SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

The time the Arctic Bar went 'in the drink'

Fishermen went "dipnetting" for floating bottles in Thomas Basin


January 08, 2021
Friday PM

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska - Just about every time there is a high tide in Ketchikan Creek or a storm swells the runoff from Granite Basin, someone mentions the time the Arctic Bar literally "went into the drink."

Not everyone gets the date correct, some people think it happened back in the 1930s, others are convinced it was the 1940s or 1950s. Even old photographs show up on-line indicating the wrong date(s). Here is a primer. The actual date the bar collapsed, and spilled its contents under the Stedman Street bridge into Thomas Basin? December 10, 1962.

The time the Arctic Bar went 'in the drink'

Stedman Street Bridge, Ketchikan, 1945.
Finished structure of the bridge viewed from the north end; buildings and vehicles along the street
Alaska Road Commission Photograph Collection, ca. 1909-1959. ASL-PCA-61
Courtesy Alaska State Library - Historical Collections

The following day's Ketchikan Daily News had the story.

"City officials kept a critical eye on this afternoon’s high tide for its possible effect on the Stedman Street Bridge, which was closed to traffic last night after the collapse of the Arctic Bar building," Jerome Sheldon reported in the newspaper. "Trees and debris sweeping down Ketchikan Creek crashed into the piling underneath the two-story frame building. The weakened structure fell and spilled its entire contents, including cases of liquor and beer and the safe and other furnishings, into the angry, rain-swollen water. Occupants of an upstairs quarters and patrons in the bar escaped unhurt. Mae Torgerson, operator of the bar, reportedly grabbed only the money in the cash drawer."

First Bank - Ketchikan, Alaska

Gateway City Realty - Ketchikan, Alaska

The value of the lost property was originally estimated by building owner Stan Oaksmith Jr. as $35,000, but that was later lowered to $20,000 by local officials. Much of the wreckage of the bar ended up pinned against the bridge.

"City Manager Fred A. Daigle said the extend of the damage to the bridge was not determined," Sheldon wrote. "An upper abutment was possibly weakened, with the possibility steel pilings might not hold under traffic vibration. The tide was to reach a height of 18.8 feet at 1:06 o'clock this afternoon bringing the water to within two feet of the roadway under supports of the concrete and steel span."

Eventually the repairs to the bridge would cost more than $25,000.

The collapse led to electrical circuits in the area being cut, Daigle told the Daily News. A feeder circuit to the Ketchikan General Hospital on Bawden Street needed to be rerouted. Temporary water lines were laid along Creek Street and for part of Stedman Street. There was concern about an electrical arc causing a fire, so the Ketchikan Fire Department was on scene, even though the heavy downpour limited the likelihood of a fire.

Nearly seven inches of rain was recorded in a 15-hour period prior to the building collapse.

"The swift current brought down snow from the higher elevations as well as trees, logs and rocks," Sheldon reported in the Daily News. "There was no damage reported to boats in Thomas Basin after the (bar) debris was swept under the bridge."

But there was concern that the high waters from the Creek could swamp some of the boats at the Ketchikan Yacht Club. There was also concern about flooding and other buildings collapsing along the Creek, so police and firemen warned families to evacuate. Some families were taken in by St. John's Episcopal Church and others by the Salvation Army.

Building owner Stan Oaksmith Jr. said the entire building had been leased out to Mrs. Torgerson.

"So far as we could tell, the damage was caused by debris going down the river," he told the Daily News. "She called me at quarter to seven, and at 7:15, the building was gone."

Oaksmith said he had visually checked on the building at 6pm and noted no apparent danger.

The destruction of the Arctic, even then one of Ketchikan's longest operating bars, drew a crowd of onlookers that was held back by barricades on Stedman Street. Traffic along Stedman was detoured up Deermont, Park and Woodland for several days

City officials initially thought a that controlled explosion might be needed to remove the debris from under the bridge, which Police Chief Henry Miller ordered closed to traffic. But eventually a construction crew was able to cut the debris into small enough pieces to be safely removed.

Much of the contents of the bar floated into Thomas Basin, where eager fishermen - including my father - happily "rescued" floating bottles of alcohol. Other parts of the building floated out into Tongass Narrows and parts were found on local beaches as far as 11 miles away.

jpg Thomas Boat Basin, 1949-1951

Thomas Boat Basin, 1949-1951
View of a marina at Ketchikan
Lawrence Eastman photographs, 1949-1951. UAA-HMC-1050
Courtesy University of Alaska Anchorage. Consortium Library. Archives & Special Collections University of Alaska Anchorage. Consortium Library. Archives & Special Collections.

Of particular interest to the searchers was the Bar's 6,200 pound safe. It was recovered 10 days later not far from the bridge. The Daily News reported on Dec. 21 that diver Terry Bruce recovered the safe in 20-23 feet of water. The three-ton safe was pulled aboard the boat Lila C and brought to shore. Mrs. Torgeson told the Daily News that the safe contained important papers and jewelry. She said the papers were water-soaked but still readable.

Mrs. Torgeson also said she hoped to reopen the bar somewhere in the same area. But when the Arctic Bar did reopen, it was in its current location near the north end of the Ketchikan tunnel.

The Arctic Bar building was not the only casualty of the raging Creek on Dec. 10. The adjacent building owned by Eugene Kinerk was also declared a "total loss" although the building remained standing with a "crazy tilt" according to the Ketchikan Daily News. Kinerk told the Daily News that city officials had recommended the building be torn down.

"I had Des Moore take a look at low tide," Kinerk told the Daily News. "I don't have any plans for rebuilding. In that zone it would have to conform to code - and be a steel and concrete building."

The buildings were in a zone that required either fire-proof buildings or a sprinkler system for new construction, according to the Daily News.

The Kinerk building housed a furniture store owned by Buzz Kyllonen and an apartment occupied by Mr. and Mrs. LeRoy Boyce. The furniture store stock and the apartment were safely cleared out. Despite the "crazy tilt" the Kinerk Building stayed up until it was demolished.

The Stedman Street bridge was closed for two weeks as the dirt fill around the bridge was replaced and a new concrete slab was poured over the fill. A new 10-inch water line also had to be put in to replace the one destroyed when the Arctic Bar went into the Creek and "out to sea."

The location where the Arctic Bar and the Kinerk Building once stood next the Creek is now a viewing platform.



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