Feature Stories

Juneau’s Hidden History

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Ice caves are always changing. Some last a week, others a few months, always moving and always dangerous. –Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska

There are only three ways into Juneau, boat, plane or birth canal—I arrived via the third route. My name is Brian Weed, I’m 34 years old and was born and raised in Juneau, Alaska. I grew up learning about rocks and the history of Juneau from my father. In the summers he would take me to his work on Douglas Island near the site of the famous Treadwell Mine. There, he let me play on the sandy beach created by the old tailings of the once great mine. Unbeknownst to him, I would run down the beach or trails exploring the area and see how far I could go in a day. Old mine carts, buildings and tunnels cover the hillsides of Douglas Island. As long as I was back in time I wouldn’t get in trouble, but he didn’t know everything I was up to until I reached adulthood. Those times inspired my passion for the history and lost mine ruins and relics rusting away in the Tongass National Forest. In my 30s, my wife, Mareta, and I decided to not have children, and about that same time I started to think about what I would leave behind in this world. What was going to be my legacy?

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There are around 300 miles of underground workings in the city and borough of Juneau. Some stopes under the mountains are as big as a football field, others are as big as a whole stadium. This one is as wide and long as a large cruise ship. –Old Ebner Juneau, Alaska

My plan is to write a book about the lost small mines of Juneau, Alaska. While Juneau had some huge mines, the biggest in the world in their time, I want to focus on the “little guy,” the small-time miner who came to Alaska on his own. With dreams of getting rich, the clothes on their backs, and little or no education, these guys climbed mountains, crossed rivers, and bushwhacked up the most dangerous areas in Alaska. They were looking for the same gold Joe Juneau and Richard Harris had found in Windham Bay. Many of their mines were just prospects, adits no more than 100 feet long— lots of hard work for less than 10 ounces of gold in some cases. Others were miles long and did rather well until World War I, when gold prices locked in at $20 an ounce. My research has shown that most of the small mines in Southeast Alaska died right around 1914, at the start of the war. What happened to these small mines? The underground? The building ruins? The relics? They are lost, deep in the Tongass National Forest. I entered the forest in search of history.

Deep under a glacier you can hear the pops and groans of the ice as it moves, sometimes more than a foot a day. The ice in this location was almost 100 feet thick and still the light reaches down to the bedrock.   –Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau

Deep under a glacier you can hear the pops and groans of the ice as it moves, sometimes more than a foot a day. The ice in this location was almost 100 feet thick and still the light reaches down to the bedrock.
–Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau

Juneau’s Hidden History, a Facebook group, started on June 1st of 2014, was an idea of my friend, Joe McCabe, and I. The previous two years I had been hiking either alone or often with less experienced people. Hiking alone is stupid as well as dangerous when you are leaving the trail, bushwhacking to remote mine sites, glacial caves, up gullies in search of waterfalls and the deep underground. I needed more adventure buddies to explore these hidden places. Currently, Juneau’s Hidden History has about 3500 members, most from the Juneau area. While many are armchair viewers, we have around 100 who join us on a variety of hikes that fit their skill levels.

When you are under a glacier, places like this take your breath away. Many people visit the ever-changing Mendenhall Ice Caves. Often they don’t understand the dangers involved, as many are so easily accessible.    –Undisclosed Location, Juneau

When you are under a glacier, places like this take your breath away. Many people visit the ever-changing Mendenhall Ice Caves. Often they don’t understand the dangers involved, as many are so easily accessible.
–Undisclosed Location, Juneau

Our “hardcore” group is made up of mountain rescue, white water rescue, wilderness first aid, fire fighters, military, and even some retired and current miners. These members go into places some people only dream of and, with photography and video, bring it to life. Yes it is dangerous, we know that, and we approach each adventure as the extreme sport it has become. Training, experience, proper gear, and a great group of close friends I consider my extended family help keep us safe. Our group has assisted in three search and rescue operations since we officially started. As the only known group in the city that explores the off-trail areas, underground, and under glaciers, we tend to have some knowledge and experience the average search and rescue member doesn’t have.

Members of the Juneau’s Hidden History Hardcore team examine a water filled winze in a mine adit. We built an underwater camera boom to lower down the winze and to take underwater pictures and video. While diving is always an option, it is very dangerous in flooded mine areas.    –The Douglas Island Prospect, Juneau

Members of the Juneau’s Hidden History Hardcore team examine a water filled winze in a mine adit. We built an underwater camera boom to lower down the winze and to take underwater pictures and video. While diving is always an option, it is very dangerous in flooded mine areas.
–The Douglas Island Prospect, Juneau

I could go on and on about our group, but being a photographer rather than a writer, I would rather show you than tell you. Juneau, Alaska truly is the most magical place on planet Earth. Welcome to Juneau’s Hidden History!

Story & Photos by Brian Weed

 

24 replies »

  1. Having lived in Juneau many years ago, it is really thrilling to see the fun that Brian and his group are experiencing! Great photos and commentary of the most beautiful place on earth! Thanks!

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  2. Having just moved to Juneau, I can’t wait to see more pictures and read more about the hidden history (especially when I still need to know the regular history). Those photos are amazing.

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  3. So proud of Brian. The pictures and article were presented and reproduced so well in the magazine. At first I was embarrassed about how his article started and then couldn’t stop laughing. That’s my boy!! My brother sent me a subscription a few months ago and have been enjoying reading the articles and seeing the old pictures. Surprised to see photos from my brother on Portage Glacier in the same edition! Loved the prepping for Spring in the Fall Gardening Ideas article too. Hope Last Frontier Magazine has a long, long run. Good job everyone. L Weed

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  4. Amazing adventures and pictures! They go where I can’t (& wouldn’t). I never knew there was such fascinating history as what Brian and his ‘fearless friends’ has shown us. His enthusisam is catching. Thank you for sharing just a small part of his story.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for opening up the hidden beauty of an area I’ve lived for 21 years and didn’t know existed. Wonderful footage and commentary. Look forward to participating in future.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It is so interesting to see what the Tongass has hidden. Thanks. Brian for the beautiful pictures and taking us along on your explorations. I look forward to seeing more.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I am one of the armchair viewers and I absolutely love following Brian on his adventures! Having left the great state of Alaska over 40 years ago it has been great to be able to view all the beauty that is Alaska !

    Liked by 1 person

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