Historical Vignettes of Sitka National Historical Park
Sylvan Twilight: Artists' Views of the Park
SITKA in the late nineteenth century has been
described as Alaska's Cultural Capital. Centuries of overlapping
historical paths had crossed there, leaving behind a wealth of imagery
depicting the town and its surroundings, including the park. From
sketches in a miner's journal to a romantic poem in a local newspaper,
these images form a collective and often sentimental view of the early
Up until the middle of the nineteenth century the
European style art being produced in Alaska was documentary art,
primarily illustrations produced by scientists, explorers and military
men engaged in the exploration of new territory. Many of these recorded
their impressions of early Sitka. 
Figure 32: This 1869 watercolor of Sitka illustrated Special Indian
Agent Vincent Colyer's report to the Secretary of the Interior. The
image documents the historical landscape. Along with the early fall
colors of the surrounding mountains, Colyer clearly shows the
characteristic yellow paint and red roof color scheme preserved today by
the National Park Service restoration of the Russian Bishop's House.
By the turn of the century, however, Sitka was part
of a "Golden Age" in Alaskan art. With its core of resident amateur
artists and visiting professional artists, the town was known to have a
surprisingly healthy art market for its size. One source estimates that
more than 1,000, and perhaps as many as 2,000, paintings were produced
in Sitka between 1867 and the turn of the century. 
Figure 33: This watercolor preserves Colyer's impressions of the Indian
village. It shows the traditional plank houses before they were replaced
by houses with European style doors and windows. Canoes line the beach.
Landscapes were a common subject. A number of Sitka's
natural and architectural features are well documented, especially
Castle Hill, St. Michael's Cathedral, Native villages (at Sitka and
surrounding areas), islands, and mountains including Mt. Edgecumbe.
Though the park was one of Sitka's most scenic and accessible
landscapes, known paintings and sketches that focus on the park are
scarce. Most often, the park shoreline appears as a shadowy peninsula in
the background of drawings and paintings depicting other features.
A good example is an image recorded in 1898 by George
Ogrissek, a prospector who recorded his travels through southeast Alaska
in a journal and a series of detailed and precisely labeled pencil
drawings. While in Sitka, Ogrissek sketched a view of the Presbyterian
mission buildings from the top of Castle Hill. The shoreline of the park
appears in the distance. The sketch also presents a mystery, an
angular-roofed structure that appears to be located in the park. One
possibility is that the structure was related to Native subsistence.
Sources have indicated that the Kiksadi seasonally occupied fish camps
along the park shoreline. 
Figure 34: Looking toward the park, George Ogrissek sketched the
Presbyterian Mission buildings from Castle Hill in 1898. Along with the
park shoreline, he also records the mission's long dock that once
extended into the harbor.
A RARE TREAT WAS ENJOYED BY THE RESIDENTS OF OUR
LITTLE VILLAGE ON A RECENT AFTERNOON; IT WAS A PRIVATE EXHIBITION OF
WATER COLORS GIVEN BY MR. T.J. RICHARDSON OF MINNEAPOLIS, AT THE BEAUTIFUL
HOME OF REVEREND AND MRS. BRIGGS, WHERE A PARTY OF INVITED GUESTS WERE
PERMITTED ?? VIEW ONE OF THE FINEST COLLECTIONS EVER MADE OF ORIGINAL
SKETCHES OF ALASKA SCENERY, ABOUT THIRTY IN NUMBER. MR. RICHARDSON
PLACED EACH UPON AN EASEL, EXPLAINING THE LOCATION, ETC, IN THE CLEAREST
AND MOST AGREEABLE WAY. THE SKETCHES ARE EXQUISITE PRODUCTIONS, ONE OF
THE GREATEST CHARMS BEING THEIR FIDELTY TO NATURE, AND THE FACT THAT
THEY WERE TAKEN ON THE SPOT HIS REPRODUCTION OF THE BEAUTIFUL MOUNTAINS,
WHICH IN MOST CASES ARE ABRUPT AND STRIKING, TAKEN UNDER MANY DIFFERENT
CIRCUMSTANCES OF FOG, EVENING HAZE AND DAYLIGHT ETC, ARE THE ADMIRATION
AND DELIGHT OF THE BEHOLDER. THE DAINTY COLORING IS ALMOST TO BE FELT
AS SEEN, AND THE ATMOSPHERIC EFFECT IS ABSOLUTELY PERFECT.
THE ALASKAN, MARCH 14,1891
Perhaps Sitka's most popular visiting professional
artist was Theodore J. Richardson of Minneapolis, reportedly the first
painter to work in Alaska solely for the purpose of making art.  Between 1884 and 1914, Richardson made regular
trips to Alaska and produced numerous watercolors. The newspaper The
Alaskan makes frequent mention of Richardson's visits to Sitka,
including a trip in which he taught an art class. Richardson was
primarily a landscape painter but Native artifacts and culture were also
favorite images. An 1895 Richardson painting titled "Old Kasaan"
portrays some of the houses and totem poles of Old Kasaan, one of the
source villages for the totem poles that would eventually be displayed
at the park. Richardson also provided paintings for the Alaska exhibit
at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, including one titled "Way to Indian
Figure 35: Old Kasaan by T.J. Richardson, 1895.
Richardson also played a role in encouraging one of
Canada's favorite turn-of-the-century artists, Emily Carr. In 1907 Carr,
along with her sister Alice, took a summer trip to Alaska and stopped in
Sitka. Born and raised in Victoria, Carr was familiar with Pacific
Northwest Native culture but she found the setting of park's totem poles
extremely interesting. The experience became the inspiration for a major
part of her life's work, a goal to record the totem poles and villages
of British Columbia. While in Sitka, Carr met Richardson and showed him
some of her sketches. She wrote about the meeting in a journal
We moved to Sitka and there I met an artist from
New York. He had set up a studio and was painting pretty little bits
which he expected to sell in New York. He had done a few bits of things
in the Indian Village and the totem poles. Quite pretty but not Indian
at all, I felt I could do better and made several which I showed him, he
said "had I done those I would be proud." 
This description of Carr's meeting with Richardson is
particularly significant, as it seems to confirm that he produced at
least one painting of the park's totem poles. Emily Carr worked on her
Native village paintings for 20 years. Today, they are appreciated not
only for their dramatic style, but also for their contribution to the
historical record. 
Figure 36: "Totem Walk at Sitka" by Emily Carr, 1907.
Figure 37: "Indian Creek" by James Stuart, 1891.
Another talented landscape artist who was well known
in Sitka was James Everett Stuart, a San Francisco artist who visited
Sitka in 1891 and 1907. Like Richardson, Stuart was primarily a
landscape painter. In 1891 he painted Indian River surrounded by lush
dark green forest. The painting would be hard to identify as Indian
River if it were not for Stuart's trademark of providing detailed
information including location on the back of most of his paintings. 
LAST SATURDAY AFTERNOON BY INVITATION FROM MR. J.
C STUART [SIC], THE VISITING ARTIST OF NEW YORK CITY THE LADIES
OF SITKA GENERALLY VISITED HIS STUDIO IN THE WEITTENHILLER BUILDING FOR
THE PURPOSE OF VIEWING SUCH PICTURES AS MR. STUART BROUGHT WITH HIM AND
HAS FINISHED DURING HIS STAY AMONG US. THE APARTMENTS OCCUPIED BY MR.
STUART WERE VERY TASTEFULLY ARRANGED FOR AN EXHIBIT OF OIL AND WATER
COLORS. THE WALLS BEING COVERED WITH DRAPERY AGAINST WHICH THE PICTURES
WERE HUNG, VERY EFFECTIVELY TAKE IT FOR ALL IN ALL THE EXHIBITION WAS AN
EXCELLENT ONE AND VERY CREDITABLE TO THE ARTIST.
THE ALASKAN, JUNE 27, 1891
The town of Sitka and its valued landmarks and
historical park continue to inspire contemporary artists. Byron Birdsall
comments on his 1988 interpretation of the Russian Bishop's house.
"Painting this modest dwelling of an 18th century
Russian Bishop was a challenge. I knew how to paint it, but was unsure
how to make it interesting. Its very simplicity was the problem. The
setting provided the solution--the spectacular beauty of the surrounding
countryside, New Archangel. I also hoped to convey the dedication of
those early missionaries who lived in this humble home as they brought
the message of Christ to Southeast Alaska."
Once badly weathered, the Bishop's house has been
restored by the National Park Service and is now designated a National
Figure 38: Russian Bishop's house by Byron Birdsall. Image provided
through the courtesy of Byron Birdsall, and Artique Ltd., Publisher.
Copyright Byron Birdsall, 1988.
Works Progress Administration (WPA) funding in the
late 1930s was responsible for at least one artist's view of the park.
Organized by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Ernest Gruening,
Director of Territories and Island Possessions, the Alaska Art Project
used WPA funds to bring artists to Alaska to produce paintings that
would document and promote the Territory. At least two of the project's
artists visited Sitka in 1937 and produced paintings: Arthur T. Kerrick
of Minnesota and project supervisor Antonio Mattei of New York.
When the project concluded many of the paintings
found their way to Mount McKinley National Park, where a collection of
original art decorated the rooms and public areas of the government
hotel. At least four Alaska Art Project paintings of Sitka were on
display in the hotel in 1972, including a large unsigned painting of
totem poles in Sitka, almost certainly the park, attributed to Kerrick.
In September of that year a dramatic fire destroyed the hotel and most
of the art collection, including the Sitka paintings. Since Alaska Art
Project paintings are scattered in private and public collections,
future research may bring other Sitka images to light. 
Late nineteenth century photographers also
contributed to the lasting record of Sitka's park. The work of
well-recognized Alaskan photographers like W. H. Partridge, Edward
deGroff, the team of Lloyd V. Winter and Edwin P. Pond, and Horace H.
Draper was marketed commercially in a variety of formats.
Figure 39: This E. W. Merrill photograph shows members of Sitka's
Russian Orthodox congregation gathered in front of the entrance to the
Russian Bishop's house around 1909. The group is posed with a model of
St. Michael's Cathedral that was built for a Smithsonian exhibition.
Edward deGroff had already been involved in various
commercial ventures when he settled in Sitka in 1886 and began his
photographic business. Although he billed himself as "Alaska's Pioneer
Landscape Photographer", deGroff did not develop or print his own
images. The glass plates were sent to the Partridge Company in Portland.
Popular deGroff images included several views of the Indian River, its
bridges and the road to the river, available as 18" x 22" enlargements,
colored and framed to order, mailed anywhere in the United States for
four dollars. 
The photographer most closely associated with the
park is E.W. Merrill, legendary Sitka art photographer. The park's first
official custodian, Merrill worked with his friend Governor John G.
Brady to install the park's historic totem pole collection along the
trails. The fact that the park was a favorite subject is shown by the
number of Merrill photos that either feature the park or use it as a
background for other subjects, such as commercial portraits. Today
Merrill photographs are as important for the historical information they
preserve as they are for their artistic composition. 
In addition to photographers who were best known in
Alaska, some of the West's most famous photographers turned their lenses
on the park as well. Although they visited the park at different times,
brothers Edward and Asahel Curtis both photographed there. Edward
Sheriff Curtis, the better known of the two brothers, accompanied the
famous Harriman Expedition of 1899 as a photographer. Some credit the
Harriman trip with launching Curtis as the nation's most famous recorder
of Native American culture.
Figure 40: Merrill with his dog on the beach near Indian River. Alaska
State Library PCA 57-236. Merrill Photo.
Figure 41: E. W. Merrill's "In the Park." A group of students from the
nearby Sheldon Jackson School visit the park around 1920. Sheldon
Jackson students and staff were regular park visitors.
Years later, Asahel Curtis visited the park as part
of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce's "Alaska Bureau," a special division
of the chamber devoted to promoting Alaska for tourism and commerce.
Travelling on the steamer Jefferson with a list of notable
passengers, the group stopped in Sitka for a typical whirlwind tour that
included a stop at the park. Curtis photographed members of the
excursion posing in front of the Saanaheit pole and house posts.
Figure 42: Asahel Curtis photographed members of an Alaska Bureau
excursion during their visit to the park in 1913. In this photograph the
canoe that was once part of this scene (Figure 19) has completely
Another well-known photographer to document Sitka's
park was Amos Berg, a regular contributor to National Geographic
in the 1930s and 40s. Berg visited Sitka while researching an article on
the Inside Passage. Nancy Yaw Davis, who grew up on the Sheldon Jackson
campus, remembers the park and the blockhouse replica as a favorite
place. Shown here with her younger brother and Berg's dog "King", Davis
remembers the excitement of having Berg in town.
Figure 43: The replica blockhouse in the 1940s.
Figure 44: St Michael's Cathedral by Ansel Adams.
Even landscape photographer Ansel Adams recorded his
view of the park. While travelling in Alaska on a Guggenheim scholarship
in 1947 and 1948, Adams's flight briefly stopped over in Sitka. He
recorded the event with photographs of the downtown area, including
fishing boats in the harbor and St. Michael's cathedral. He also
accompanied acting Custodian Grant Pearson through the park. As with all
VIPs, Pearson's monthly report noted the photographer's presence in the
park "with the purpose of taking pictures" and also commented that the
cloudy weather was not the best for picture taking. Possibly the most
interesting thing about Adams's walk through the park was his selection
of subject matter; the one picture of the park shows a turbid Indian
River overhung with typical vegetation. He apparently did not take a
single picture of the park's trails or the totem poles that have
intrigued so many other visitors.
Figure 45: The Indian River by Ansel Adams.
Figure 46: Sitka Harbor by Ansel Adams.
Sitka had an active poetry scene a century ago.  Local poems were regularly featured in the
newspaper and readings, like musical performances, were popular
entertainment often reported in the social news. A surprising number of
early poems describe the park, indicating that residents and visitors
were inspired by the park on a personal level.
Works analyzing poetry often evaluate poems for their
relevance to historical events and social issues, but these early
home-grown poems have a consistently non-political, local focus. In
another sense, the poems are typical of romantic poetry that flourished
everywhere in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Nature
was a symbol of beauty, honesty, and purity, and romantic poetry was the
accepted voice for those sentiments.
Most of the published poems about the park touch on
its legendary romantic qualities. Although it is not clear who coined
the name "Lovers' Lane", the image of the park as a place for lovers was
an established theme by the 1880s. As visitors wrote about Sitka, they
passed on the romantic qualities of the park, and successive generations
of tourists adopted the idea before ever seeing the river or the walking
along the park's trails. The acceptance of this image was so widespread
that poets often used the river as a metaphor for romance:
. . .And we wandered toward the river
While loves arrows made me shiver
As they came from Cupid's quiver
When her dear eyes looked in mine . . . .
. . .We heard the river singing,
And within our souls upspringing
Came fancies which were bringing
A love I thought divine. . . . 
Nineteenth century historical sources include a
substantial amount of poetry. One measure of Sitka's interest in poetry
at this time is the fact that one of the first books written and printed
there was a volume of poetry. Poems on Alaska: The Land of the
Midnight Sun was published in 1891. 
Most of the poems in the book were written by Henry Haydon, a U.S. Court
Clerk and ex-officio Secretary of Alaska. Haydon's poems turned up
regularly in the newspaper The Alaskan, sometime signed only as
"H". Haydon's poem "Sylvan Twilight" portrays classic nineteenth-century
romantic ideals and is perhaps the best example of romantic poetry about
the park. His strong feelings are particularly significant. About the
time he wrote this poem, he was one of the land commissioners who
recommended that the park be set aside as a federal reserve.
"Sylvan Twilight by Indian River:
An Evening Scene in the Summer of 1890"
By H.L.H. [Henry Haydon] 
A snow white moth from the dim green woods
Flew out and lit on her nut brown hair;
The clover blooms kissed her tiny feet,
And the fire-flies followed her everywhere.
She was the Queen of the dying day,
And I was the King of the dusky night,
And I would hold her close always
With my cold bronze face on her shoulder white.
She threw a kiss to the sinking sun
And he blushed in a flush of golden glow
And his shining lances one by one
Fell harmless into the River's flow;
And the shadows changed to a silvery gray
With the light of stars and the young new moon;
And my beautiful Queen of the dying day
Said "Sweet! The nightingale sings too soon.
"A Ludicrous Episode
(witnessed by an Alaskan reporter at Indian River during the week)"
By O.I.C., 1890 
The day was fine for strolling
As no doubt two lovers thought,
As they pursued their way to Indian River
To hold a term of court.
They sat down on a rustic seat
You all know where it is!
He looked at her, she looked at him,
They settled down to biz.
He looked around to be quite sure
That they were all alone,
Then he took her in his arms and said
"My dear, my love, my own."
He kissed her lips, her hair, her cheek,
He kissed her on the jaw,
Such kissing and caressing
The like I never saw.
For an hour or more, I think it was,
He held her to his breast,
While she who is as badly gone as he,
Returned each soft caress.
The mosquitoes drooped their heads in shame
At such a sight to see,
While a bullfrog fell fainting from the bridge
And quickly drowned was he.
Now boys and girls take my advice
When spooning you do go,
On the banks of the Indian River
In the summer's sunset glow
Look out for the Alaskan reporter!
"An Indian River Episode"
Author unknown, 1889 
He-How beautiful and poetic
are some of the old Indian words!
Minehaha, for instance, and Alabama!
She-Why yes, and Kissimee.
Which he did, if he was any good.
Another variation on the romantic theme of nature
relates to purity and spirituality. Several poems about the park express
the feeling that its trails provide an opportunity to experience
solitude and beauty that allow people to feel closer to God. D.A. Noonan
was a chief steward with the Pacific Coast Steamship Company. He
included a poem about the park in a book of poetry on Alaska.
"Lovers' Lane at Sitka"
By D. A. Noonan, 1923 
There's a little lane at Sitka winds deep into the wood,
And oftentimes I've trod it in blithe and lightsome mood.
Cedar boughs festoon it, and, hidden in the shade,
Great salmon-berries ripen beneath shielding leaves of jade.
Invitingly it beckons like phantoms in a dream,
And leads across a rustic bridge that spans a silver stream.
Gaunt against the blue sky the spruce grow straight and tall,
Tho where the trees are thickest you can see no sky at all.
Then there comes a clearing where the lane climbs up the hill,
With glimpses of the glistening bay, placid deep and still,
A green spot to rest oneself in the freshness of the sod,
There to contemplate the goodness and the boundless gifts of God!
A little lane of happiness, vast would be the throng
To journey North to Sitka-town could they hear its song.
For never better lane was made where lovers may stroll in tune,
Whether in winter starlight or under silken skies of dune.
Grimly the heathen totems gaze toward the trackless sea,
And like life, their carved figures still an unplumbed mystery.
Tiny whitish lichens peep from under brake and bark,
Where this lane meanders narrowly through Indian River Park
Past thickets of broad devil's-club and lacy ferns and tare,
Past a rancher's cozy cabin and a sweep of ocean glare,
Past a dearly sheltered hallowed spot where some brave sailors lie,
It is such a solitude I want when it comes my turn to die.
This little lane goes winding into the reaches of my heart,
Just as it winds into the wood where weird shadows flit and dart
On days when I am far away I long to come again
To ramble along this peaceful path in heaven-like domain.
And I know when I am old and gray and waiting for Death's nod,
I'll pray it may be along this lane that I'll walk to meet my God!
This much later poem, written during the summer of
1942, expresses some of the same feeling. It is interesting that the
author refers to "the sound of swashing gravel." The definitely
unromantic sound of the military's intensive mining of gravel from
Indian River would have been going round the clock in 1942.
"Just a Memory from Sitka's Lover's Lane
By Captain Olaf Hansen, 1942 
In the silence of the forest
where the nimble Fairies dwell
And the hushing natures voices
do their mystic stories tell;
Where the sun through swaying branches
paints its beauty spots below,
And the pretty woodland flowers
glitter golden in its glow;
What a place for meditation!
just a poets perfect dream.
Can you blame me if I linger
by your peaceful purling stream?
In the shadow of your TOTEMS
on your famous LOVERS LANE
Where the spirits of those Chieftains
seem to come to life again.
While the sound of swashing gravel
on your fragrant briney shore
Mingling with the gentle murmur
from the ocean's roar
Lifts my soul above its trials
far from this delightful spot,
To Celestial heights of glory
in the Kingdom of my God.
There's a coal black raven talking
over there from yonder tree,
I'm the only one around here
so it must be meant for me;
"Look," he says, "I do no sowing,
neither do I have to reap,
For my Heavenly Father feeds me
and he watches o'er my sleep;
What a fool you must be making
of yourself with all your care
When He'll bear your burdens for you
if you ask him in your prayer."
In the silence of that forest
with your Lover's Lane so near
If your heart is sad and weary,
come and rest a moment here;
Breathe your deepest longing freely
to the only Prince of Peace
You will find Him waiting for you
right among those gnarled trees
Feel His gentle pleading whisper
echo deep within your breast:
"Come to me with all your sorrow
I will give you peace and rest."
At least one poem was written to memorialize the log
blockhouse that was a part of the park's landscape between 1926 and
1959. Although the blockhouse was a misplaced replica, not an authentic
Russian American structure, it was an extremely popular feature for many
years, especially for the local children who played there.
"Lines to a Blockhouse"
By Genevieve Mayberry, 1966 
Silent and gray beside a jade green sea you stand,
a lonely sentinel upon a far flung strand.
Shadowed by stately totems at the forest's rim,
You keep your age old vigil by the ocean's brim.
Welcoming weary travelers at the long trail's end,
Guarding fabled lovers by Indian River's bend.
Bright silvered sentinel beside a northern sea,
Do you remember kolosh warriors bold and free,
And hear across the years deep throated pushkas roar,
Or savage war cries echo on the rock bound shore?
Do you await returning of that vanquished host
In sweep of swift bidarka down the otter coast?
Rain lashed, windswept and scourged by wild pacific gales,
Your adze-hewn walls hold fast to those near forgotten tales
Of mystic splendor and a tragic lover's quest
Within rude castle walls on yonder keekor's crest.
Ravaged, sun-purged and chastened by bleak winter's rime,
Steadfast you stand hallowed by memory and time.
"No lover of nature can be long in Sitka without
falling in love with Indian River" reports a January 1925 article in the
Verstovian that goes on to relate a popular local legend that
"Whoso drinketh of my waters will return to drink again". At least two
poems relate this legend; the first was published in The Alaskan
in 1899. The second is by Emma-Lindsay Squier, who visited Sitka in
"The Legend of Indian River"
1899, author unknown 
'Tis a quiet little river
Running eastward to the sea;
Every leaf upon its borders
Speaks of some sweet memory.
Winding thro the shady forest,
Sparkling, clear, and icy cold,
The same today as in the distant days of old.
When the Thlinket lived unnoted,
Ere the Russian trader came
With his beads and tawdry baubles,
For the priceless furs and game.
As before the savage hunter
Bear and fox fast disappear,
So in time each sign shall vanish
Which the Thlingit hand may rear.
There shall linger but a legend
By the river's grassy brink,
Which will reach the hearts of passers,
Who may stop and stoop to drink.
Bending to the running river,
They shall catch its sad refrain:
"Ye who drink once from my waters
Shall return to drink again."
Figure 47: The Indian River, circa 1890.
"The Song of Indian River"
By Emma-Lindsay Squier
The Verstovian, January 1925 
Drink of my water and you will come back to me,
For the land of the north will be calling and calling.
The pale spirit lights will leap up in the sky,
Their white dancing fingers will beckon you northward.
Drink of my waters and you will come back to me,
Back to the forest that man has not trod,
Back to the high mountains heavy with snow crowns,
Back to the bay and the green-dotting islands.
The voice of the Raven will call you to come again,
The hoarse croaking voice of the robber-god Yealht.
And the great eagle resting on high wings outspread
Techalk calls you back again, king of the birds.
Drink of my waters and you will come back to me,
Back to the mists and the soft rains a-falling,
Back to the glory of cloud-covered mountains,
Back to the wonder of moonlight and shadows.
Drink of me deeply, for thus I would bind you,
Each clear crystal drop as a chain that will hold you.
The chain will stretch far to the rim of the earth,
But it will pull back again, bringing you with it.
Drink of me! That is the song I am singing,
Put your lips down for the kiss of enchantment.
I give you myself, ah, gladly, so gladly,
But I will keep part of you held here for ransom.
Your heart I will keep in the wilds of the northland,
I will make it a prisoner, in memory's cage.
You may have it, ah, freely, if you will return to me,
But when you come back, you will bide with your heart
You will bide with your heart, and the northland and me.
So drink of my waters, and you will come back again.
Last Updated: 20-Feb-2012