Juneau, Gastineau Channel

Juneau, Gastineau Channel

by | Jan 18, 2022

Juneau is the Alaska state capital situated at the mouth of Gold Creek on Gastineau Channel, about 93 miles (150 km) northeast of Sitka and 87 miles (140 km) south-southeast of Skagway, Alaska. The community originated in 1880 as a mining camp called ‘Harrisburg’ after Richard H. Harris, who with Joseph Juneau discovered gold on Gold Creek and staked the beach as a townsite. The mining camp was also called Rockwell by the U.S. Navy in 1881 for Commander Charles H. Rockwell on the Jamestown who was sent with a detachment of men to the gold camp to maintain order. Because of the confusion over many names, the miners met in 1881 and officially named the town for Joseph Juneau. Gastineau Channel was reputedly named for John Gastineau, a prominent land surveyor who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Victoria, British Columbia from 1855 to 1880 and then went to Alaska to seek his fortune. Southeast Alaska is composed of a series of tectonically stratified terranes accreted to and subducted below the continental margins from Cretaceous to Eocene time. Most of the terranes are composed of oceanic sediments with some volcanic rock. As terranes were underthrust below the continental margins they were subjected to progressive metamorphism resulting in large volumes of fluid released that played a major role in forming gold-bearing quartz veins in the Juneau gold belt. During the Last Glacial Maximum, Gastineau Channel and Gold Creek were filled with ice and extensive marine deposits were formed as the ice sheets retreated around 13,000 years ago. Most coastal areas were ice-free by 11,000-10,000 years ago. During the Holocene, the Juneau Icefield expanded again and glacial advance culminated about 9,000 years ago. Colder conditions began again about 6,500 years ago, a period called the Neoglacial, that was marked by two minor glacial advances, one beginning approximately 5,000 years ago, culminating about 3,500 years ago, and ending 1,000-900 years ago. The last advance called the Little Ice Age started about 350-300 years ago and ended in the mid to latter part of the 19th century. Land began uplifting between 1770-1790 AD as a result of post-glacial rebound and has continued since then coincident with regional glacier retreat. Gastineau Channel and Juneau have uplifted about 10 feet (3.2 m) since the late 18th century. This is particularly evident at the head of Gastineau Channel which was historically navigable and is now mostly salt marsh.

The Auke (A’akw Kwáan) and Taku tribes of the Tlingit people have inhabited the Juneau area for thousands of years with the land and the sea providing an abundance of food and natural resources. In 1784, the Russian-American Company began colonizing Alaska starting at Kodiak, but despite a gradual eastward expansion across the Gulf of Alaska that ended at Sitka, they did not establish any settlements near Juneau. The first European to explore Gastineau Channel was Lieutenant Joseph Whidbey, master of the Discovery during the expedition of Captain George Vancouver. He and his party explored the southern end of Gastineau Channel in 1794, but thick ice prevented them from proceeding north. Some Russian records show that small amounts of the metal had been observed in various localities in Southeast Alaska, but none were believed to be of commercial importance. In these early years, the greater part of the abrupt mountainous belt of Southeast Alaska was known only to the Tlingit people and a few fur traders. In 1867, the Alaska Purchase transferred the Russian territory to the United States, and within a few years, gold miners began migrating up the Pacific Coast. In 1880, Sitka mining engineer George Pilz offered a reward to anyone who could lead him to gold-bearing ore. The Tlingit Chief Kowee (Kaawa.ée) arrived with some gold ore and Pilz sent prospectors Joseph Juneau and Richard Harris to a creek on the western shore of Gastineau Channel, directing them particularly to investigate Snow Slide Gulch at the head of Gold Creek where they found gold nuggets. Major mining operations soon developed in the Juneau mining district including the Treadwell Mine, Alaska-Juneau Mine, and Alaska-Gastineau Mine. The three produced $158 million worth of gold at a time when gold was priced between $20 and $35 an ounce. The Alaska Juneau mine closed during World War II as the cost of production became prohibitive. The Treadwell mine was flooded in 1917 and finally closed in 1922.

In 1911, the U.S. Congress authorized funds for the construction of a capitol building for the Alaska Territory. World War I delayed construction and there were difficulties purchasing the necessary land. In 1931, the building was dedicated as the Federal and Territorial Building and was originally used by the federal government to house the U.S courthouse and post office for the territory. Since 1959, when Alaska gained statehood, the building has been used by the state government. There have been several initiatives to move the state capital to larger population centers of Anchorage or Fairbanks. In the 1970s, voters passed a plan to move the capital to Willow, a town about 70 miles (110 km) north of Anchorage to prevent either Anchorage or Fairbanks from having undue political influence. Alaskans later voted against spending the money and Juneau remains the capital today. There is limited land for development along the steep mountain slopes of Gastineau Channel, and Juneau eventually expanded to the Mendenhall Valley. Avalanches in Juneau have received much attention in recent years. Steep slopes, heavy, wet snow, and relatively warm temperatures combine every year to create conditions that are conducive to avalanches, especially from January to March. In the past 100 years, more than 70 buildings near downtown Juneau have been struck by avalanches. A snow avalanche is a swift, downhill-moving snow mass. The amount of damage is related to the size of the slide, type of avalanche, the composition and consistency of the material in the avalanche, the force and velocity of the flow, and topography of the avalanche path. Avalanches usually occur on steep slopes, usually 35 to 60 degrees. In 1962, a major avalanche occurred that resulted in considerable damage, but this event catalyzed a series of avalanche mitigation measures. In 1972, a comprehensive geophysical hazard study was performed where avalanche hazard zones were mapped, but at present, the only avalanche safety measures consist of an avalanche response plan, information and training for residents, and an avalanche forecasting program. Read more here and here. Explore more of Juneau here:

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About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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