WHEN DID KETCHIKAN BECOME THE RAINFALL CAPITAL?
National magazine article extolled First City Rain in 1947
By DAVE KIFFER
August 17, 2017
For generations, the community has styled itself as the salmon capital of the world, based mostly on the two dozen salmon canneries that dominated the local landscape from the 1920s to the 1940s.
In the mid 1920s, Ketchikan made headlines across the nation when officials – including Alaska’s territorial representative to Congress – called Ketchikan “wicked” and a “violent pest hole” among other things.
In the 2000s, it became famous as the home of the “Bridge to Nowhere,” a not good sign of government spending.
Through it at all, Ketchikan has been one of the rainiest places in the United States and today, it is the unofficial “capital” of the rainforest that is the Tongass National Forest, part of the largest remaining temperate rainforest in the world.
But at what point, did Ketchikan’s rain become a national “story?”
Perhaps it was November 1 of 1947, nearly seventy years ago.
It was then the Saturday Evening Post, one of America’s largest circulation magazines ran a story called “It Always Rains in Ketchikan.”
At its peak, The Saturday Evening Post – now primarily remembered for many iconic Norman Rockwell covers - was read by more than 30 million people each week, nearly one third of the United States population at the time. When those readers opened the November 1st issue that year, it was hard to escape the conclusion that Ketchikan was one of the rainiest places in the country, if not the world.
The article itself was written by a well-known journalist and soon to be politician, who himself knew a bit about the rain. Richard Neuberger was born and raised in Portland, Oregon and had been a national correspondent for the New York Times. He would later go on to be a Congressman and U.S. Senator from Oregon.
“The next time you complain about the rain, think of the people here In Ketchikan, who inhabit the rainiest sector of North America,” Neuberger began his report, noting that Ketchikan’s most recent 151 inches of rain in 1946 was nearly four times more than New York and six times more than San Francisco. “When you consider St. Louis, with 36 inches of rain, must occasionally cancel ball games, imagine the difficulties confronting Ketchikan’s City Baseball League. Once, in order to make up postponed games, they scheduled a triple header. It was rained out.”
After noting that places elsewhere in the world got more rain than Ketchikan, he reported that they got it in short duration monsoons which were much different that Ketchikan’s “constant drizzle” and that even August in Ketchikan was wetter than Denver year-round.
“Out of last year’s 365 days, Ketchikan had 33 clear ones,” He continued. “This is why Alaskans, instead of joking about the fellow who tried to sell iceboxes to Eskimos, speak of a salesman peddling suntan lotions in Ketchikan.”
Neuberger notes that the residents are surprisingly sanguine about the rain, appreciating the runoff in the creeks that support the salmon industry and the fact that the population has grown steadily over the past several decades.
As support for his thesis, he quotes Ketchikan Chronicle publisher William “Bill” Baker.
“If a newcomer stays a week, he’s stay forever,” Baker told Neuberger. “He accepts the rain and never gives it another thought. Putting on my raincoat is now as much second nature as lacing my shoes.”
Neuberger also notes that the federal weather observer Joseph Strachila once worked in Nevada and prefers Ketchikan’s wetter climate.
“Ketchikan’s Chamber of Commerce boasts of its rain, contends that it makes possible the 80-pound salmon, unlimited pulp timber, and Alaska’s lowest hydroelectric rates.”
That carries over into the lifestyle of the wettest place in North America, Neuberger notes
“Ketchikan’s people pride themselves on their rain accessories, their galoshes, rubbers, slickers, baby-buggy shields and oil skins,” he wrote. “On Easter Sunday, the housewives parade new millinery – under umbrellas. Local stylists claim that they sell more bonnets per capita than are sold in cities which are practically bone dry. The girls swim in abbreviated bathing suits, discarding rain capes and gumboots at the water’s edge.”
He notes that the Ketchikan weather has other benefits, including no zero-degree days or 90-degree days, no thunder and lightning.
He says that local hunters like the rain because is suppresses the smell and the noise of hunters in the woods.
“And R.W. Carr the public health surgeon, declares that the people are healthier in the rain than when an unexpected dry spell encourages colds and sore throats. As the city is built on the steep foothills of Deer and Doe mountains, no water collects in stagnant ponds.
Neuberger did find one dissenting voice about Ketchikan’s weather.
“The closest one ever hears to a complaint came from a boy on his way home from White Cliff School: ‘I’ll be glad when summer comes and the rain ain’t so cold.’ “
Some things haven’t changed in the past 70 years.
Two years after Neuberger’s visit Ketchikan rainfall “broke” the town’s rain gauge, topping out at a still unbeaten 201 inches. In the years since it has occasionally topped 190 and there have been a handful of drought years in which barely 100 inches was recorded.
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Dave Kiffer ©2017
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