A year after Juneau’s founding in 1880 the slopes of the new gold mining camp were muddy and studded with tree stumps. The trees had been cut for lumber to stabilize mine properties and construct rough cabins. Loosely delineated streets had been laid out beginning with the waterfront, soon called Front Street. Numerical cross streets crept up toward what is now Seventh Street.
A prominent natural feature that is called Telephone Hill today was first known as a military post then as Courthouse Hill. It is a bedrock shoulder rising above the surrounding sloped terrain that separates downtown from the tidelands.
Some of Telephone Hill’s first homes were built there by key residents of Juneau including Augustus Brown and Richard Harris, credited as a co-founder of the mining camp. Edward Webster was among them. Many historic remnants of the neighborhood remain today.
In 1881 the U.S. Navy, as Alaska’s pre-territorial governing presence, selected the top of the hill for a military post in the new mining camp. It offered a commanding view. Barracks made of logs and tent siding were built quickly, but within a year the Navy departed, leaving Juneau to its own decisions. In 1893, a courthouse was built on the former barracks site. It was destroyed by fire in 1898. The fire was caused when a lamp exploded, but the furniture and records were removed by citizens as the fire was fought by others. The courthouse had been a site for meetings and dances, a place where the community gathered.
A more elaborate courthouse replaced the burned building in 1903 and dominated the hilltop vista until 1969. It had imposing facades with pillared entrances on all sides and a grand wide staircase facing south. A domed cupola extended the appearance of stable government. Today the concrete multi-level State Office Building occupies the spot.
When Gastineau Channel came to life as a mining camp in the 1880s, Frank Bach and Edward Webster started a store in Douglas. Webster moved to Juneau while Bach remained with the store in Douglas. Ed Webster built a large house in 1882 on Courthouse Hill. It can be seen in an 1886 Winter and Brown photo of early Juneau. To communicate between the Douglas store and Juneau in 1883 Webster constructed a two-unit telephone system using a cable strung across the channel at its narrowest spot: the same location as the Douglas Bridge today. Bach’s telephone was in the Douglas store and the other one was in Webster’s Juneau office. Soon the Treadwell Mining Company wanted a telephone, too. Within a short time, there was enough demand to form the Juneau and Douglas City Telephone Company. A directory, published in 1895, lists 16 subscribers.
Telephones were a new phenomenon in the 1880s, invented by Alexander Graham Bell who received a patent for the device in 1876. The new line strung between Juneau and Douglas was a welcome connection between the growing communities which were linked only by a series of ferries running back and forth across the channel. No bridge existed until 1935.
Three different downtown Juneau locations were used and outgrown by the Juneau and Douglas City Telephone Company until Ed Webster finally found the best site was on the hill beside his 1882 home. In 1915 he built an addition to his house for the telephone equipment.
His early 1900s investment resulted in the name change to Telephone Hill. The switchboard remained there until 1956.
In 1968, the company merged with a national telephone company which built a facility located on Main Street. Telephone company history is described in three full-page advertisements placed by the company in special editions of the Juneau Empire in 1987.
Telephone Hill became a centerpiece in one of Juneau’s most important political issues: retaining the state capital. Shortly after statehood in 1959 this area was identified as a site for government facilities. Since that time seven different ballot measures to relocate the capital closer to high population centers on the “railbelt” road system have been defeated. Many Juneau residents recall major challenges in 1974 and 1982.
Two concepts were regarded as important efforts to keep the capital in Juneau: a road connection north and/or a new Capitol building in Juneau. In 1984 the state and city jointly purchased Telephone Hill’s 15 parcels of private property for state ownership as a future Capitol site for $4.6 million. An additional step in 1984 was publication of a 172-page historic site and structure survey (available online). It gives a brief biography of each original homeowner who were key people in Juneau’s formative era. The report evaluated 13 structures using the criteria of the National Register of Historic Places. Subsequently four structures were demolished.
Occupants of the historic Telephone Hill homes became renters in the houses which have been maintained by a management firm until decisions can be made about the land’s future.
Meanwhile, the City and Borough of Juneau continued to support Capital City improvements for Alaskans to connect with their government officials. A primary achievement was Gavel to Gavel, a televised system providing live coverage of committee hearings and legislative sessions that gives citizens the ability to observe and testify from remote locations. The city and state work together to locate temporary housing for legislators and staff. Special parking is provided near the capitol. Other benefits — including an elaborate public Legislative Welcome reception every January — are designed to serve the needs of lawmakers and Alaskans interested in participating in their state government.
To further cement the state capital here the city in 2003 funded a competition to choose a Capitol building design for Telephone Hill. A commission of representative Alaskans was convened to review proposals. After jurying of many entries, four firms were invited to submit sample designs. The winning firm Morphosis of California was selected in March of 2005. The company proposed a modernistic structure with a large glass dome and sleek horizontal exterior walls intended to resemble a glacier, according to Morphosis architect Thom Mayne. A mock-up of the possible building met with strong opinions. Ultimately, the plan was set aside. A Downtown Transit Center for CBJ buses and a multistory parking garage were built on Main Street during the interim.
Fast-forward to March 2023 when the City and Borough of Juneau accepted ownership of Telephone Hill properties from the State of Alaska. (See Commissioner’s Decision ADL 109129, December 2022). As a first step the city engaged an architectural design firm to propose development scenarios for the hillside. None of the concepts propose constructing a Capitol building. Instead housing and commercial uses in various configurations dominate the options. These were presented at public meetings in July and October of 2023.
The city added an online survey to garner additional responses to four different plans for the area, one of the last mostly natural areas downtown.
To understand the current status of the buildings a November 2023 evaluation was prepared by a contractor. The 62-page report presents a stark picture of the structural conditions. Many of the rental houses are significantly deteriorated. Read the details by searching for Structural Conditions Survey, Telephone Hill, Juneau, Alaska, November 2023.
As the new owner of these structures the city is responsible for utilities, insurance, maintenance, liability and heating fuel expenses. The city collects rents from the residents.
There are important decisions to be made by the community about the future of Telephone Hill and the opportunities for historic preservation as well as new uses such as multi-unit housing. However, as viewers of the popular PBS television series “This Old House” know, even a deteriorated old house is not beyond redemption and restoration.