Steamer Day: Early Tourism in Sitka
NEAR the end of the nineteenth century, many well to do Americans had the urge to travel. They had many destinations to chose from. Some of the more adventurous traveled by train to west-coast ports and booked passage on a steamer to see and experience the newest exotic locale: Alaska. The trip took about a week as the steamer wound along the "Inside Passage," stopping at towns and points of interest on the way. Sitka was the last Alaskan port of call, following a stop at the Muir Glacier (Glacier Bay), the northern turnaround point for virtually all of the voyages.
Nature writer and Alaska lover John Muir summed up the attraction of a trip through the Inside Passage:
In this respect, early excursionists were seeking the same image as today's Alaskan visitor: a wild frontier, unspoiled nature, the "real" Alaska.
In the decades between the 1867 purchase of Alaska and the mid-1880s, most travel to Alaska was government or commerce related. Mainstream America knew little about Alaska and if a traveler had wanted to come north, transportation options were limited. After a trickle of adventurers opened the door in the 1880s the popularity of an Alaska trip rose dramatically, jumping from 1,650 visitors in 1884 to just over 5,000 by 1890.  One factor in the increase was the continued expansion of the national rail system that made Alaska much more accessible:
Another factor was a growing public awareness that there was more to Alaska than ice and snow. A longstanding information void was slowly being filled by a diverse collection of recognized experts with first hand knowledge. Perhaps the most influential of these was Sheldon Jackson.
From his first trip to Alaska in 1877 virtually to the end of his life, Jackson was engaged in writing and lecturing about Alaska and its needs in order to gain support for his Presbyterian mission there. Jackson's message reached a broad audience, and many who heard him had the resources to travel to Alaska. Jackson himself even organized one of the earliest group tours of the Inside Passage in 1884, escorting a group of eastern teachers northward following a meeting of the National Education Association in Madison, Wisconsin. 
Another influential Alaskan promoter was nature writer and preservationist John Muir, who made his first Alaska trip in 1879. An immensely popular figure with a wide audience, Muir used vivid imagery to describe the wild beauty of Alaska and encourage tourists to make the trip. In an 1891 steamship brochure, Muir urged that "everybody able to breathe" should make the trip: "Go to Alaska, go and see." 
Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore was another early Alaska visitor whose impressions inspired many to head north. A wealthy and adventurous traveler, Scidmore was a noted geographer, photographer, author and the first woman to serve on the Board of Managers of The National Geographic Society. Scidmore visited Alaska in 1883 and 1884 and wrote a series of articles on her experiences. These articles, repackaged as the book Alaska, its Southern Coast and the Sitkan Archipelago, became one of the region's most popular early tourist guides. 
Described as perhaps "the last grand expedition of the nineteenth century," the privately funded expedition of railroad tycoon E.H. Harriman in 1899 brought particularly long-lasting national attention to Alaska. In a combination luxury cruise and loosely defined scientific venture, Harriman invited notable scientists, artists and writers aboard the steamer George W Elder for a trip from Seattle to Siberia and back again. Along for the journey were photographer Edward S. Curtis, popular nature writers John Muir and John Burroughs, scientists C. Hart Merriman, and William Healey Dall, among others. The family component of the expedition, including Mrs. E.H. Harriman and the five Harriman children, showed the world that women and children as well as hardy pioneers could enjoy rugged Alaska. 
Another way mainstream America learned about Alaska was by visiting exhibits at major expositions. Turn of the century expositions with significant Alaska exhibits included the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893), the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis (1904), the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland (1905) and the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle (1909). Both the St. Louis and Portland exhibits benefited from display of the famous totem poles that would eventually find permanent homes at Sitka's Indian River Park.
As the Alaska tourist industry caught on, so did advertising and more focused promotion. Seattle business leaders were quick to recognize the economic potential of the Alaska travel market. The Seattle Chamber of Commerce, established in 1882, was an early advocate for transportation improvements, especially where they strengthened the Seattle-Alaska connection. The Chamber's Alaska Bureau, a special committee devoted to Alaska issues, organized well-publicized excursions to Alaska, bringing prominent business and government leaders northward to take a look for themselves.  The first Alaska Bureau trip, in 1913, included a special representative of President Woodrow Wilson, several newspaper editors, and Bureau members and guests. Noted northwest photographer Asahel Curtis, brother to Edward S. Curtis, was along to record the trip.
After departing one of the major American west-coast ports, a typical Inside Passage tour would proceed through British Columbia, perhaps stopping at Victoria or Nanaimo. Once in Alaskan waters, the steamers would stop at Wrangell, Juneau, Glacier Bay and eventually, Sitka. As a population center and a seat of government, a stop at Sitka was expected. But it was a popular stop because it offered a variety of attractions.
The phrase "Steamer Day" was universally understood by all residents. With the signal that a ship was due into port, many townspeople responded by going down to the wharf to be part of the action. A crowd often gathered at the wharf to celebrate the ship's arrival. Native curio sellers were also in place, ready to tempt new arrivals with their displays of artifacts and handmade items.
Local businesses welcomed the income from the visitor industry but residents also relished the arrival of merchandise, mail and new faces in town. Sitkans were ardent promoters of their town and seemed pleased to share it. Unlike the choreographed motor tour provided most cruise ship tourists today, early excursionists roamed the town on foot, almost as temporary residents. Visitors were invited to participate in the best that Sitka had to offer.
Leaving the wharf, visitors often strolled down the main street amid the remaining Russian buildings, including the Russian church with its icons and artifacts. Many tourists also chose to walk through the Native village or "Ranche":
Following the road away from town, visitors passed the Russian Orphanage (known today as the Russian Bishop's House) before coming to another popular attraction: the Presbyterian mission, including Sheldon Jackson's famous museum. A detour from the main walk led to one of the United States Department of Agriculture's first experimental stations in Alaska, boasting exotic fruits like apricots and hybrid berries. At the end of the road was the park with its newly installed collection of totem poles from southeast villages. All surrounded by beautiful scenery, breathtaking sunsets and pure, clean water and air.
The well-informed visitor relied on guidebooks to introduce the ports of call and describe the sights worth seeing. These ranged from the accounts of published travel writers like Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, Septima Collis, and Abby Johnson Woodman, to locally produced sources of information.  One of the more elaborate local guides was a step-by-step walking tour prepared by the Presbyterian Mission's physician B.K. Wilbur. It was published in the town newspaper, The Alaskan, and also in the mission newspaper, The North Star. The Alaskan also printed its own Tourist's Guide to Sitka. 
Residents capitalized on the tourist trade in a number of ways. The Alaskan published special tourist editions  and even the regular editions, which included the ship's passenger list, were a popular memento. The mission openly welcomed visitors, some of whom undoubtedly became donors and supporters.
Transporting tourists was another source of opportunity. The Presbyterian Mission had one early tourist wagon but entrepreneur Charles Haley may have been the first to use the park to market his service. In 1901, Haley began offering a tour to the park in a converted freight wagon. By 1902 he had added a sign advertising "To the Indian River Park and Totem Poles." Although it would be another four years before the full collection of poles would be installed at the park, the Saanaheit totem pole and house posts, the beginning of the park's association with totem poles, were already on display at the clearing known today as the Fort Site.
Whether park visitors arrived by wagon or on foot, the essence of its attraction was simple. Residents and visitors alike enjoyed the area's scenic beauty and welcomed the opportunity for a walk, some quiet reflection, and perhaps a picnic along a wooded path. This was especially true when the path was relatively level and dry in a region otherwise characterized by mountains, muskeg and tangled forest.
The walk taken by tourists in 1890 was longer than that afforded by the boundaries of the present-day park, often including the upper reaches of the river. Visitors could walk in a loop, taking in the lower river and trails, the Indian River Falls, and the Military Cemetery before returning to town. Boundaries became more focused on the lower river, trails, and totem pole collection with Monument status in 1910. 
Through the years, residents as well as visitors commented on the park's romantic mystique. Some of this may be attributed to the romantic views of nature that were common themes in Victorian times. Others have suggested that the park's association with romance resulted from fact that its secluded paths and rustic benches simply provided a place for couples to meet in private. Regardless, the romantic reputation spread and the park eventually became known as "Lovers' Lane." Histories and guidebooks perpetuated both the name and the association.
Even before it was designated a monument, certain areas within the park were notably popular. The series of bridges that crossed the river over the years were favorite features. So was the far end of the peninsula, known as "the point."
By the 1920s, the historical values of the park had become more apparent to visitors. After the first totem pole was introduced to the park in 1902, the poles began to vie with the natural setting for the tourists' attention. Tourists (then as now) found the poles to be an irresistible backdrop for a photograph. A 1929 newspaper article allows that the park has some beautiful forests, but describes the principal attractions as the totem poles and the historical events surrounding the Battle of 1804. 
Early visitors to the park have left a rich record of their impressions of the park in personal journals, books and magazine articles. Consistently these convey a sense of the turn of the century appreciation of nature and the benefits of a quiet walk along a river, a forest path or the seashore. These are the values that made the park a source of pride and enjoyment for residents as well as visitors, and ultimately led to its establishment as a public park.
Last Updated: 20-Feb-2012