‘Ketchikan’ still has two buildings from the 1800sBy DAVE KIFFER
April 15, 2023
If Ketchikan has more "historic" properties than any other community in Alaska, which is the oldest building?
It depends on how you define "Ketchikan."
The answer is different if you mean the City of Ketchikan or the Ketchikan Gateway Borough. It's also different if you define "Ketchikan" as the areas of the community that are on the road system.
Ketchikan indeed has more "historic" properties than anywhere else in Alaska, primarily because Ketchikan has a very high number of buildings built in the 1910s and 1920s that are still in use.
Anything more than a century old in Alaska can rightly be called "historic." And Ketchikan has a very high per capita number of buildings that are actually on the National Register of Historic Properties.
But the question also arises over which building is actually the oldest. Ketchikan did not become an official city until 1900 and its earliest development dates from the mid 1880s, so as a community its oldest existing buildings pale in comparison to structures in Kodiak and Sitka which date from 1800.
Even the adjacent community of Saxman has at least one building that is "older" than anything in Ketchikan proper.
But to find the oldest building in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, you need to go a little farther afield. Not off Revillagigedo Island, but definitely off the road system.
The community of Loring began in the early 1880s as the location of a major cannery. In fact, it was a much larger community than Ketchikan into the early 1900s.
In fact, if it had been successful in getting the Federal Government to relocate the Mary Island Customs Station - the official entry point for all vessel traffic from the South - to Loring rather than Ketchikan, the subsequent history of both communities would have turned out differently and Loring could have developed into the primary community in Southern Southeast Alaska.
But Ketchikan won that battle and now Loring - which lost its cannery a century ago - is a collection of less than a dozen small buildings.
But one of those buildings is the answer to the question, what is the oldest building in "Ketchikan."
Although it was not the first building built in Loring, the so-called "Heckman House" was built in 1885 and still exists, making it the oldest building in Ketchikan, if you mean the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, which includes Revilla, Gravina and Duke islands, as well as a large swath of the mainland from the Canadian border northward, although not the communities of Meyers Chuck and Hyder.
The Heckman House is a three-bedroom, 1,000 square foot house that was built for one of the early cannery superintendents. Although it has been expanded over the years, parts of the building date to 1885. It is - and the one-acre property around it - is currently for sale. It is not on the national register.
Now, there are those that say that Loring is "not Ketchikan" which is true. But before we get to the oldest building in Ketchikan, we need to address Saxman, which is only two miles south of Ketchikan on the road system.
The oldest existing building in the City of Ketchikan dates from 1899, so there is at least one building in Saxman which dates from the founding of that community in 1895, the school house/town hall building along the South Tongass Highway. Up until recently, there were two buildings of a similar age in Saxman as the Chief Shakes House also dated from 1895, but the Shakes house - which had been abandoned for decades - finally succumbed to the elements in 2021.
The future of the school house was also in question recently when Saxman considered a proposal to tear it down and built a new community facility and store on its site. But that proposal was shelved when it was decided to build the store at the Saxman Seaport instead.
Which finally, brings us to the answer to the question "what is the oldest building in Ketchikan" if you simply mean the City of Ketchikan.
According to the "bible" of Ketchikan historic properties, the 1987 historic properties survey, the oldest building in Ketchikan is the Pioneer's Hall, which interestingly enough was the location of the customs house after the customs function was moved from Mary Island to Ketchikan in 1902.
The Pioneer's Hall was originally built by local promoter - and lawman - Orlando Wells "Six Shooter" Grant. (see "They Called Him Six Shooter" SITNEWS. Aug 23, 2021) Grant specifically built the building - then at the corner of Main and Mission streets - to encourage the relocation of the customs house. It was one of the first two story buildings in the new community. The building later became a meeting hall for the Arctic Brotherhood and then was transferred to Igloo 16 of the Pioneer's of Alaska in 1922, which still uses the building.
Ketchikan was rapidly expanding in 1900 and property records from that time are not precise. Also many of the buildings that were built in the downtown in those years were eventually replaced when Ketchikan went through an even larger boom as the salmon canning industry rapidly expanded in the 1920s.
But at least two downtown properties do date from 1900, the Williams house on Stedman Street and the old Fo'c'sle Bar building on Front Street. The Williams house is believed to have been the second house built on Stedman as that area, south of Ketchikan Creek, expanded to connect downtown with the new Fidalgo Island cannery that was being built just south of downtown. The building has been extensively renovated over the years.
The Fo'c'sle building was Louis Hanson's U.S. Store in 1900 and later became a bar in the mid 1930s. It is now rented out to seasonal businesses.
According to Historic Ketchikan’s 2011 Survey of Historic Properties (pdf) there are still 12 properties with the city that date from between 1900 and 1910.
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