Funter Bay History – Water & Hydropower

The availability of water often determined where an industry (such as a mill or cannery) was located. It also determined when the industry could operate. If streams were frozen, the boilers and water turbines could not run. Canneries needed large amounts of water for the packing and cleaning processes. Mines needed water for milling operations. In an era of wood buildings and few safety regulations, water was vital for fire protection. Fortunately for these industries, Southeast Alaska has a more than adequate supply of “liquid sunshine”, and water is usually plentiful year-round (it rains more than it snows in the winter). Storage of water ensured that supplies were consistent during the few dry periods. Several sources mention that the Funter Bay cannery closed around 1931 due to a lack of water. Photos and documents show operations at the cannery into the mid-1950s, but these could have been non-packing activities like trap maintenance.

Below is the base of a large wooden water tank at the cannery:


Another water tank, this one elevated in a wooden tower to provide pressure. I believe this tower was for tap water at cannery residences, it was located between the Superintendent’s house, the Watchman’s house, and the Guest house (I’ve also heard the Guest House referred to as a school).



I remember when the front of the tower still had stairs on it, that you could walk up without falling through… I’m actually wondering how much is left of the tower today, it’s been a few years since these photos were taken.

The tank is labeled as “Pump House” on the 1964 map. It probably had a pump to raise water into the tank.


Probably one of the first bathtubs in Funter Bay! Salvaged from the Superintendent’s house (which was half-collapsed by the 1970s), this found a new life in our bathroom:


A smaller cistern (basically a buried wooden barrel). In swampy muskeg these could be (and still are) used as collection points and filters, just bury a drum with some holes in it, and run a pipe out:


The cannery was not located directly on a stream, so the tanks were supplied by a network of ditches, small dams, and pipes. Below is an example of a simple wood stave dam near the cannery, made from locally-cut timber:


A ditch at the cannery. This may actually have been a drainage ditch to get rid of excess water, all the rain could make the ground mushy and damage foundations (note the rusty metal pipe bisecting the ditch):


Several cannery pipelines were made from redwood staves. Redwood is a naturally rot-resistant timber that was cheaper and held up much better than steel in the rainforest (you can still find salvaged redwood pipes in use for gutters and drains around the bay!). One of these pipelines ran for over a mile, reaching Nimrod Creek near a muskeg known as Pipeline Meadow. The pipes were constructed of four redwood pieces slotted together, and banded with steel wire to hold them together. You can find these pipes all through the woods, in many cases the steel banding has rusted away, but the pipes are still watertight! Apparently this type of pipe is still made, and in all sizes. Until I started researching it, I had assumed it was a historical curiosity.


A cutaway section of redwood pipe. Note how there is some slight surface rot, but the interior of the pipe looks brand new:


Water Power:

In addition to supplying boilers, canning systems, kitchens, baths, etc, water was also used directly to generate power in several places. At the base of Mount Robert Barron is a large Pelton wheel, driving an air compressor and electric generator to charge battery-powered mine locomotives. Water was collected in ditches from a bench partway up the mountain, and funneled into a pipeline dropping steeply down the side.

The 1917 Territorial Mine Inspector’s Report states that the compressor house was constructed between July and December of that year. 307 feet of 22-inch steel pipe, 185 feet of 10-inch, 300 feet of 8-inch, and 300 feet of 6-inch pipe were laid to furnish power to the compressor, a 24x18x14 Chicago Pneumatic unit rated at 1400 cubic feet, with a 5-inch Pelton wheel. In 1919 it was reported that the compressor was powered by a 6-inch stream of water with 500ft of head, and could run 12 pneumatic drills.

Below is the Pelton wheel:


This compressor ran air tools and supplied fresh air to mine workings. Below, you can see the incoming water pipe (upper right), flywheel with belt from the Pelton wheel, compressor piston (lower center), and compressed air pipe (right side).


Compressor with slightly more of the surrounding building intact, when I was younger:

Here’s a video of an old Pelton Wheel in action.

Here’s one of the tools powered by compressed air, a jackleg mining drill: IMG_1360

Hydropower is still a very efficient and environmentally friendly way of generating power in Southeast Alaska. Most of Juneau’s electricity comes from several hydropower plants (including a few originally built to serve mines in the area). Small hydro turbines supply power to cabins and homes in the area as well.

There have occasionally been studies to determine a reliable year-round power supply for industry at Funter Bay. In the 1930s there were some proposals to build a hydroelectric plant at Lake Kathleen, 30 miles south of Funter Bay, and run powerlines to the mines at Funter (Philip Smith, Metal Industry of Alaska in 1933)

A 1979 study by the Army Corps of Engineers examined Funter Bay and several other SE communities for hydroelectric potential. The study does not seem to have been done with much rigor or serious effort, as the authors note they merely “flew over” some of the potential sites, and then apparently drew some maps based on wishful thinking (for example, they seem to hope that the Dano Mine’s long-abandoned road could be re-used for access to a power plant). Actually, this study may have had more thought put into it than Juneau’s water supply, which operates on the technique of “plug up some mine tunnels and drink what leaks out“, and seems to still be planned and designed mainly on bar napkins. Eventually the USACE study got around to realizing that existing diesel generators were cheaper for tiny communities like Funter, compared to the cost of building and maintaining a dam, power plant, and power lines (Funter Bay is listed in the study has having a year-round population of 14, and a seasonal population of 25).


3 Responses to Funter Bay History – Water & Hydropower

  1. […] previously writing about local water use for industry and power generation at Funter Bay, I came across a few more maps of such projects. The first, below, shows the pipeline […]

  2. […] use. Pelton wheels were popular for locations with reliable streams, as mentioned in my post on water & hydropower. Generators or dynamos could be added to existing water wheels, or to existing steam or internal […]

  3. […] I’ve noted in several previous posts, hydroelectric power was a big part of industrial development at Funter Bay. The availability of […]

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