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Juneau: A Rich History and Cast of Colorful Characters

Juneau, Alaska is not only beautiful — it’s also full of tons of history!

Juneau was home to the largest gold mines since the discovery of gold up to World War II.  Long before it was a European settlement in the Americas, the Gastineau Channel was a favorite fishing ground for local Tlingit Indians.  In 1880, Sitka mining engineer George Pilz offered a reward to any local chief who could lead him to gold-bearing ore. Tlingit Chief Kowee arrived with some ore, and several prospectors were sent to investigate.  It was Chief Kowee who guided Richard Harris and Joe Juneau to the mouth of Gold Creek.  On October 18, 1880, Harris and Juneau marked a 160-acre town site, where a mining camp was erected.

Harrisburg was the first name for Juneau, the city built on gold, until people’s allegiances changed, and Joe Juneau became their favorite prospector.  The state’s first major gold strike was on (starting the Alaska Gold Rush), and the timeline for modern Juneau history began.  A first rush of about 40 miners brought trading posts, saloons and missionaries. Within a year, the tent camp became a small town and was the first one founded after Alaska’s purchase from Russia.

Statue of a Brown Bear in Juneau, Alaska

Brown bear statue in Juneau, Alaska

Douglas Island

Across Gastineau Channel in the community of Douglas, the Treadwell and Ready Bullion mines operated from 1882 to 1917. Before a cave-in and flood closed the mine, the Treadwell produced nearly $70 million in gold in its 35 years of operation. Your Juneau shore excursion tour stops at the famous Douglas Island, the historic mining community.

In 1916, the Alaska-Juneau gold mine was built on the mainland and became the largest operation of its kind in the world.  Juneau’s growth through the early 1900s was not only gold, but also fishing, canneries and a saw mill.  At this time, Juneau was designated the territorial capital of Alaska.

The Alaska-Juneau (A-J) mine closed in 1944, when mining was declared a non-essential wartime activity.  Mining was replaced by the expansion of government during the war, and afterwards, when Alaska became the 49th state in January 1959, and Juneau became the state capital.

Juneau’s prospector heritage and incredible scenery began drawing visitors in the early 1900s.  As a popular cruise ship port and a favorite destination among adventure travelers, Juneau continues to draw visitors from around the world today, and it is one of the most popular Alaska excursions.

For the ultimate study of Juneau’s history, visit the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, where visitors can enjoy artifacts from early Tlingit culture to mining to statehood.

Red Dog Saloon

Now, let’s look at the oldest “man-made” tourist attraction in Juneau – the Red Dog Saloon.  Founded in the mid-20th century, this saloon is a drinking and eating establishment.  In its beginnings, the colorful character, Ragtime Hattie, played the piano.  Her outfit included white gloves and a silver dollar halter top.  Red Dog Saloon’s owners took their mule and went down to the docks to meet the boats.  In this establishment, you will see memorabilia, such as paper currency signed by miners from around the world.

Glacier Cruise Tour in Juneau, Alaska - Shore Excursions Group

Glaciers are a top excursion attraction in Juneau!

Ice Worm Wiggle Dance

Marie Lysing Johnson and Native dances inspired a 5-step Ice Worm Wiggle Dance that has running steps, swinging arms and other exciting movements.  Lots of “Yippee” shouts accompany a partners’ circle, and music is played to a slow foxtrot rhythm.  This exuberant dance accompanies singing of “The Ice Worm Wiggle,” written in the 1930s by Carol Beery Davis.  Some of its lyrics include:

Where choppy waves the floating icebergs jiggle all about, 
Peppy, wily, creepy, chilly, 
Eager to romp with “Cheechako” Willie 
“Ahk-tu-wu-ye-keh” O Cheechako —— Yippee! 
“Ahk-tu-wu-ye-keh” O Cheechako! 

Oh, and for those who are not Sourdoughs (old-timey Alaskans), you are Cheechakos (newbies to Alaska)!

And, yes, those little critters, ice worms, first were reported at the Muir Glacier in 1987 by George Frederick Wright and since have been a part of Southeast Alaskan lore.  Long believed to be fictitious, these small black worms resemble a bit of thread and have been found to be the only earthworms that live in snow or ice.


Will you see some on the Juneau City and Mendenhall Glacier Tour?  This exciting half-day program will orient you to Juneau with a visit to the Mendenhall Glacier and Visitors’ Center.  Your tour begins in the historical downtown district, where you will see the streets lined with gift shops, jewelry shops, king crab shacks and local fish restaurants. The tour will take you right by the Governor’s Mansion, the State Capitol and the world-famous Red Dog Saloon.

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