SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


White Cliff Reopens
Building was West End School for nearly 80 years


April 10, 2009

Ketchikan, Alaska - With the reopening of the old White Cliff school as a new office building housing the Ketchikan Gateway Borough offices and other commercial tenants this month, a building that has been an important part of the community's history now has an opportunity to be an important part of its future.

jpg White Chiff Ribbon Cutting Ceremony and Open House -- March 30, 2009.

White Chiff Ribbon Cutting Ceremony and Open House -- March 30, 2009.
Michael Bayliss, Governor Sarah Palin and Ketchikan Borough Mayor Dave Kiffer dedicated the building and shared in the cutting of the ribbon.
Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Gateway Borough.

By the mid 1920s, Ketchikan was the largest city in Alaska with a population of well over 5,000.

The canned salmon industry was driving most of the post World War I growth. By the early 1930s, there were would more than a dozen canneries along the community waterfront and a dozen others in the Southern Southeast region of which Ketchikan was the economic hub.

For more than twenty years, the community had a single large school, Main School, which housed grades 1-12 on a hill on Grant Street above town. Even though the old wooden original Main School had been recently replaced by a three story concrete structure, it was clear to city leaders that another school was needed, particularly for Ketchikan's rapidly expanding West End.

At the time, there were several smaller schools around the area, including ones in Saxman and Wacker City (in Ward Cove). There was even a school operated by the territory of Alaska at Charcoal Point (near the current site of the Alaska Marine Highway Terminal). At the time, the city limits officially ended at Washington Street, and Charcoal Point was for non-city residents only.

First Classes on Oct. 17, 1927

In 1926, the City of Ketchikan purchased a two acre parcel from Louis Nadeau's White Cliff patented gold claim. Warrick construction began work on the building in the summer of 1927 and the first classes were held on Oct. 17, 1927.

With construction ongoing, only the students in grades 1-4 were in the building the first year. It was decided that all elementary aged children who lived west of Quinn Street would go to the new White Cliff School, while elementary school children on the other side of the line would stay at Main School with the junior high and high school students.

jpg White Cliff School, circa 1927

White Cliff School, circa 1927
Two people are identified as Bob Wikstrom and Tootsie Berry
Donor: R. C. Wikstrom, Photograph Courtesy Tongass Historical Society

Eventually - when Houghtaling Elementary was added in the early 1960s - White Cliff would house all the elementary students living between Quinn and Jefferson streets.

Miss Melvina MacFarlane was both the school principal and the first grade teacher in 1927-28. Initially, there were 80 students at the school, but that number had increased to more than 200 by the early 1930s.

There were two significant expansions of the three-story school building. First, in the late 1930s the wood frame addition was added to the east end. Then in the early 1950s, the three story classroom/multipurpose room wing was added to the west end.

The covered playground area was added in the 1970s.

The student population of White Cliff peaked at more than 550 students in the late 1950s, before Houghtaling was opened. But there were still approximately 330 students attending White Cliff in the mid 1990s.

It is estimated that nearly 25,000 Ketchikan children attended White Cliff during its nearly 80 years of operation as a school. Among the notable attendees was Admiral Thad Allen, the commandant of the US Coast Guard.

White Cliff was built in the Plain Early Style of public buildings that was popular on the West Coast from the 1890s to the 1920s. The style was known for its massed groups of multi-light windows, simple unadorned lines and general lack of ornament, except around entrances. During one of the later remodels, the multi-light windows were replaced with modern glazing and glass block was introduced into the front façade.

jpg White Cliff Jeep Drive

White Cliff Jeep Drive
Grades K to 6 at White Cliff School on steps behind a Jeep. The students are holding a sign that reads total sale $1954, White Cliff School, Buys 2 Jeeps. White Cliff School, which has grades 1 to 6 and kindergarten with an enrollment of 150 pupils put on a Jeep Drive in April. The second grade conducted the drive. They sang the Marine Hymn, stamp Days, ( to the tune of school days), and Let's Remember Pearl Harbor, and carried on a conversational skit about the importance of buying stamps regularly, no matter how large or small the amount. The children who sang the Marines Hymn were dressed to represent the different lands where marines are serving. Those who sang Let's Remember Pearl Harbor wore Hawaiian costumes. Patriotic music sounded through the hall during the sale. Small bells were rung to announce the purchase of stamps and a large, deep toned bell was rung with the purchase of each bond. Forty-five bonds were sold that day, six of them $100 bonds. The total sale of both bonds and stamps amounted to 1954.05, or more than double our goal. We had hopped to sell $900 worth of bonds and stamps, the price of a jeep and were truly amazed to find that our totals would buy two jeeps.
Donor: Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District,
Photograph courtesy Tongass Historical Society

City Owned Building Until 1949

The City of Ketchikan owned White Cliff until 1949 when the Independent School District was formed to administer local schools inside and outside the city limits. When White Cliff was turned over to the new school district there was a "reverter" clause in the agreement that stated that the building was to be turned back to the city when it was no longer being used for "educational purposes."

In 1964, the formation of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough led to school powers being transferred to the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District.

When White Cliff approached its 50th anniversary in 1977, it was clear that it was need of major renovations to continue to operate as a school.

For one thing, newer fire codes made it harder to operate multi-story schools, particularly for elementary students.

Also, technology was becoming a bigger factor in education and schools like White Cliff were not "wired" for the modern educational world.

jpg Children boarding bus at White Cliff School, April 1954

Children boarding bus at White Cliff School, April 1954
Photographer: Paulu T. Saari
Donor: Paulu T. Saari, Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Museums

It was also clear, by then, that the larger classrooms and open hallway spaces of the older school were much less energy efficient than modern schools.

Several studies were commissioned to determine what to do with the old school, but they simply gathered dust as the school district concentrated on moving ahead with new elementary school - Point Higgins - north of town.

After Point Higgins came on line 1987, district attention then turned to a major remodel of Ketchikan High School that turned into a $40 million project before it was completed in the early 1990s.

Finally, it was White Cliff's turn.

Fawn Mountain Replaced White Cliff

In 1997, Ketchikan voters approved $9 million in bonds to either replace or renovate White Cliff.

In 1999, a study determined that it would cost up to $15 million to renovate White Cliff and bring it up to modern standards. That same study also determined that it would cost around $9 million to build a brand new elementary school to replace White Cliff and the borough and the school district agreed that replacement was more practical than renovation.

Later in 1999, the borough made a decision to build a new elementary school on borough land in Bear Valley, but the project stalled for a variety of reasons.

Meanwhile, the school district continued to operate White Cliff but both the borough and the district began delaying maintenance, not wanting to put significant funds into a building that would soon close. White Cliff began to show its age very rapidly with numerous ceiling leaks and other problems. The third floor had to be quickly abandoned because a new fire escape would be too expensive.

Of course, "soon" turned out to be several years. Finally, in 2002, a site for the replacement school was chosen four miles south of Ketchikan and purchased. The original plan was to start construction in 2003, but it was delayed as the borough and the school district wrestled with problems arising from a $20 million remodel of Schoenbar Middle School. By now, the projected cost of the White Cliff replacement school had risen to $12 million.

By the spring of 2004, it was obvious that White Cliff could not be occupied in the fall. Fire safety codes and other issues meant that the old school could no longer house students after 87 years of operation. The students would have to be housed elsewhere until the new Fawn Mountain Elementary School was open. Students were farmed out to other schools and space was also rented from local churches for some of the classrooms.

In the fall of 2004, borough voters approved a second bond issue that brought the total amount available for the new school to $13 million. Work began on Fawn Mountain and the school opened in 2006.

When the school district vacated White Cliff in the summer of 2004, it was assumed that the property would revert to the City of Ketchikan. But it turned out that the city didn't want the property until the borough either made improvements to the building or tore it down and remediated the two acre property.

Historic Ketchikan, a local non-profit, worked with both borough and city staffs and helped broker an agreement in which the city "accept" the parcel via the reverter agreement and then turn it back over to the borough.

Then Historic Ketchikan held a series of public meetings to help determine a future use for the building.

jpg White Cliff School looking up Nadeau Street, circa 1981

White Cliff School looking up Nadeau Street, circa 1981
Doug Charles photo
Donor: Doug Charles, Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Museums

Out of those meetings came a consensus to move ahead with a proposal to creative a community center - the White Cliff Center - which would house Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council, First City Players, Ketchikan Theatre Ballet and Ketchikan Senior Services.

The four groups would work together to redevelop and then occupy the building, adding 230 person theater to the property as well.

Unfortunately, a plan to raise the sales tax 12 cent to raise $12 million of the redevelopment costs of the property failed by a 2, 345 to 1,115 margin.

Once again, community members put their heads together to come up with a plan for White Cliff. Once again, Historic Ketchikan took the lead in trying to find a use for the building.

Dawson Steps In

Eventually, a local developer - Dawson Construction - came forward with a plan to purchase the property from the borough for the $500,000 asking price and then redevelop the school building into office space, if the borough would agree to rent just about half the building for new offices.

The borough assembly - faced with a rapidly deteriorating borough office building downtown - agreed. Dawson Construction began renovating White Cliff in June of 2008 and completed the project in January of 2009 for just over $10 million.

The borough has an agreement with 1308 Properities - the Dawson company that owns the building - to make an effort to purchase the building back from the company within the next two years for approximately $9.47 million.

If the borough does purchase the renovated building, it will likely move the school district offices into the building, helping to return White Cliff to its educational roots.

On the Web:

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

Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska. He is also currently the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor.
To republish this article, the author requires a publication fee.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2009

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