SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


 A Personal Memoir

A Ketchikan 'Auld Lange Syne'


December 29, 2005
Thursday AM

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 plain miscellany.

jpg Malaspina

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 again.
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 borough offices.

jpg 29 stairs

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 own room.
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 day. 
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.

jpg Ketchikan's west end

West End, 1953 (Tongass Towers bottom right)
Photographer: Paulu T. Saari; Donor: Paulu T. Saari, KM 2005.2.63.56
Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Museums

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!!

Copyright © 2005 June Allen
All rights reserved.


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Ketchikan, Alaska