SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

The Future Moved South in the late 1890s

Early Ketchikan was boosted when several prominent Wrangell business people relocated



April 06, 2023

(SitNews) - For recent generations, Wrangell has been Ketchikan's smaller neighbor to the north, even though "The Gateway to the Stikine" has a much longer history, having been a Russian outpost and a Hudson's Bay Company settlement going back to the 1830s.

It even played a significant role in the founding and growth of Ketchikan when several prominent Wrangellites moved South in the early 1900s because they believed Ketchikan had a better mining future than Wrangell.

One of those intrepid early entrepreneurs was Forest Hunt, who had originally come north from Seattle in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush.

Hunt didn't make it to the Yukon goldfields, instead settling in Wrangell which was the gateway to other gold fields in the "Stickeen" country in northern British Columbia.

Three decades later, Hunt recounted his arrrival in Alaska in a radio address on KGBU, Ketchikan's first radio station, in 1930. A 10-page script of that address is at the Tongass Historical Museum.

Hunt remembered being on the steamship "Rosalie" which stopped in Metlakatla - which impressed him with its development - and Ketchikan - which did not. In 1898, he noted, Ketchikan was "very insignificant" compared to Metlakatla.

"It was simply a frontier trading post or fishing center, without streets or organization," Hunt said about Ketchikan, noting that he preferred to try his luck in Wrangell, which was booming at the time and had a population he estimated at 5,000.

"At this time Wrangell was a congested, busy place, a city of upwards of 5,000 frenzied people housed mostly in tents, but cheap frame structures were going up all around and work being pushed on three different wharves and warehouses," Hunt remembered in 1930. "Hammers were being wielded night and day and the constant tramp, tramp, tramp resounded on the rickety sidewalks constantly."

But there was a cloud on the horizon for Wrangell.

Canada, Great Britain and the United States were locked in a lengthy argument over where the border should be drawn between Alaska and British Columbia. Some of the proposals even had Wrangell and the mouth of the Stikine ending up in Canada. It would be several years before a boundary commission would establish the current boundaries in 1903.

Initially, Hunt did what many people in mining communities do: He mined the miners. He decided he could make more money selling mining gear than looking for gold. His family soon joined him and his wife Harriet opened the Blue Front Cafe. But rumors of new gold strikes to the south were percolating in Wrangell even as some of the bonanzas up the Stikine were starting to peter out.

Two of the more significant prospects in the Ketchikan area were in Helm Bay on the mainland across Behm Canal from the Clover Pass area of Revillagigedo Island and Sealevel which which was in Thorne Arm on Revilla south of Ketchikan. There were also promising areas on Prince of Wales Island, particularly on the east side of the island at Dolomi and Niblack.

"The Sea Level Mine was owned by Seattle parties and interest was aroused to such an extent that the homestead of Mike Martin, which encompassed the townsite of Ketchikan, was sold to Seattle parties who organized the Ketchikan Improvement Company and surveyed the first plat of (in Ketchikan) here in the fall of 1898," Hunt remembered in 1930.

One of Hunt's fellow Wrangell businessmen, H.C. Strong was a member of the Ketchikan Improvement Company and also formed Strong and Johnson, a company that purchased the Martin and Clark store, which was the primary store in early Ketchikan. Strong and Johnson would eventually become Tongass Trading Company.

Strong was also named postmaster of Ketchikan, according to Hunt, and would play a large role in the community efforts to get the federal government to relocate the US Customs Station from Mary Island to Ketchikan in 1902. When Ketchikan obtained the customs office and became the official first stop for vessels coming into Alaska, it gave Ketchikan a leg up on Loring, a slightly larger community 20 miles north of Ketchikan, and Ketchikan went on to become the dominant town in the region.

The next year, 1899, became an important year for Ketchikan, as several other Wrangell business leaders decamped for Ketchikan. Many of them became early community leaders including Charles Ingersoll, Cas Deppe, W. J. Broderick, J. H. Garrett, N.G. Zimmermen and I.G. Pruell. Along with J.R. Heckman who relocated from Loring to Ketchikan, they became the center of most of the business activity in the suddenly burgeoning community, according to Hunt.

Hunt would join the Wrangell rush to Ketchikan in 1900.

"On March 9th, 1900, I landed in this embryonic city and, finding myself disappointed in securing the location which I expected to occupy, after a diligent effort to secure a proper location for my business of meat market, fruits and vegetables, I made a second determined attack upon Mr. Bryant, manager of J. R. Heckman and Co. for a space on their platform on Dock Street, now occupied by a portion of the hardware store of Heckman, Carrington and Co. which was granted and on which I pitched my 14x20 tent where I did business until the first of July when I rented the building now occupied by McDonald's Confectionary, on Front Street," Hunt remembered in 1930.

Hunt also had his eye on another local townsite that also was being promoted in 1899. The town of Revilla in Ward Cove.

"I will state here that I came to Ketchikan from Wrangell during the previous February to investigate the situation and, at that time ex-Gov. A. P. Swineford and a man by the name of Harper had platted a town site at Ward Cove which was being agitated as the coming city, the better harbor facilities being urged in its favor, and the Pacific Coast Steamship Co. was induced to construct a wharf there during that spring," Hunt remembered three decades later. "I invested $15.00 in a lot there and quite a little activity was manifest during the early part of 1900; a store, sawmill and saloon were established at, what was then called Revilla and strong efforts were made for the removal of the custom house to Revilla, but the influence of Ketchikan overcame it and when the custom house came here the competition ended in favor of Ketchikan."

Although Revilla failed as a new community, Eugene Wacker homesteaded in Ward Cove several years later and the town of "Wacker City" eventually rose up with a small store, a post office and school that existed until the creation of the Ketchikan Pulp Mill in the early 1950s.

Although Ketchikan Creek and its vast salmon run dominated the landscape of the small town at the mouth of the Creek, the fishing industry was very small in 1900, Hunt remembered. The Fildalgo Island Cannery was just being built south of the Creek and Ketchikan was soon to enter into a protracted legal battle with Loring over which community could rightfully claim the salmon run. A federal court would eventually rule that no one city or company could claim such a resource, but by then Ketchikan was well on its way. Heckman would also invent the floating fish trap in 1909 and that would lead to Ketchikan emerging as the Salmon Canning Capital of the World in the 1920s further solidifying its place in Alaska.

But in 1900, it was mining - and mining the miners - that sustained Hunt and the rest of the tiny community, which had grown to more than 1,000 people by them.

"Prospecting was quite active and mining ventures were promoted vigorously, in fact, too much so for the good of the country, as many Ketchikan merchants can testify," Hunt remembered. "There was a 32-stamp mill installed at Sea Level, which soon proved to be far beyond the capacity of the mine to supply and led to complicated business differences between the Marmond Mfg. Co. of Portland, who had supplied the operating machinery and the Sea Level Company, which resulted in the closing of the mine; the sale and removal of the machinery and the end of that venture and, thus far, continued successful mining in that locality has not been manifest, although it is generally conceded to be a well mineralized zone. Several promising copper properties were worked and developed to a considerable extent. There were smelters erected and operated at both Copper Mountain, on the west coast of Prince-Of-Wales Island and at Hadley on the east coast of the island, just above Clarence Straits and about 30 miles from Ketchikan, were a commodious hotel was erected and operated by Hans Andersen, and the nucleus of quite a mining town started, but both of these ventures failed. The It Mine of Prince-Of-Wales Island was promoted and operated, for a time at a profit by H. C. Strong and Associates, when it was disposed of and, like several others such as the Niblack, Rush and Brown, Salt Chuck and others which have failed to attract working capital since the collapse in copper prices in 1907."

At several points over the next few decades, operations started and stopped at Sealevel, but the amount of gold brought out of the area was insignificant compared to the mines around Juneau in northern Southeast. The same was true with the mines in the Helm Bay area. There was mineralization. And there was plenty of quartz, which was  usually a precursor to the presence of gold. But in general, there just wasn't much gold in the Ketchikan area itself.

The reason was a geological oddity that basically split the area around Tongass Narrows in half. According to a 1915 federal study of Gravina's geology by Philip Smith of the USGS, Gravina itself was created by the merger of two different geologic land masses during the late Jurassic and early Triassic time periods. The eastern side of the island has the same geology as Revillagigedo Island and much of the nearby Alaska mainland. Although it looks like it should be fertile ground for gold, silver, copper and other minerals because of its significant quartz mineralization, it isn't. At least it hasn't been so far.

On the other hand, the west side of Gravina has more in common with the geology of Prince of Wales Island were there were significant copper resources in the Kasaan and Hadley areas and there was also substantial amounts of gold and silver on Prince of Wales as well, particularly in the Niblack area.

But in the 1900s, when miners flooded into the Ketchikan area, most saw the Revilla quartz veins and expected they could get rich on the door steps of Ketchikan. That didn't happen.

The result was that the hundreds and perhaps thousands of miners who staked large chunks of the area around Ketchikan ended up with little to show for it. There were small amounts of gold found in areas like Bugge Beach and Hoadley Creek but never enough to create large scale mines like the Alaska-Juneau or the Treadwell near Juneau.

When World War I brought most mining in Alaska to a standstill, the industry never recovered in any significant way in the Ketchikan area, although there was some done on Prince of Wales over the years.

Yet, unlike many early mining communities in the Western United States, Ketchikan would survive when mining either didn't pan out or evaporated too quickly.

By the late 1910s,  Hunt and the other Wrangell transplants had found that the growing local fishing industry was significant enough to keep them in the First City. Ketchikan soon outpaced Wrangell in size, as the mining fields of the Canadian Stikine continued to shrink over the years. Both Ketchikan and Wrangell benefited when the timber industry came in 1950s, but Ketchikan would remain the largest community in the area to the present day.

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