Thomas Mein

(1838 - 1900)

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Captain Thomas Mein, undated
Photo Credit: Thomas Mein Family

‘Captain’ Thomas Mein (the title, a mark of affection bestowed in later years by his neighbors in California), was born in a tenant farm cottage along the Tweed River near Melrose Abbey in the fertile uplands of Scotland. In 1841, at the age of three, Thomas Mein immigrated with his parents and seven older siblings to a farm in St. Lawrence County, New York. The family was forced to leave Scotland because of industrial unrest and unfair tenant laws. As a result, in later years, Mein played an active role in politics. In California, he was an elected Assemblyman. Then, having lost a State Senate election, he became Postmaster of Nevada City, California.

In 1859, when Mein was 21 years of age, he decided to seek his fortune in the mines of the West. He arrived in San Francisco after a voyage to Nicaragua, crossing by foot then on a ship to California and went directly to Virginia City, Nevada, then in the boom years of the Comstock Lode. A few years, alter, he acquired placer gold mines of San Juan Ridge, Nevada County, California, which were being hydraulically mined with monitors. The placer gold mines of this area were extensive and among the most profitable mines in California at the time.

In 1867, at the age of 29, Thomas Mein became a manager of one of California’s biggest hydraulic placer gold mines near Nevada City—known as the ‘Wigham Mine’. During this time, Mein met and married another immigrant, Mary Swift, from County Fermanagh, Ireland. They would have four sons. The Swifts and Meins formed a sort of mining dynasty as Mary’s two older sisters also married successful placer gold miners. Thomas and Mary built a notable Victorian style home at 524 Broad Street in Nevada City, where all four of their sons were born. In succession, they were John Lincoln in 1867; Thomas (Tommy) Herbert in 1869; William Wallace in 1873; and Robert Menzie in 1875.

Hydraulic placer gold mines were closed in California as a result of the judicial decision of Judge Sawyer that stopped hydraulic mining in California in 1863. This has long been considered the first significant legal action taken in the United States against the mining industry, largely as a result of environmental considerations as well as the negative effects of hydraulic mining on California agriculture. Subsequently, the Mein family moved to Oakland.

‘Captain Mein’ became an expert mine manager for British owners. He took tours of duty at the New Almaden quicksilver mine near San Jose, the largest U.S. supplier of mercury, and the El Callao Mine in Venezuela. Mein’s interest in Alaska began in 1886 when he arranged the purchase of the Treadwell Mine in Juneau, Alaska for British interests and formed the Alaska-Treadwell Gold Mining Company (Treadwell), which, by 1888, had become the world’s largest gold mining company.

Mary and her four sons followed the career of ‘Captain Mein’. Mein’s son ‘Tommy’ ran away from home at the age of 17 to join his father and older brother at the El Callao mine in Venezuela. But he got only as far as New York and, realizing that his father might be displeased with his action, returned home to Oakland. By that time, his father had returned home from Venezuela to get ready to travel north to Alaska with his family to manage the Treadwell gold mine. When ‘Tommy’ arrived in Oakland, neighbors gave him a steamship ticket so that he could join the family in Juneau. When he arrived in Alaska, no questions were asked about his misadventure and Tommy was rejoined with his family.

After arriving in Alaska, a series of personal tragedies would strike Thomas Mein. In 1891, his oldest son, John, was injured in an El Callao accident, eventually dying of tetanus. In just one more year, his oldest surviving son, Tommy, was killed in an underground explosion in the Treadwell mine. Tragedy would strike yet again when Mein’s youngest son, Robert Menzie, died of ‘Miners Consumption’. Only the third son, William Wallace, survived. It is difficult to understand how Thomas Mein could cope with these extraordinary series of personnel misfortunes—but somehow he did.

In 1896, Thomas Mein purchased the Alaska-Juneau gold mine with Werner Beit and Company ,H.C. Perkins, and Robert Duncan. Werner Beit and Company were backers of Cecil Rhodes, Anglo-Gold, and DeBeers Diamonds. Thomas Mein was asked by British investors to go to South Africa to develop the ‘Robinson Deep’ mine, which began an association between Mein and John Hays Hammond and other men that became leaders in international mining ventures.

Then as perhaps now, there was considerable discontent between the mining interests and the newly formed South African government. A ‘Reform Committee’ was formed to address various grievances, but it did not result in constructive solutions between the government and private sector. Some of the mining executives decided to take action. As a member of the Reform Committee, based in Johannesburg, South Africa, Mein, who was used to operating in the political arena, participated with Hammond and others in the infamous Jameson Raid. The coop, which was designed to pressure the South African government to respond to mining company grievances, failed and Mein and others were captured, jailed for five months, tried and convicted of sedition by an Afrikaner court—and condemned to death. Seeking reforms from the South African Government, Mein and others were pawns in President Paul Kruger’s hands.

Their imprisonment had lighter moments. Once they were visited by the American author Mark Twain, who knew John Hammond. Hammond asked Twain: “How did you get into this God-forsaken hole?” Twain replied: “Getting into jail is easy. I thought the difficulties arose when it came to getting out”. Eventually, all of the imprisoned mine executives were ransomed with heavy fines. In the case of Mein, the cost was $150,000. By the time of his release, Mein had become ill, contracting silicosis of the lungs, which factored in his release.

Mein’s business partner, Robert Duncan, became Treadwell superintendant in 1887. In 1896, Duncan, company attorney John Malony, and Assistant Superintendant John Parker Corbus as well as his father, Andrew Taylor Corbus, had formed the Alaska Electric Light and Power Company (AEL&P) —a power company that operates under the same name to this day. AEL&P was the first electric utility in Alaska’s history.

Thomas Mein continued as consulting engineer representing the British interests that controlled the Alaska-Treadwell, Alaska-Mexican, and the Alaska United—all in the Juneau mining district. After returning from South Africa, Thomas Mein’s health continued to fail as the silicosis progressed. He returned to Oakland and died four years later in 1900 at age 62. During Mein’s management of the Treadwell mine, the mills were increased in capacity and in number.

Upon the death of Thomas Mein in 1900, Alaska Mining Hall of Famer Fred Bradley took over all of ‘Captain Mein’s’ properties, including the Alaska-Treadwell, other Treadwell mining properties, Union Mining Company of Mariposa County, California, and the Oneida Mining Company of Jackson Amador County, California. Bradley purchased controlling interest in the Alaska-Juneau Gold Mine in 1900 and succeeded Thomas Mein as President of the Alaska-Juneau Mining Company upon the latter’s death.

Mining would live on in the Mein family. Will Wallace Mein, Thomas Mein’s only surviving son, had learned a lot by following his dad around. At the age of 21, Will was placed in charge of chlorination of ores at the Robinson Deep mine in South Africa, but returned to the United States with his father, who was by then seriously ill. While in California, Will attended the University of California and graduated in 1900 with an engineering degree. He became interested in limestone and its uses. In 1922, William Mein formed Calaveras Cement Company in San Andreas, which operated quarries and cement plants from 1925-to-1983. It became one of California’s largest cement manufacturers. Calaveras Cement products has been used to build hydroelectric dams, military bases, shopping malls, the Oakland Bay Bridge and the Parrots Ferry Bridge, and facilities for the 1960 Winter Olympic Games held in Squaw Valley.

Thomas Mein’s mining interests spanned the globe. He is a worthy entrant into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame Foundation.

Written by David Stone and Tom Bundtzen
Thanks are extended to Thomas Mein of Menlo Park California, the great grandson of Captain Thomas Mein, for important editorial review of the Mein biography.

Selected References:

Stone, David, and Stone, Brenda, (with contributing author Philip Bradley Jr.,) 1980, Hard Rock Gold—The Story of the Great Mines that were the Heartbeat of Juneau: Juneau Centennial Committee, 108 pages.

Taylor, Mike, 2012, cement plant demolition stirs San Andreas past: Off Road Explorers Online Website, 2 pages.

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