SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Centennial Building Celebrates 40th Birthday


November 21, 2007
Wednesday AM

Ketchikan, Alaska - The Centennial Building has been the home of the Ketchikan Public Library and the Tongass Historical Museum for nearly four decades, yet the building itself and the "urban renewal" project that changed the face of the area near Ketchikan Creek that it was part of nearly didn't happen at all.

After Alaska became a state in 1959, the next big statewide celebration was the centennial of 1867 Alaska purchase. Communities all over the state planned commemorations and the federal government even contributed $4.6 million to help the state celebrate.

That contribution was controversial in the US House of Representatives with Indiana Republican Congressman Richard Roudebush leading an unsuccessful effort to defeat the appropriation.

"Only 100 years ago the United States paid $7.2 million to acquire Alaska from Russia," Roudebush told the Associated Press in 1966. "This was a bargain and we are all proud of Alaska as one of the 50 states. But I fail to see the need of taxing the other 49 states to the tune of $4.6 million to celebrate the purchase."

But the federal money did end up coming with a stipulation. Money spent on projects would have to be matched with local contributions.

Ketchikan's proposed Centennial project was smaller -at least initially - than several others in the state, according to contemporary news accounts.

Anchorage built a nearly million dollar civic center and Fairbanks built a 40 acre history park, originally named "Alaskaland" but now called Pioneer Park. The cost of the park was pegged at $1.1 million dollars.

In Southeast, Sitka built the Harrigan Centennial Center and Juneau built a new state museum building, both in the $750,000 range.

In Ketchikan, there were several proposals for buildings and one - by then City Councilman Oral Freeman - for a tram that would carry passengers up Deer Mountain to the lookout over Bear Valley.

It was finally decided that Ketchikan should build a museum-library building on the north side of Ketchikan Creek. At that time, both the museum and the library were in cramped quarters in the City Hall/Ketchikan Public Utilities building on Front Street.

The project would also include the "urban renewal" of a section of downtown that had been called Barney Way for more than half a century.

Barney Way was one Ketchikan's oldest "streets" although calling it a street would be charitable. Basically it was a path and a small footbridge leading up from Stedman Street into the warren of houses and shacks on the town side of Ketchikan Creek. It connected Stedman with the Creek side end of Dock Street.

Barney Way was named, according to Ketchikan historian Mary Balcom, after Barney Tolson who was one of the first settlers in the area.

Because of its proximity to the creek, the Barney Way area itself had been associated with Creek Street for decades. After the "creek" had been closed in the 1950s, it was alleged that some of the "ladies" had moved to "shacks" on Barney Way. City police had also expressed concerns about gambling houses in the area and unregulated "after hours" clubs. As far as Ketchikan had a "high crime" area after the demise of Creek Street, local law enforcement felt that Barney Way was it.

There was no question that most of the residents to be displaced by the renewal project were low income and that would be one of the issues of concern as the project moved ahead.

Initially, Ketchikan Mayor Jim Pinkerton estimated the construction and "renewal" project would only cost about $200,000 with the city matching a federal contribution of $100,000 through a bond vote.

But as plans were formalized it became clear that more money would be needed. The building cost remained at $200,000 but the urban renewal which consisted of a road extension of Dock Street to Stedman Street and a two level parking area would add an additional $300,000 to the overall project cost. The cost would rise even further as the project moved forward.

By August of 1966, a design had been chosen and the city had already identified which parcels in Barney Way would fall victim to progress. June Allen reported in the Aug.9, 1966 Ketchikan Daily News that the city was facing "acquisition" costs of nearly $250,000 for the project and that several businesses including the Moose Lodge, Lattin Cleaners, The Beanery, the Reach Inn Grill and U.S. Café would be torn down. The Western Auto building would remain standing and mark the southern end of the new Centennial Building parking lot. The Chief Johnson totem pole would also remain standing.

Also planned were a new foot bridge across the Creek by the new "centennial" building and trails that would connect the Creek Street with the already built "Fort Tongass" historical recreation overlooking the Creek.

The next day, the Daily News reported that 17 families would be displaced by the construction project and have to find new homes.

The Daily News reported that the families included 45 adults and 35 children.

"The houses are old and the rents are low - about $40 (a month) on the average. Many of the people living there are on welfare on pensions and seasonal and low pay scale incomes," the paper noted.

The newspaper quoted several anonymous individuals facing eviction.

"I think those fellas planning this are plumb loco," the newspaper quoted an "oldtimer" who lived in Barney Way. "They want to kick us out and we got no place to go. Us old single guys I don't worry about but what are the families going to do. Those councilmen or whoever decides this, they live in luxury and we live in misery and now they want to make us more misery."

Over the next couple of months, Mayor Pinkerton complained several times that the newspaper was biasing the public against the project which would require a bond vote before moving ahead.

Pinkerton also issued a call to the public to find suitable housing for the displaced families.

"In anticipation of the approval of the bond issue for the badly needed project I feel it is incumbent on the city administration to lend every effort to assist the residents of the Barney Way area," Pinkerton told the Daily News on Aug. 10.

The city council set the bond election for Nov. 15, 1966. By then, the total cost of the building and the street and parking lot project had risen to just over $1 million dollars.

Proponents of the new museum were not happy with the combined bond vote. The Daily News ion Oct. 20, 1966 reported that Mrs. George Roberts of the Tongass Historical Society, asked the city council to have separate votes.

"The museum does not want to be combined with the parking on the bond issue," she said. "We're afraid we'd be defeated. We're afraid we'd be lost."

But the city decided to go ahead with a single bond vote for the project. City manager Jim Eide said that splitting the project into three separate projects - building, parking, road extension - could add up to $300,000 to the overall budget.

Shortly before the election, the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce weighed in, supporting the project but several chamber members expressed concerns about the way the city planned to assess downtown property owners to pay for the project and one - Richard Hardcastle - expressed concern for the families that would be displaced by the project.

The state was already moving ahead with a low income housing development near Schoenbar Junior High School but Hardcastle noted it not be ready for occupancy until the fall of 1967, nine or ten months after the residents were evicted.

Daily News reporter Bob Kinerk referred to the chamber discussion about Barney Way as "lackluster" and that brought another angry response from Mayor Pinkerton, who went on live radio to address the community.

"Press coverage on these projects has been extremely poor for many months," Pinkerton said on the broadcast.

Three days later, the voters had their say. The $1,080,000 bond for the Barney Way project passed, just barely with a 439-412 final tally.

In early January, the project began in earnest with the first buildings coming down. In an article on January 7, Kinerk noted that the "last Barney Way residents moved out of their houses Friday, just hours ahead of wrecking crews."

Construction went well over the next nine months with the exception of one very large hiccup.

On March 9, it was determined that one of the footings for the new building was actually 10 feet over on property owned by the Mary Frances Corporation. City officials said the problem was not the problem with a surveying error, the error was that the city had forgotten to purchase the property from Mary Frances. The city attorney later said he had been working with property maps that were incorrect.

Several days of negotiations between the two parties ensued and the upshot was that the city decided to move the building 16 feet to place it on property that had already been purchased. The move did not effect the proposed parking area, but it did effectively eliminated nearly all the landscaping that had been planned for the building.

The newspaper quoted an anonymous member of the Centennial Committee.

"We had planned to put a trap anchor in there," the commission member said. "Now we don't have enough room to put in a halibut hook."

The change to the foundation raised the cost of the project another $15,000.

On September 4, 1967, the Centennial Building was dedicated with much pomp and circumstance including the Fort Tongass Drum and Bugle Corps, Saxman Native dancers, and lengthy speeches but just about every local politician, elected or otherwise. U.S. Senator Ernest Gruening was the guest speaker.

The event was concluded with a street dance by the Pioneer Ragtime Band

Initially, the building housed a Ketchikan Centennial Exhibit which included both local items and traveling statewide exhibit on the history of Alaska put together by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

A local arts and crafts gallery was also opened in the building. The arts exhibit featured the scale model seine boat Ketchikan Queen which was a prominent fixture in the museum for years to come.

Within a month, the Tongass Historical museum opened its first local history display.

A year later, the Centennial Exhibit closed and plans were made to move the Ketchikan Public Library from the city administration building on Front Street into the Centennial Building.

In 1969, the Library took up residence in the building.

The museum and library continue to use the Centennial Building to this day, although the library is planning a new building at a different site while the museum has plans to dramatically expand and remodel the Centennial Building when the library goes elsewhere.



Thanks, Ladies, for the Library; From Bookcase to Building(s) By JUNE ALLEN - One thing Ketchikan's founding fathers didn't think of was a library. In their 1900 petition for Incorporation of the city - and thereby for the ability to qualify for outside assistance as well as the right to raise local taxes to pay for community needs - one of the first things those men had been thinking of was the need for a school. In fact, there were those fellows who were certain their down-south sweethearts or wives would refuse to join them in the wilds of Revilla Island if there were no school for their children! And so the first schoolhouse was promptly built. As mothers arrived with their children and newcomer families also began to arrive, Ketchikan promised to grow. And it was the women of Ketchikan who thought immediately of the need for a library. - More...
SitNews - January 01, 2004


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Historical Ketchikan... Historical Alaska - More Feature Stories by Dave Kiffer

Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
To republish this article, the author requires a publication fee.
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Dave Kiffer ©2007

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