SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

A 'Token' for Your Thoughts!
By Dave Kiffer


April 03, 2006

Ketchikan, Alaska - When my older brothers vacated the old family homestead on First and Jefferson, they left a lot of fun stuff in the attic for me to discover.

There were old baseball cards, parts of model trains, bits and pieces of radio controlled planes, even old deer antlers and carved gun stocks. Just your average childhood debris.

They also left a couple of 1950s era "men's' magazines, but that's another column.

The one item that most captured my attention (besides the 1964 Gibson electric guitar and amp of course) was an odd little "coin" like nothing I had ever seen. On one side it read "Stedman Hotel Co. Ketchikan, Alaska."

On the other side it read "Good for 12 1/2 Cents in Trade."

By the time I grew up the grand old Stedman Hotel was long gone (it's the corner of Dock and Front Street, somewhere under that lovely, brown metal siding). It had this great old octagonal cupola and was often featured in post cards during Ketchikan's first half century.

Even in the 1960s and early 1970s, I realized that 12 cents wouldn't go very far towards hotel costs. And what's up with the 12 1/2 cents? It wasn't like half pennies were used at any time during Ketchikan's history (even our half cent sales taxes always seem to get rounded up!).

So this item was something of interest to me for some time. I remember keeping the coin - actually a 'token' - for many years as sort of a good luck charm. It was only during one of my much later moves that I lost track of it.

Then a couple of months ago, I saw a similar token on EBAY. I decided to bid on it but dropped out when it went over $10. It eventually went for more than $50. Now I'm really cheesed off that I lost my original one. Fifty dollars is real money.

In bidding on the Stedman token, I noticed that there were a whole raft of other Ketchikan related tokens on the market. Many were businesses that - unlike the Stedman - I had never even heard of.

One day I saw a book on the history of Alaska tokens on EBAY. I bid on it, but it too went for much higher that I was willing to pay.

So I went to see Richard Van Cleave, the keeper of the repository of all useful knowledge, (also known as the Tongass Historical Museum collection) and darned if he didn't have a copy of the book in question, Ronald Benice's 1979 tome "Alaska Tokens."

As I surmised the Stedman token was one of nearly 50 tokens that were issued by Ketchikan establishments from the 1920s through Statehood. For each token, Benice gives some history and some suggested prices (whoever paid $50 for the Stedman token got a little "irrationally exuberant" even taking inflation into account because the token was worth $10 in 1979).

The tokens themselves are a great window into the past of Ketchikan, a past when cigars and billiards were apparently nearly as prevalent as tanzanite and diamonds are today!

In addition to the price, the entry on the Stedman token lists the various owners of the hotel : John Stedman, W.A. Connell, M.J. Bugge, H.V. Stevens and Lyman Ferris. Ferris owned the building for nearly 30 years and also put his mark - literally - on the token, by putting an "F" counterstamp on some of them.

Besides the Stedman what other long lost Ketchikan institutions are being brought back to memory, if not life, by the still circulating tokens? I am soooooo glad you asked!

The "Abercrombie's" token (4 cents but "redeemable in lots of fifty only) was from Mrs. Eden W. Abercrombie's women's clothing, millinery, notions and beautician store.

"Scoug's Place" had both 25 cent and One dollar tokens. It was Frank Scougale's short-lived (1928-29) cigars, billiards and lunch emporium.

There are a lot of "Blue Fox Pup" tokens on the market in a variety of denominations (.5, .25, .50, $1) because Lyman Ferris operated the restaurant for more than 25 years. It's probably not quite the "holy grail" of Ketchikan tokens, but Benice notes that no Blue Fos Pup "counterstamped" (like the Ferris-owned Stedman tokens) tokens have been found but are likely out there. I'm sure the sky would be limit amongst Alaska token collectors (I found more than a dozen websites!) if you found one.

The Butterhorn Bakery (1932-1950, John, Ted and William Nilles) skipped a denomination all together. Its token simply offered "one large loaf" of bread to the bearer.

Not be out done the Log Cabin Bakery and the Quality Bakery both offered tokens for a "small loaf bread".

In addition to the Stedman other local hotels offered tokens for lodging including the Nelson, the Northern, the Ingersoll, the Royal and the Hotel Connell.

The Nelson apparently started a price war by offering the first $1 token in 1930. That kind of makes my old 1940s era Stedman 12 12 token seems a little cheap, eh?

It will come as no surprise that the majority of the tokens are from liquor establishments, such as the Budweiser Saloon, the Artic Club Rooms, the Cabinet, the Lucky Spot, the Horseshoe, the Hub, the Igloo, and the New Deal.

There were a lot of combination places that seemed to feature sustenance (cigars, liquor) and activities (billiards, cards, bowling). Finzel's Billiards Parlor, Langes, Hop Wo Pool Hall (on Totem Way) all fit into this category.

Chris J. Bailey's "The Mint" (1920-1938) was a triple threat, offering "beverages, billiards and gambling."

Pedro Santos (1920-1926) offered even more options with "groceries, beverages, cigars and billiards."

I'm not sure exactly what T.N. Kushi was selling but you could get 25 cents in trade with the right token.

There were also fraternal organization catching on to the "token" craze. The LOOM (Loyal Order Of Moose) was offering tokens as were the Eagles.

The Eagles were a little secretive about the whole process. They didn't list a denomination or service on the token. All it said was "FOE AERIE 162, Ketchikan Alaska. Monday and Thursday." I guess if you had to ask, you didn't really need to know.

I was puzzled to see a token from the New England Fish Company listed. Apparently for more than 50 years that company offered tokens, in that very popular 12 12 cent denomination. Benice surmises they were for use in the company store.

He also notes that John Stedman was the "local agent" for the company he also started the NEFCO tokens about the same time as he started the hotel tokens, therefore becoming the "father" of the local token industry. Well, I guess everyone needs to be known for something.

Two local establishments went so far as to offer multiple tokens for multiple items.

The Pioneer bar/pool hall/restaurant offered different tokens for its food, its card room, its poolroom, probably even for its coat and hat check! And it's not to be confused from B. Barclay's competing bar of the same era "The Pioneer"

Charles A. Smith's "Lotus" was a saloon in 1915 but had morphed into a restaurant and billards parlor by 1922. You could get a 5 cent token for the Billiard Parlor, a 5 cent token for the Pool Hall and either a 6 12 cent or 12 12 cent token for the Lotus "Buffet". It also offers collectors several varieties of tokens ranging from octagonal to scalloped shaped to plain old rounds (in brass and aluminum varities).

The Lotus tokens were also the most valuable at least in 1979 dollars, topping out at $80.

That's no token sum, especially in 2006 dollars. It's too bad the attic and the old homestead are long gone.


Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2006

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