SitNews - Stories In The News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Pioneers of Southeast Alaska

I. G. "Gus" Pruell
By Louise Brinck Harrington


September 02, 2006

Ketchikan, Alaska - Today when you walk around Ketchikan you see jewelry stores galore, rows and rows of them. But think about this: back in early 1900s there was only one.

I.G. Pruell from
Illustrated Annual,
The Mining Journal,
January 1907, Vol. 7 no. 5.
Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Museums

It was owned and operated by Gus Pruell.

When I. G. "Gus" Pruell arrived in Ketchikan in 1900, he did a little prospecting and then went to work for Tongass Trading Company. While at Tongass he continued to prospect and also worked at a gold mine south of town.

With a dream of one day opening a local jewelry store, he needed to stock up on gold nuggets and whatever other gems he could find.

When he arrived in the First City on March 1, 1900, Pruell later told the Ketchikan Daily News, "There was a big black rock with a tree on top on what is now Front Street, near the corner of the present Ingersoll Hotel.

"Next to the rock was a blacksmith shop where John Durkin sharpened tools for miners. In those early days Ketchikan was mostly mud streets and shack buildings."

In 1904 he bought property at 520 Main Street and built a home. (The house is still there, now owned by the Thorsen family.)

In 1913 Pruell made two major changes in his life. He married Laura Y. Young, whom he met at the Miners and Merchants Bank where she worked and he did business.

And the same year he fulfilled his longtime dream. With the help of his friend and partner, Bert Berthelsen, Pruell bought a curio and jewelry store known as Kirmse's, a going-concern that occupied space in the Stedman Hotel building.

Kirmse's had originally started in Skagway and in 1911 expanded to Ketchikan. But within a year Mr. Kirmse met a sudden death in an accident on Ketchikan's downtown dock. His widow decided to sell the shop in the First City and return to Skagway.

jpg Ketchikan ca. 1899

Ketchikan ca. 1899
Forms part of: Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress).
Gift; Mrs. W. Chapin Huntington; 1951.
Photograph courtesy Library of Congress

Purchase of the store turned into a perfect opportunity for Pruell and his partner.

Even in the early 1900s steamships of tourists visited Ketchikan. With money in their pockets, sightseers wandered around town, took note of Berthelsen & Pruell's gold nugget jewelry and snatched it up like candy!

In addition to nuggets, the store sold "Indian Jewelry and Souvenir Spoons. We have the genuine Indian Silver bracelets and spoons made by Mr. Mather, a Metlakatla Indian who was with Father Duncan when he first brought his Indians to Alaska," according to an advertising brochure.

They also sold watches (and did watch repair), ivory, diamonds and other jewels.

In 1920 Pruell bought out his partner Berthelson and changed the name of the business to "Pruell's Jewelry & Gift Shop" He moved to an old wooden structure on the corner of Front and Mission Streets known as the Revilla Hotel.

jpg Revilla Hotel

Revilla Hotel [between ca. 1900 and ca. 1924]
Forms part of: Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress).
Photograph courtesy Library of Congress

Unfortunately on March 29, 1924 a fire started in the boiler room of the old hotel building. The blaze spread rapidly, engulfed the entire structure and threatened neighboring buildings.

At the time of the fire Pruell was out of town. When he returned he found nothing but a pile of rubble where his store had been. It was said that Pruell lost more than any other business in the building, since his inventory included gold nugget jewelry, the dies to make it, and other costly items and equipment.

But, determined man that he was, Pruell did not give up.

He set up a display case in the Ryus Drug building on the other side of Front Street from the old burned-out Revilla. From behind his glass counter he operated as best he could and watched as a three-story concrete building went up in place of the rubble.

As soon as the new building, the Ingersoll Hotel, was completed in October of 1924, Pruell signed a lease and moved back in. His new address was 206 Front Street.

jpg Ketchikan's waterfront

Ketchikan's Waterfront [between ca. 1900 and ca. 1924]
Forms part of: Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress).
Gift; Mrs. W. Chapin Huntington; 1951.
Photograph courtesy Library of Congress

A brochure from the time shows a drawing of a rising sun, a snow-topped peak, tall evergreen trees and a totem pole. It reads "Alaska the Wonderland, presented by Pruell's Gift Shop."

During this period in addition to jewelry Pruell's sold "both plate and sterling silverware, Pickard hand-painted Chinaware and Hawks cut glass," according to the Ketchikan Alaska Chronicle.

Pruell remained for years in the new Ingersoll building, established himself as a well-known business man, kept track of goings-on around town, and wasn't shy about sharing his opinions.

"In the early days," he recounted to a newspaper reporter, "there were the same old pessimists who said Ketchikan would remain a mud hole, but others proved by their work and enterprise they thought differently." He added that what a person needed for success in this town was "a strong back, brains, and an abiding faith in the same virtues that made the United States a great nation."

jpg Ketchikan fire crew

Fire Crew with equipment , circa 1905
(Gus Pruell back of hose cart) Photographer: Harriet E. Hunt
Donor: Bertha Hunt Wells, Tongass Historical Society
Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Museums

When asked if he would retire someday to the Lower 48, his reply was "Don't know a thing about any such idea!"

But in the early 1950s Pruell's health began to fail. In 1955 he agreed to go to Seattle for medical treatment. There he passed away on January 24th.

His body was returned to Ketchikan for funeral services and burial.

In 1960 local business man and florist Tom Sawyer bought Pruell's business.

So when you walk around town these days and find yourself frustrated with the rows of jewelry stores, think about Gus Pruell and the time when there was only one - Pruell's Jewelry & Gifts.




Hall, June. Alaska Souvenir Spoons & the Early Curio Trade, Gastineau Channel Historical Society, Juneau, Alaska: 2004.

Ketchikan Alaska Chronicle, Ketchikan, Alaska, January 24, 1925.

Ketchikan Alaska Chronicle, Ketchikan, Alaska, March 30, 1945.

Ketchikan Alaska Chronicle, Ketchikan, Alaska, January 26, 1955.

Ketchikan Daily News, Ketchikan, Alaska, September 18, 1959.

Roppel, Patricia. "Where Can I Buy One of These?" Farwest Research, Wrangell, Alaska: 1999.

Louise Brinck Harrington is an author and
freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
All rights reserved ©2006

Post a Comment
-------View Comments
Submit an Opinion - Letter

Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska