Fascination with a Sense of Place: A Profile of Sheila Kelly

By Elsie Hulsizer

Read Ballard Writers on other Ballard Writers every couple of weeks. If you join our group, you may enter your name on a slip of paper and put it in Bob Dalrymple’s hat. We’ll draw the name of someone for you to profile and someone else to profile you. Who will it be? The surprise is all part of the fun. Today, Elsie Hulsizer interviews Sheila Kelly.

Sheila Kelly

“I never aspired to be a gold-mining expert,” Sheila Kelly, the author of Treadwell Gold: An Alaskan Saga of Riches and Ruin (University of Alaska Press, 2010), told me when I interviewed her at her Blue Ridge home.

Kelly’s experience of writing Treadwell Gold is a good example of how a writer’s path can twist and turn. When she enrolled in a nonfiction certificate course at the University of Washington, her intent was to write a book on sense of place, envisioning something like Gifts from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, only based on northwest trees. But when she sat down to write the table of contents for that book, she realized she wasn’t ready to write it; she was ready to write the Treadwell book, a book which in portraying the town of Treadwell conveys a strong sense of place.

“I’ve always loved Alaska,” Kelly told me. “It has a mystique that draws people to it.” For Kelly the mystique must have been planted when as a child she heard the first stories about her father’s youth in the Alaska hard-rock gold miningtown of Treadwell. At the time they were just his “when I was young stories,” she says. But her interest was piqued years later spending a summer with her Aunt Honey inKetchikan and then hearing more stories from her Aunt Marion. Kelly set out to learn everything she could about her father’s family and their lives in Treadwell. In the process she realized the story of Treadwell itself was one that needed to be told: It had romance and drama (a catastrophic cave-in) and historical photographs to back the story up. No book had been written about it.

“I became totally obsessed by Treadwell and old mines,” said Kelly. So much so, in fact, that now she considers every family vacation – whether in Wales, Australia, Mexico or the Okanogan Highlands – to be an opportunity to seek out old mines and their history.

Kelly’s fascination with Treadwell and its mines shows up in her writing, which pulls the reader into the stories of the Treadwell Mines, their company town and the families that lived there. Treadwell Gold has been praised by reviewers as a fascinating story, engagingly written and well researched, and has won special recognition by the U.S. Mining History Association. Her love for words also shows through. Since childhood, she has enjoyed looking up words in the dictionary. She remembers her brother using obscure words at the family dinner table – “usually improperly,” she notes with a wry sense of humor.

Unlike some writers, Kelly doesn’t remember being a voracious reader of children’s books. She does remember reading newspapers. In high school she served as a page in the Washington State Senate, and at Gonzaga University she majored in political science. She even planned to run for office. She got married, had three children and her interest shifted to environmental issues. This interest led her to graduate school where she obtained an MPA in Natural Resource Policy.

In Kelly’s environmental career, she attended the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, wrote articles for environmental organizations and worked on projects such as the Pipers Creek Rehabilitation in Seattle’sCarkeek Park. Her writings include an essay “The Path of Place,” in the anthology Earth and Sprit: the Spiritual Dimensions of the Environmental Crisis (Continuum, 1993).

With her background, you might expect a book about mines in Alaska to dwell on the environmental impacts of gold mining or the political climate that supported it, but instead Kelly focused on both the mine itself and the people who lived and worked in its company town. Treadwell Gold even tackles the complicated engineering of gold refining.

What next for Kelly now that the Treadwell book is published? “Perhaps ‘Treadwell: The Musical,’” joked Kelly. She is investigating the possibilities of videos and plays about Treadwell and anticipating the 100th anniversary of the Treadwell cave-in in 2017. When not writing about Treadwell, she serves on the Charlotte Martin Foundation board, and the Advisory Council of the Mining History Association. She leads women’s workshops on Iona, Scotland, a small “magical” island in the Inner Hebrides. She is also going back to that book about sense of place. We can be sure it will be well-researched and full of peoples’ stories.

To learn more about Sheila Kelly, visit her page on ballardwriters.org.