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Occupying one of the most beautiful settings of any state capital, Juneau is nestled at the foot of a mountain on the shores of the Gastineau Channel. The buildings of the city seek the flat land at the base; only mining structures venture very far up the mountainsides. Although basically a grid plan, many of Juneau's streets curve and dodge to accommodate the terrain. At places, the hills are so steep that dedicated streets turn into wooden stairways. Despite a few large postwar office buildings, the architectural character tends toward wooden, two- and three-story commercial and residential buildings.


Juneau was founded by Richard Harris and Joe Juneau in 1880, after an Auke Indian from Admiralty Island gave them the tip that led to their gold strike. Harris and Juneau laid out a townsite, initially called Harrisburg, but then changed to Rockwell in honor of the naval commander who kept order in the town, and finally to Juneau, after Harris had left town. (Rockwell pulled out the next day.) The Auke Indians settled in a community of their own on what is now Village Street, west of downtown. Although miners and prospectors were initially attracted to the placer mining, it was the hard-rock mining that gave Juneau its staying power. Capital from San Francisco and other cities enabled large-scale operations to extract the ore, separate the gold with stamp mills, and process it on site. The first of these ventures, the Treadwell group, at its peak in 1915 crushed 5,000 tons of ore daily, averaging $2.50 of gold per ton. Treadwell was soon superseded by the Alaska Gastineau and the Alaska Juneau mining companies. The first two closed in the early 1920s, and Alaska Juneau in 1944, but during their operating years these three mines produced $158 million in gold.

In 1900 the capital of the district of Alaska was moved from Sitka to Juneau, responding to Juneau's burgeoning population of 1,864 and to its proximity to the Klondike goldfields. In 1912, Alaska became a territory; its territorial legislature first met here in 1913. The territorial buildings seem to have had little effect on the architecture of the town; brick-clad buildings such as the capitol are rare in Juneau, and the Colonial Revival style of the governor's mansion never achieved great popularity. Finally, in 1959 Alaska attained statehood, and Juneau became the capital of the new state.

While government has been a mainstay of the city's economy, tourism has achieved growing attention. When threatened in the mid-1970s with relocation of the capital to a site closer to the population center, Juneau citizens took an objective look at their city. What had been a seedy waterfront area was cleaned up, with utilities placed underground; a historic district was instituted, and the buildings obviously profit from design review. In addition to neighborhoods with high architectural quality, Juneau has one of the best preserved historic commercial areas in Alaska.

Writing Credits

Alison K. Hoagland

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