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Vol. 12, No. 25 Week of June 24, 2007
Providing coverage of Alaska and Northwest Canada's mineral industry

MINING NEWS: ‘The Birdman of Treadwell’

Diary of a Treadwell Gold Miner 1903-1904, by Edwin Warren, presented by Barry Kibler, AuthorHouse, $8.30

Sarah Hurst

For Mining News

If Edwin Warren’s diary is anything to go by, most miners in Alaska in the early 20th century were more interested in spending their paychecks on booze and debauchery than writing eloquent accounts of their daily lives and natural surroundings. But Warren was different. An avid ornithologist and devout Christian, he agonized over whether to work on a Sunday and wished that the local Indians could be kept away from the worst influences of white people.

Warren’s grandson, Barry Kibler, has published his diary of the years 1903-04, when he worked at the Treadwell gold mines in Douglas, near Juneau. The book is illustrated with several photos from the era and a few taken more recently by Kibler himself. Warren set out for Alaska in April 1903 from Pacific Grove, Calif., on his “wheel” — his trusty bicycle — and rode to Sacramento. He took the train to Portland, Ore., and from there traveled via Seattle and Cloverdale, British Columbia, to Vancouver. A steamer took him to Ketchikan, where he boarded another ship to Douglas, arriving in mid-June.

Warren bothered by gas, smoke in mine

Warren was immediately hired for night shifts at the mine, and after just one week of work he was already having difficulties. “The gas and smoke have bothered me a good deal, making my head ache,” he wrote on June 24. “Last night, the boss put me in a different part of the mine and I got along better.” Not all that much better, apparently, as on July 29 Warren reported that he had fainted recently from the effects of the gas, and that it was the only time in his life he had fainted.

On Aug. 1 Warren received his first paycheck, amounting to $50.30. He sent most of it home to save for his tuition at Stanford University, preferring not to go downtown to celebrate with “lots of the boys.” Four days later three men were killed in the mine and others were badly injured when a cable broke, causing a skip loaded with ore to drop to the bottom of the shaft. On Aug. 6, Warren himself narrowly escaped an underground collision that would have been fatal.

By the time they closed down in 1917, approximately 200 men had been killed at the Treadwell mines. But despite the harshness of the working conditions, Warren was always able to appreciate the beauty of Southeast Alaska. “The mountains across the channel cast their dark shadows into the still water, and over their tops to the northward was a soft, mellow, light,” he wrote on Aug. 22. “It seems as if one could see wonderful things from those summits on a night like this.”

In September the miners were disturbed by a ghost that “appeared in hip-boots and slicker” and “finally disappeared through a raise, climbing up hand over hand on an invisible rope,” as Warren was told. A few days later he discovered the explanation: “It now appears that the ghost which appeared to Dick was especially prepared for the occasion by some of the boys, and let down by a string into the pit where he was working. Dick was fired for circulating his ghost yarn, as the bosses were afraid it would cause some of the men to quit.”

Treadwell mine complex produced 3 million ounces

Warren’s diary is thoughtful and often entertaining, and serves as a fascinating snapshot of the life of an ordinary miner in the Gold Rush years. Kibler has also included a brief portrait of John Treadwell, a carpenter and builder who mined in California and Nevada before coming to Alaska and purchasing claims in 1881. The Treadwell mine complex became the largest gold mine in the world, eventually producing 3 million ounces. Treadwell sold his interest in the mines for $1,500,000 and returned to California, where he filed for bankruptcy in 1914 after starting a failed business.

The book’s only shortcomings are minor errors that should have been caught by a proofreader, for example referring to this newspaper as “Mining News SE Alaska” in one instance and then as “Miner North” in another. Some of the problems are due to the careless use of an automatic spelling-checker, which resulted in Nansen (author of “Farthest North,” which Warren was reading) being referred to as Nauseas on page 19 and Mansen on page 28. Similarly, LeConte, author of “Elements of Geology,” is called LeLeontis on page 28 and LeCeonte on page 32.

One other point that requires further clarification is the date of the diary entry on page 45, which is given as May 5, 1903, when Warren puts his “wheel” into storage in Seattle. This entry concludes the first year of the diary and occurs directly after the entry for Nov. 24, 1903. So either the May 5 entry is in the wrong place, or the date should perhaps be November or December 1903. It cannot refer to 1904, as by that time Warren was back in Alaska.

More information about Edwin Warren and his diary can be found on Barry Kibler’s web site:

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