Administrative History
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Chapter 2:


For a few years after the purchase of Alaska, Sitka continued to be the center for the collection of furs in Alaska. In contrast to the Russian system, more than one fur trading company operated in Alaska under the Americans. Sitka was not close to the richest fur trading areas and increasingly was bypassed by the fur traders and trading companies. Trade in furs, however, continued to be a major local economic activity at Sitka. During their heyday in the 1910s and 1920s, a few fur farms operated in Sitka and on several of the islands nearby. [90]

Among those who came to Sitka following the purchase were a number of prospectors. In 1870 gold was found at nearby Silver Bay near the town. For many years miners worked a mine in the upper Indian River valley. Ten years after the first discovery, Joe Juneau and Richard Harris were grubstaked by Sitka resident and miner George Pilz. They discovered placer gold in creeks near today's Juneau. Following that discovery, many residents of Sitka left for the booming mining towns of Juneau and Douglas. Gold mining continued in the Sitka area, however, until World War II. More than three-quarters of a million ounces of gold was recovered from Sitka area mines. Gypsum, discovered in 1902, was commercially mined in the Sitka mining district until 1923. [91]

To reach some of the mining sites, a bridge was built over the lower portion of Indian River in 1888. Funds to build the bridge were raised by subscription. I.B. Hammond built the bridge at a cost of $142.50. The last mention of the structure was a call for additional funds so that the structure could be painted. [92]

American missionaries also headed for Sitka during the 1870s. The Reverend John G. Brady and Fannie E. Kellogg, of the Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church, opened a school for Native children in 1878. Later, the school became Sitka Industrial Training School, and subsequently it was named to honor the long-time Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson. [93] The Russian Orthodox Church continued its mission at Sitka after the 1867 transfer. In 1897 Monk Anatolii Kamenskii, working at Sitka, re quested funding from the church for a school building. The Russian Bishop's House, then used as an orphanage, was too crowded and in need of repair. [94]

In a few short years, Juneau surpassed Sitka in population and economic activity. When larger mining operations started at Juneau and nearby Douglas and those boom towns became more stable communities, people began to clamor to have the capital of the district moved from Sitka to Juneau. In 1901 the decision was made to move the capital. The actual move, however, was not completed until 1906.

The loss of the government payroll impacted Sitka and between 1900 and 1910 Sitka's population declined 25 percent. As the fishing and fish processing industries grew between 1910 and 1920, the population grew by 13 percent. In 1878 the Cutter Packing Company opened one of the first two salmon canneries in Alaska at Starrigavan Bay near Sitka. Although it closed shortly after the 1879 season, several other canneries opened in the vicinity during the 1880s. A few salteries operated for several years as well. A market developed for halibut, and a cold storage plant opened at Sitka in the early 1900s. For a brief time during the 1910s a shore-based whaling station operated at nearby Sitkalidak Island. A herring fishery flourished during the 1920s and 1930s. Over the years a number of fishermen and cannery workers made Sitka their home. [95]

Sitka's other major economic activity was tourism. In 1879, John Muir made the first of five trips to Alaska. Upon his return to California, he wrote several articles about southeast Alaska. Others ventured north. Some, such as Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, wrote accounts of their trips that were subsequently published. Beginning in the 1880s, increasing numbers of people began to visit Alaska to see its scenic wonders, Native people, and evidences of its Russian heritage. All of the steamships stopped at Sitka. [96] Many Russian buildings still stood in the town. The Russian Orthodox Cathedral with its beautiful icons was a major attraction. In the 1890s the town residents restored Baranov's Castle, but the wooden structure burned in 1894. In addition to viewing the buildings, visitors could purchase Native artifacts such as baskets and wood carvings, and follow the boardwalk from the wharf through town to the 1804 battle site and Indian River. [97]

The thousands of people who headed to the Klondike gold fields in 1897 and 1898 bypassed Sitka. The community was not along the Inside Passage route that took stampeders from San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle to Dyea and Skagway. The increased attention paid to Alaska as a result of the gold discoveries in the north impacted Sitka in other ways. An agricultural station opened in 1898, and the station's chief made Sitka his head quarters. A magnetic observatory opened the same year. After Tongass National Forest was created in 1902, the U.S. Forest Service had a ranger at Sitka. When the submarine cable was completed in 1906, Sitka was connected to the rest of the world by telegraph. [98] But for the most part, after the capital moved, Sitka was a small, relatively isolated community during the early 1900s. Fishing, fish processing, and tourism were the mainstays of the local economy. Several residents wrote that the major event in town was the weekly arrival of the mail boat. Beginning in the 1920s, a few float planes brought visitors and a little freight to town. The population was around 1,200 people.

In 1913 Sitka was selected by the first Territorial Legislature as the location for the first Pioneers' Home for indigent prospectors who had spent many years in Alaska. In 1934 a large, second building was added. Southeast Alaska Natives organized the Alaska Native Brotherhood at Sitka in 1912. The group formed to fight for citizenship rights and equal treatment. Camps soon organized in other Southeast Alaskan communities, and a companion group, the Alaska Native Sisterhood, also formed. By 1920 Sitka had become a small, stable community that changed little until World War II. About 1904 the Sitka Wharf and Power Company tapped Indian River for a water-distribution system that served the center of town. A water-wagon, filled at Indian River, served outlying areas. As late as 1940 the U.S. Marshal had the people in jail run the water wagon to Indian River. After the five- gallon cans were filled they were delivered to residents for $5.00 a week. Around 1942 and 1943 additional water lines were constructed to serve more parts of the town. [99]

Just before World War II started, the U.S. Government began a military build-up that included establishing bases in Alaska. The old naval reservation on Japonski Island was selected for a U.S. Navy seaplane base. From there, PBY airplanes could patrol the North Pacific. An army base opened at Sitka to guard the naval station. In addition, a radio "beam" station was constructed on Biorka Island, and gun emplacements were installed on Harbor Peak and on several islands in Sitka Sound. The military personnel and construction crews brought new life to Sitka.

Naval Air Station
Naval Air Station, Sitka on Japonski Island, 1944.
(Photo courtesy of Alaska Historical Library)

After the war ended, the bases closed. The government transferred their buildings to the U.S. Department of the Interiors' Alaska Native Service for use as a medical and education facility. The hospital was one of the main centers for treatment of tuberculosis during the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was transferred to the U.S. Public Health Service in 1955. In 1948, the Bureau of Indian Affairs opened a secondary-level boarding school, Mt. Edgecumbe High School, at the site. It served Native children from throughout Alaska. In 1985 the State of Alaska took over operation of the school. Sheldon Jackson Industrial Training School evolved into a college offering two and four year programs. After statehood in 1959, the State of Alaska opened a Public Safety Academy at Sitka, and a few years later the University of Alaska started a community college there. Sitka became a regional education center.

Several sawmills operated at Sitka throughout the 1900s. Lumber from Sitka had been important in building the gold rush boom towns of Dyea and Skagway. Some lumbering occurred over the years. After World War II, there was increased interest in leasing areas on Baranof Island for logging. A Japanese-owned pulp mill at the mouth of Silver Bay began operating in 1959. Sitka's population increased by 63 percent as approximately 500 people found work at the mill. In 1977, the Coast Guard established an air station on Japonski Island, in part to enforce the new 200-mile offshore fishing limit. [100]

The tourism industry flourished in the post-World War II era as more people learned about Alaska. Until the mid-1950s steamship companies offered passenger service and organized tours, particularly through southeast Alaska. As it had been before the war, Sitka was a favorite tourist stop. The national monument, availability of Native arts and crafts, and remaining structures from the Russian period, most particularly St. Michael's Cathedral, attracted people. In January 1966, the wooden cathedral burned. Fortunately, measured drawings of the structure had been prepared by the U.S. Forest Service and completed by the National Park Service in 1962. Sitka residents spearheaded an effort to reconstruct the cathedral on its original site, which by the 1960s was in the center of downtown Sitka. For the Alaska Purchase Centennial in 1967, the State of Alaska improved a commemorative park atop Castle Hill with can non, interpretive markers, and flagstaffs. That same year, the city opened its community Centennial Building and the Sitka Historical Society started a museum there. The Visitor Center at Sitka National Monument, built in 1965, further enhanced tourism. The federal Board of Indian Arts and Crafts had started a program at Sitka in 1962 and its Native artists moved to the new center. About the same time the Sitka Summer Music Festival began. During the 1960s transportation improvements brought more visitors to Sitka. The State of Alaska began its Marine Highway system in 1963. In 1967, jet air service to Sitka from Anchorage and Seattle started. In 1972 the national monument was redesignated a national historical park and its mission expanded to interpret the Russian experience in Alaska. The Russian Bishop's House was added to the park. There had been 150 buildings in Sitka in 1867. When the house was added to the park, it was one of only four buildings surviving from 1867.

The 1980 census gave the population of Sitka as 7,803. Ten percent of the people are Alaska Natives. [101]

End of Chapter 2

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Last Updated: 04-Nov-2000