SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska
Column - Commentary

Everything Changes, 'Cept the Rain


April 27, 2021
Tuesday PM

Ketchikan, Alaska -
Ketchikan's recent spate of record-breaking temperatures got me thinking (always a questionable activity).

jpg  Dave Kiffer

Not about the temps themselves, 72 and 67 are not particularly high temperatures for Our Fair Salmon City. Yes, they set the all-time marks for April 18 and April 19. And those warm days were especially welcome as they came on the heels of a generally gray Winter and Spring. They were most definitely an improvement over the intermittent snowstorms that were still whacking the community as late as April 9.

What is it they say, "April Showers bring May Flowers?" Not in Ketchikan. "April Snows bring May Woes" is more like it.

But the whipsaw that was a week between two inches of the white stuff and 72-degree temps was definitely hard on these older bones. I used to laugh at people who would "predict" the weather by how poorly they were feeling. Not anymore.

As usual, I digress.

The sunny skies got me thinking because the previous high temperatures for those two days were way back in 1934.

That was quite a long time ago.

How long? Before my time, that's for sure. And - as many of you are fond of telling me - I am older than dirt.

In 1934, my father was 16 years old (going on 17) and already a commercial fisherman. In those days, you didn't have to go to school after the eighth grade and he didn't. I'm pretty sure the door on the old Charcoal Point School DID NOT hit him on the way out.

Besides fishing, he was also "on the dole" as he and several others, including my grandfather, happily took federal Civilian Conservation Corps checks to work on local infrastructure projects. Specifically, Dad and Grandad helped build the "recreation area" at Ward Lake. They built the road, the "beach" and the shelters. Years later, Dad was still pointing out one section of the old Ward Lake Road that he thought had been graded incorrectly, He had argued with the engineer 40 years previously and was still cheesed off about it.

In April of 1934, my mom was just about to turn 13 but had left White Cliff and was already at Ketchikan High School - the downtown Main School - because - as she often reminded us - she had skipped a grade in elementary school.

She was not in the work world at this point (in a couple of years she would spend a summer working at the Sunny Point Cannery where she clearly developed a crush on Sal Del Fierro, one of the foremen. I know this because decades later I came across a photo of him and she blushed pretty brightly when I showed it to her. According to her sisters, she also had a bit of a crush on the boy on the other side of First Avenue, the tall, handsome Irvin Thompson, who would go on to the Naval Academy and die at Pearl Harbor on the USS Oklahoma).

My mother's family lived in a house at the corner of First and Jefferson in those days. Mom and Dad would eventually buy it from them in the mid 1950s. It was the only house that I grew up in. It is now a parking lot.

My father's family lived in a small shack at Bar Harbor in those days. That shack was moved to Shoreline Drive and it still standing.

My grandparents are still remembered by some real old timers for the intensity of the "frank discussions" they used to have almost every evening in Bar Harbor. Apparently, the neighbors would stop what they were doing when the very loud arguments would break out because it was "better than the Battling Bickersons on the radio" as one former neighbor once told me.

The "Bickersons" were actually on the radio a decade later, but as always when fact conflicts with the legend, print the legend. At any rate, the arguments were the nightly entertainment for the fishing community in those days.

"We were sad when your grandparents moved out to the 'Pass' a few years later," a different neighbor told me a few years ago. "Gosh, did we love to hear those fights."

Uh, gee, thanks.

Anyway, I digress, yet again.

Ketchikan was in the Depression in 1934,  although the still booming salmon canning industry meant that work was always available and that there were always salmon to eat if jobs weren't available. One steady stream of money had dried up, though. The end of Prohibition meant that bootlegging booze up from Prince Rupert was not as lucrative as it had been.

I suspect that bootlegging was one of the differences of opinion between my grandparents. My grandmother was anti-booze. My grandfather was most decidedly not. He made quite a few trips to Prince Rupert in the years between 1919 and 1933. I'm sure it was because the Canadian cold storages had a better price for salmon.

Hard as it is seems to believe today, in 1934 Ketchikan was one of the major metropolitan centers in Alaska. The rapid rise in the canning industry because of J. R.  Heckman's floating fish trap had caused a boom in local canneries, from 2 in the late teens to 13 in the late 20s. For a couple of years, Ketchikan's population of nearly 4,000 exceeded Juneau's making it the largest city in the territory. Even in 1934 it was still larger than Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Travelers to the First City in those days noted how much like Seattle and Tacoma it was, how the goods in the stores were comparable to the big cities on either coast and how the accommodations were surprisingly swanky for such a far-flung outpost in Uncle Sam's growing empire.

But if you think about it, what didn't exist in 1934, that does exist almost 90 years later in 2021?

The simple fact that people in 1934 knew what to think and believe without Facebook or Parler, is completely incomprehensible to me.  Imagine not having all the information in the history of the world on a little box in your pocket. Imagine life without endless videos of cute cats. Inconceivable.

But this also reminds me of my grandparents who were born in the 1890s and died in the 1980s. In the 1890s, there were no airplanes, no automobiles, no space flight, no television, radio or movies, no computers, and precious little electricity or few telephones. Imagine being born into that and living long enough for that all to change?

Most of human history has been change over hundreds of years. The last century or so has been change by the decade or even the minute.

Back in 1934, the weather came without warning. You didn't have half a dozen websites predicting the weather weeks in advance or weather "alerts" warning us to be careful of flooding creeks or to keep away from trees (high wind warning) You didn't have those awful, metallic alert screeches on TV because - shocking - snow was in the forecast three days from now.

Except, I guess, in Ketchikan you did have advance warning of the weather.

If you couldn't see the top of Deer Mountain it was raining. If you could see it, it was going to rain.

That hasn't changed in the past 90 years.





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