A Ketchikan 'Auld Lange Syne'
By JUNE ALLEN
December 29, 2005
The familiar strains of that New Year's anthem play over and
over again in my mind as I think of the new year, brand new 2006,
fast approaching. The lyrics of Auld Lane Syne simply remind
listeners not to forget old friends and places. I myself don't
need reminders to remember good old Ketchikan and all my old
friends as I sit here at the computer keyboard in far away Palmer,
Alaska. I could never, ever forget Ketchikan or that first
impression of Ketchikan that awaited me when I arrived! It was
a long time ago.
It was late August of 1964 when the state ferry Malaspina tied
up at the dock in Alaska's First City. It was about midnight
or thereabout that I herded my exhausted family, one mother,
one father, and five kids into a more-or-less single unit as
we waited to step off the ferry and onto terra firma. My husband
and I carried the heavy, essential suitcases. The eldest
child held the hand of the two-year-old, the next-down teenager
held the hand of the four-year-old and the eight-year-old toted
the shopping bag carrying the collection of crayons, coloring
books and (usually banned) comic books, Kleenex, a toy or two,
half-eaten candy bars, sticky wrappers and an assortment of just
Alaska State Ferry
Malaspina arriving at Ketchikan's old ferry terminal - Date unknown
Donor: Ketchikan Daily News, Photograph Courtesy Ketchikan Museums
It was not a cheerful arrival at our dark and wet new home-to-be.
We had not been good sailors. We were at the edge of exhaustion.
And of course it was blowing and pouring down typical Ketchikan
rain, rain like I'd never seen before! Our sea legs kept us lurching
even after we were on solid ground. Street lights made the wet
asphalt shimmer brightly, and rain on puckered little faces mixed
right in with the tears. I prayed the youngest wouldn't vomit
We were met by O. M. Lien who was to take us to a hotel downtown
until we could move into our waiting apartment in the Tongass
Towers the following day. He was assigned this heroic meet-and-greet
duty because he was a member of the Ketchikan school board; my
husband was going to be teaching English at the Ketchikan Community
College. The college was then located in three second-story rooms
on the Front Street 'campus.' Today those rooms are part of the
Stedman Hotel's 29
stairs to the ground floor...
Photo by Dick Kauffman
Poor Mr. Lien gallantly drove this weary family unit downtown
to the Stedman Hotel where an equally gallant Gordon Zerbetz,
hotel owner, guided us to our accommodations. There was a PTA
convention in town and hotel rooms were scarce that week! Our
arrival was sometime after midnight and some details I no longer
remember. Our eldest, the only boy, vanished to his cot
wherever it was. The rest of us, parents and the four girls,
squeezed into another room, parents in one bed, two older girls
in the bed across the room and the two cranky littlest
girls in a roll-away between the two other beds. We gratefully
settled in, welcoming sleep.
Then from the darkness came a little voice, saying, "I have
to go to the bathroom." It just had to happen!
Naturally all the girls wanted to come along, en masse. We crept
down the dimly lighted hallway in a cluster and found two doors,
one with a brass plate that said "Toilet" and the other
that said "Bathroom." (Remember, at that time the old
hotel, which was built in 1905, was still pristine. No modernization
at all and today I'm proud to say, "I stayed in the Stedman
Hotel when it was original!") Peeking into both of the designated
rooms, we discovered that one contained a toilet, and only a
toilet. And the other contained a bathtub, just a bathtub. Of
course we all took turns going potty and then returned to our
The girls finally went to sleep. I lay awake in the peaceful
calm and announced in a whisper, "I want a cigarette!"
I was a smoker in those days. A grumble from my bed partner discouraged
me for a couple of minutes. And then I really, really wanted
a smoke! I swung my legs out of bed and reached for the big old
single window in the room. It slid up sweetly and quietly. I
found a cigarette and match and gratefully lit up, leaning my
addicted head as far out the window as possible. A baritone voice
beside me grumbled, "You're going to burn this (blankety
blank) place down!" I looked at the narrow space between
the hotel's outer wall and the adjacent building's wall it was
all covered with green moss and dripping water and splashing
spray visible even in the blackness. Hah! Fat chance of a fire!
Finally we all slept, exhausted. Morning broke bright and clear.
I decided the previous night's rain was an aberration, but little
did I know. Then I went down those 29 stairs to the ground floor
and made my maiden voyage into the wonderful old Stedman Café.
Betty Curry cooked there in those days. Diane Lauber had the
little travel bureau tucked away under the stairs. A pair of
swinging doors led to the Totem Room, where Ray Bernsee and Gordon
Robertson and sometimes John Roberts tended bar later in the
The cafe was busy, the counter seats all taken for breakfast
and the booths on the back wall full. Above the booths was a
huge mural of totem poles near a lake, a painting by Lorraine
Perry. A pair of French doors led from that part of the Stedman
Café into Race Downtown Drugs (today's Downtown Drugstore).
It was just a very friendly hotel café etc. with lots
of customers, conversation and camaraderie. A few weeks later,
when I became a reporter for the Ketchikan Daily News, I learned
that the Stedman Café, and especially owner Gordon Zerbetz,
were excellent local news sources.
West End, 1953 (Tongass
Towers bottom right)
Photographer: Paulu T. Saari; Donor: Paulu T. Saari, KM 2005.2.63.56
Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Museums
Copyright © 2005
That very day of arrival we moved into the apartment in Tongass
Towers at the other end of town and begged, borrowed and bought
furniture for it, little by little. We enrolled the kids in school.
We met people, friendly people who really helped us get settled
in. We decided that Ketchikan was a pretty nice town. Lots of
nice people. Lots of stories. Lots of fun!
I later went job hunting and met then-Daily News editor Albro
Gregory at the Totem Room in the Stedman Hotel, as a matter of
fact. He asked me if I could spell and punctuate, and when I
said "yes," he told me to go up the newspaper the next
day and apply for a job as a reporter. I did. Albro and Mrs.
Pat Charles interviewed me, and Pat said, at one point, "We
can only pay you $100 a week." Little did she know that
I would have settled for $50!"
I had absolutely no idea of how to be a reporter! But I followed
Pat's lead, paid attention, did what I was told (at least at
first) and learned the ropes. And am I ever glad I did! I learned
a craft that has brought me pleasure and satisfaction ever since.
I learned to write!
I also learned something even more valuable. I learned about
a town, a uniquely remarkable town, a town that survives no matter
what, that enjoys itself along the way, a town that embraces
everyone, again no matter who or what. It's a great place, Ketchikan
is. If you've ever lived there you know that. If you're living
there now, you may not yet recognize that fact. But you will.
Oh, yes, you will.
Viva la Ketchikan!!
All rights reserved.
Post a Comment View Comments
an Opinion - Letter
Stories In The News