In October 1880, two prospectors—Joe Juneau and Richard Harris—arrived at what would later be called Gold Creek. Along its banks was a small Tlingit fishing camp of the Auke tribe. Chief Kowee showed the prospectors gold flakes in the creek, and the resulting discovery turned out to be one of the largest gold deposits ever found. Harris and Juneau quickly staked a 160-acre town site.
The first boatloads of prospectors arrived the next month, and almost overnight a town sprouted along the shores of Gastineau Channel. Three giant hard-rock gold mines were developed in the area, eventually producing some 7 million ounces of gold, worth $4 billion at today’s prices. Compare that to the $7.2 million the United States paid Russia for Alaska only 13 years before the discovery.
The Alaska Juneau (AJ) Mine proved the most successful, operating for more than 50 years. Built in Last Chance Basin behind Juneau , its three tunnels connected the ore source to the crushing and recovery mill site on Gastineau Channel. Inside the mine was a maze of tunnels that eventually reached over 100 miles in length. Because the ore was low grade—it could take 28 tons of ore to yield one ounce of gold—enormous quantities of rock had to be removed.
At its peak, the mill (still visible just south of town) employed 1,000 workers to process 12,000 tons of ore per day. Tailings from the mill were used as the fill on which much of downtown Juneau  was constructed. (Franklin Street was originally built on pilings along the shore.) The AJ closed down in 1944 because of wartime labor shortages, and it never reopened.
The Perseverance Mine operated 1885–1921, with a two-mile tunnel carrying ore from Gold Creek to the mill four miles south of Juneau. It eventually ran into low-grade ore and was forced to close.
The best known Juneau-area mine was the Treadwell, on Douglas Island. The Treadwell Complex consisted of four mines and five stamping mills to process the ore. It employed some 2,000 male workers who were paid $100 a month, some of the highest wages anywhere in the world at the time. The men enjoyed such amenities as a swimming pool, Turkish baths, tennis courts, a bowling alley, a gymnasium, and a 15,000-volume library. The giant Treadwell stamping mills where the ore was pulverized made so much noise that people in downtown Douglas had to shout to be heard.
Everything changed on April 21, 1917, when the ground atop the mines suddenly began to collapse, swallowing first the gymnasium and swimming pool, then the fire hall. Sea water rushed in, filling the tunnels as the miners ran for their lives. Amazingly, all of them apparently escaped alive. (The only missing miner was reportedly later seen in a nearby tavern before he skipped town.) Only one of the four mines was not destroyed in the collapse, and that one closed five years later.
Juneau  became the capital of Alaska in 1906 as a result of its rapid growth and the simultaneous decline of Sitka . Several attempts have been made to move the capital closer to the state’s present power center, Anchorage . In 1976, Alaskan voters approved a new site just north of Anchorage, but six years later, when expectations for petro-billions had subsided into reality, voters thought better of the move and refused to fund it. Juneauites breathed a sigh of relief and went on a building spree that only ended with the sudden drop in state oil revenue from the 1986 oil-price plummet.
Recent years have seen ever-increasing cruise ship tourism. Locals are starting to tire of the influx and its impact on the town; in 1999 they slapped a head tax on every cruise passenger who steps off in Juneau. By the way, Fridays are usually a light day for cruise ship traffic, so time your downtown visits accordingly.