9,000,000 of depositor’s money, but the safe was empty. Journalists reported that the bank’s many account holders were left penniless. Some became mentally unstable and spent time in insane asylums, and several even committed suicide.

Investigations revealed that the company had loaned a full three-quarters of its holdings to its own directors, employees, and the businesses in which it held interest. The San Francisco and San Joaquin Coal Company and the Carnegie Brick and Pottery Company were just two of the many Treadwell-owned businesses financed by loans from the California Safe Deposit and Trust Company. The courts placed fault for the company’s downfall on President David T. Walker, Manager J. Dalzell Brown, and legal advisor Walter J. Bartnett, but attentions soon turned to the Treadwell brothers.

By January 1, 1908, the front page of the San Francisco newspaper The Call read, “Former Alaska Gold King Now Locked in Cell.” Indicted on embezzling from the California Safe Deposit and Trust Company, John’s brother, James Treadwell, could not find anyone willing to pay his $75,000 bail and was forced to spend New Year’s day in jail. That 1908 holiday was anything but happy for the Treadwell family.

A few months after his brother was imprisoned, John Treadwell went before a grand jury as his intimate connection to the bank came under question. To the amazement of many, the jury could not find enough evidence to hold him. Public astonishment and outrage continued as his brother James was found innocent of a perjury charge and later mysteriously had the embezzlement charges against him dropped in 1910–all for lack of evidence. In fact, James’ associates, Walker, Brown, and Bartnett were unscathed by the civil suits that followed in the years to come, and only Brown served a brief term in jail.

John Treadwell did not fare as well. He borrowed nearly two million dollars from the California Safe Deposit and Trust Company on behalf of his companies. When the bank closed, the courts turned to the Treadwell brother’s companies to pay on their debts. With his brother James in bankruptcy, John became a target. Civil suits plagued John Treadwell for years and in 1914 he had exhausted his assets and still faced nearly three million dollars of debt. He lost his companies, filed for bankruptcy and retreated to New York. His wife stayed in Oakland. In 1927, John Treadwell was found dead in the bathtub of his apartment at the Great Northern Hotel in New York. He was eighty-five years old, alone and broke.

The Alaskan mining complex bearing Treadwell’s name also suffered a crushing blow. In 1917, the proximity of the mine to Gastineau Channel came head-to-head with mining methods unsuited to mining below sea level. Three mines flooded and many miners found themselves suddenly unemployed. The fourth mine closed five years later in 1922, bringing hard rock mining to an end on Douglas Island.

Today, the popular lore of Alaska’s great gold rush remembers the Treadwell Complex for its legendary status as the one-time largest and most technologically-advanced mine in the entire world. John Treadwell’s place in history has been secured by his induction into the National Mining Hall of Fame for his role in developing and operating the first successful large-scale, low-grade gold mine in Alaska. But history is often more nuanced and intriguing than the grand narratives suggest. Tried by the press, did the public unfairly judge the creative and industrious John Treadwell for the sins of his brother or did Treadwell’s greed spell his demise? We may never know as the actual fate of the California Safe Deposit and Trust Company’s conveniently destroyed ledgers and John’s culpability in the bank’s embezzlement scandal remain a mystery to this day.

Kristy K. Griffin, Curator of Collections and Exhibits, the Sitka History Museum.