Alaska’s capital city is home to the ruins of what was once the world’s largest gold mine.
You can still see the remnants of the Alaska-Juneau Mine tunnels, which burrow 1,500 feet down into the earth. And the building that powered it all is still around, too.
It’s now the Last Chance Mining Museum, which is celebrating 25 years of continuous operation. But it’s been a permanent residence for longer than that.
Visitors to the Last Chance Mining Museum are often enamored by the huge machinery, antique homesteader tools and a photograph of a miner holding a lit fuse of dynamite. But Gary Gillette and Renée Hughes joke those aren’t the only relics.
“I tell people sometimes we’re just one of the artifacts,” Renée said with a laugh.
Gary has lived in this building for decades. The first time I stopped by the museum, I was curious about the stairs leading up to what appeared to be a small apartment overlooking the interior of the warehouse. Imagine a kind of house inside a building.
It’s the home of Gary, Renée and a fluffy white dog named Galena.
The couple have a view from their kitchen sink like no one else. When Gary and Renée scrub pots and pans, they’re looking through a window back in time — to the epicenter of the AJ Mine, which started operations in Juneau around 1914.
The building is actually owned by the City and Borough of Juneau. Gary, who’s an architect and interested in historic preservation, became its caretaker in 1983.
“Took a look at it, and it was pretty dismal,” Gary said.
He has a unique arrangement with the city. He’s put in sweat equity and helped run the nonprofit. In exchange, he’s gotten a roof over his head — a roof that he helped install.
When he first moved in, Gary recalls that the building was hardly designed to be a home. The windowless living space was only accessible by climbing up a ladder.
“You couldn’t even stand in it,” he said. “It was a sloped roof. So you had to kind of get on your knees and crawl into bed.”
So Gary settled into what could be considered an above-ground man cave and made much-needed repairs to the building.
He met Renée in the summer of 1991.
“I’d come up on vacation. A friend of mine said, ‘Go see Glacier Bay.’ I had come from New York City,” Renée said. “And I was sitting downtown watching ‘Monday Night Football,’ and in walked Gary, and I thought, ‘Oh, hmm.’”
On one of their first dates, the two hiked the Perseverance Trail. Back at the warehouse, Gary made Renée dinner.
Her first impression of his bachelor pad?
“It’s quite different than my pad in New York City. That’s for sure!” she said.
Gary said he isn’t sure his unusual home was what initially won her over.
“I had a great cat at the time,” Gary joked.
“I think it was a little combination of everything,” Renée said, turning to Gary. “You were a big part of the package.”
After three months of dating, Renée moved in with Gary. In 1995, they opened the Last Chance Mining Museum to the public.
They’ve now been living here for the past 28 years.
Renée admits it isn’t always easy having a home that’s essentially on display.
“Living up here is kind of like living in a fishbowl,” Renée said.
As if on cue, a couple wearing backpacks wandered in. The museum wasn’t open that day. Gary and Renée told the couple it’s fine to poke around outside. They’ll be open tomorrow.
What catches everyone’s eye as they walk through the door is a giant piece of machinery.
“I consider the compressor to be the heart and soul, because that’s what powered all their tools,” Renée said.
The compressor looks like two human-sized wheels set between a long tangle of rope. The electricity came from 2,300 volts generated from the Salmon Creek Dam. But the air is what kept drills running in the mine shafts below.
It’s one of the innovations that made the AJ so profitable back in the day. It could operate using a relatively inexpensive form of energy.
Of course, it’s not connected to the electric grid now. Still, Renée doesn’t miss an opportunity to enthrall the museum’s youngest visitors. When explaining the machinery to groups of kids, she invites the toughest-looking one to flip the switch that turned on the compressor. As they bring the handle down, Renée makes a startling, mechanical noise.
“They jump about a foot off the ground, and everybody laughs,” she said.
But tourists aren’t the only guests Gary and Renée think they share this space with. Occasionally, they hear things. One volunteer claimed to have seen a man peeking through a window wearing a miner’s helmet and holding a light.
Most of the time, Gary and Renée just shrug it off. They like to think of the spirits as friendly ghosts.
“Because we’re keeping their place alive and safe and taking care of things,” Renée said. “And they, I think, respect that.”
Renée and Gary don’t have any current plans to leave the home at the museum they’ve created for themselves.
They’re content to be a small part of the building’s history — a specter of a couple sitting outside the warehouse in a porch swing.