Authors: Stories Behind the Books, Sheila Kelly

June 07, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

"I am a accidental historian," Sheila Kelly told me in her interview for the Author project. Sheila Kelly is a Washington native but has family ties to Treadwell, Alaska, the historical gold mining town on Douglas Island, not too far from Juneau. Sheila has spent over two decades researching her family's history and the people of Treadwell for her book, Treadwell Gold, An Alaska Saga of Riches and Ruin. It became important to her that she she learn where her family and the native people of Alaska came from, what goals did they accomplish in their life and how it help shape that particular corner of the United States. 

Describe your relationship with Treadwell. How did your interest of the town start? 
In the early 1900s, my father and four aunts were born and raised in Treadwell, Alaska, a hard rock gold mining town on Douglas Island across the Gastineau Channel from Juneau. For a moment in time, Treadwell was world famous, the largest gold mining operation in the world creating far more wealth than the flash in the pan Klondike Gold Rush. An unusual company town, complete with a country club, grew up around the mines. As I reached middle age, I was hungry for family history.  My father had already died. I sorely regret not having listened as a child when he tried to tell us about how things were “in the old days” when he was growing up in Treadwell where his father was a machinist for the mining company. But my aunts regaled me with stories about living a gracious life in a mining town up on the Alaska frontier. That is where my interest started.

What was the extent of your research when interviewing locals? 
I started out trying to write about my family, the Kellys of Treadwell who had lived there from 1899 to 1925.  But most of their contemporaries had died and the town no longer exists. I did track down, interview and share photo albums with a few friends, the son of the Swedish hoist operator, and two sons and one daughter of three superintendents. I became interested in their stories too. I scoured the files of the local newspapers and the archives of the Alaska State Library.  As I immersed myself in the treasure trove of historical photos of Treadwell, the town became a compelling character, not just the backdrop. Several historians in the Juneau area assisted me and gave me access to their files.

Did you have any difficult moments or roadblocks when you were researching Treadwell and/or what were some surprising moments for you? 
My goal in writing the book was to bring Treadwell to life through the true stories of those who lived there. With passing time, it became impossible to interview the people and I had to turn to books and articles for personal accounts from underground miners, and workers’ stories of struggle for better pay and working conditions. I also needed to know more about southeast Alaska’s indigenous population, the Tlingit. 
I started out focused on the human interest aspect of the good life in this company town on top of a gold mine on the Alaska frontier.  In the end I decided that the town itself should be given a leading role. Treadwell deserved to be recognized as the original catalyst for Alaska development. Just over a decade after the 1867 Alaska Purchase, the Treadwell mines began producing enormous wealth that preceded and outlasted the fevered Klondike Gold Rush. Treadwell created a base of jobs and commerce and drew thousands of adventuresome tourists, even in the late 1800s. Treadwell put Juneau on the map. I felt a growing sense of pride that my family had been a part of this bit of history. 

According to your biography, you have been studying Treadwell for the past twenty years, how have you seen it grow or change in that span of time? 
The mines of Treadwell caved in, flooded and closed in 1917.  The town gradually became deserted and in 1926 the remaining buildings burned. The first time I visited there was 1982. Today all that is left are remnants of buildings along the Treadwell Mine Historic Trail in a public park that skirts Gastineau Channel.  The local efforts to preserve the site have gained support because 2017 marks the 100th Anniversary of the Treadwell cave in as well as the  150th Anniversary of the Purchase of Alaska.  I plan to be part of both.

You have been in the process of turning your book into a theatrical production. How do you begin to turn Treadwell Gold into a theatrical production? Picking out the protagonist, writing conflicts, how do you go about writing dialogue to bring your book to life? 

As part of these two Anniversary events mentioned before, I envisioned a play that captured the drama of the story of Treadwell. Transforming an extensively researched (20 years!) non-fiction book Treadwell Gold, an Alaska Saga of Riches and Ruin (University of Alaska Press, 2010) into as 90-minute theater production required a different way of telling the story and a different set of writing skills. Everything has to be in dialogue, not my long and carefully-crafted pieces of exposition. Characters are conflated, or invented. The timeline is adjusted to increase the drama.  It is a challenge that activates other parts of my creative brain.  I am a non-fiction writer not a playwright. I am working with a playwright Rachel Atkins who will develop a script to adapt my book to the stage.  (..then maybe we’ll move on to Treadwell the Musical!)

What do you want readers to take away from your story as well as the stores from the people of Treadwell, Alaska? 

I encourage people to explore their own family background and the historical context in which it happened. I say “My family made history….and so did yours.”  It is the weaving together of personal stories that make up the fabric of history and tell the whole story, more so than dates of battles and events. A caveat.  Beware the seduction of historical research—aka the Rapture of Research. I became enthralled with archives and primary sources and was easily hijacked by intriguing side stories.  Yes, it all contributed to making my book more than a family memoir, but it also explains why it took 20 years to get it published. I am an accidental historian.  

Sheila Kelly's book, Treadwell Gold, An Alaska Sage of Riches and Ruin can be found on for purchase as well as your local book store. You can find more about Sheila Kelly and Treadwell, Alaska at

Sheila, thank you for being a part of my project. 


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