I heard some great Sitka stories when I moved to that mossy old former capital of Alaska and thought someone should write them down. After nearly forty years in Alaska, that someone might as well be me. The fatal flaw in oral history is the ease with which it disappears, and when a town was the capital from 1808 until 1906, there are a lot of stories to disappear.
To understand Sitka you must know it was built in 1804 on part of the site of the traditional Tlingit Indian village. The original Sitkans didn't go easily. They had erased the Russian settlement seven miles away in 1802 after enduring all the insults they could stand.
The Russians, under the famous Alexandr Baranov, returned with 850 Aleut allies in 1804, and won the next battle for Sitka itself. Then they built a town which they called New Archangel in part of the village, although the whole town was familiarly known as Sitka. The Tlingits were allowed to return to the other part in 1826 and many are still in the Ranche, as it was called until around 1965.
A number of Aleuts settled in Sitka, joined by a few from other places.
June 2, 1820, the brig I;'men' , Captain Stevens, an American working for the Russian American Company, the monolith that ran Russian America, left Sitka for Fort Ross, California. After an uneventful trip the ship stranded at Cape Barro de Arena, forty miles from the settlement. No lives were lost of the 63 aboard, and most of the cargo was saved. The passengers and crew included, along with the expected Russians, Koniags, creoles, and Aleuts, at least two black men, a Tlingit, and several American sailors besides the captain. Three Hawaiians are named, along with "Semen Kurbashov, the former Kolosh interpreterÓ who had been captured by the Spanish and now lived in Santa Barbara, where he was a doctor to the Indians and the Spaniards. It will be remembered that the ship had come directly from Sitka.
This cosmopolitan little town has somehow retained its sophistication for nearly two hundred years.
This happened although after Juneau took the capital away the town dwindled to 300 people, and then swelled to several thousand when Fort Ray was established during World War II on nearby Japonski Island.
In 1947 Fort Ray's buildings were turned over to various federal agencies.
Mt. Edgecumbe had 300 people and Sitka itself had about 2,000 residents. I had in mind to spend two years in the rainy little town before heading down to home in the West, preferably a city; perhaps Denver, a nice town.
However, Sitka had a certain raffish charm.
For someone raised in the small towns of the U. S. West and sworn to never again live in such hotbeds of hypocrisy and narrow minds, it was a shock to be told casually that it was a shame Roseanne and Marie were geting a divorce; they were both nice.
A few years before, the local children told us, a woman had chopped up her husband and dumped him in the ocean. Sadly for her, she was a Midwesterner and not familiar with the tides, so the parts washed in. A little girl found his big toe on her way to school (that was the children's favorite part). The basic story was later verified by a longtime Sitkan, although she didn't know about the big toe.
The other gruesome tale the children loved concerned the man who beat his wife to death with a pound of frozen hamburger. Well, yes, our informant said, that had caused quite a bit of talk at the time.
Sitkans seemed to have a penchant for unusual ways of death. Apparently everyone in town thought it fitting that when the laziest man in town decided to do away with himself, he hanged himself sitting down. It seemed the worthless sort liked to threaten suicide when his wife tried to get him to stop drinking and get a job, so one day tied a noose around his neck, attached the other end to a tree branch, then fell into a drunken sleep and strangled himself. The town preferred the funny side.
That attitude was contagious. When my twelve-year-old son who had been playing the trumpet (cornet actually) two years was asked to play "TapsÓ at a funeral in town, I was startled. The reason, I was told, was that it was the first day of hunting season and everybody was gone. I made a mental note to not die on August 31st.
A friend came to visit and was told the sad story of the fisherman who died at Camp Coogan, a bay close to town where an old barge stranded and so offered a good place for the local fishers to work on their boats. A local guy disappeared; he must have lost his footing and fallen into the cold water. The informant looked sad and said they really wished they knew just where he'd gone in; they could have put out a crab-pot.
Stories about the early Russian days abounded although, rather oddly, I never heard any ghost stories. There are some wonderful Tlingit ghost stories, but nothing associated with the later settlers. During the romantic period of the turn-of-the-century various Americans tried to remedy this by writing of such things as the Lady in Blue (or Black, or White - the colors varied) who haunted the now-named Baranof's Castle, the old Chief Manager's house which stood on the kekur in the heart of town. Usually she was the daughter of the governor (who wants a chief manager when you can have a governor?) who had been forced into marriage with a man she detested, so handily did herself in on her wedding night. At least once the old Biblical trick was pulled of the suitor who sent her true love off to fight and be killed so he could marry her. That had the same result.
There was one small flaw in these stories. The managers after Baranov were all young men and their children were babies or toddlers. Unless a five-year-old killed herself for love there could be no truth to the legends.
There was also a favorite Sitka story about the castle itself which took a while to sort out. The castle was torn down in 1958 and a local grocery merchant wanted to place a store on the hill. Fortunately, that was not allowed, but I knew several people who remembered the castle. Some even recalled the great old Russian furniture and paintings in the place, although no one was sure what happened to them. This is a place of dreams and illusions.
Some research showed the original building, built in 1837 and never lived in by Baranov, burned in March of 1894. No one was hurt, although a pet dog died, but the Russian furniture, if there was any left, certainly went up with the castle.
The replacement was the Department of Agriculture building, erected in 1899. There again, who would want a government office building when you could have a Russian castle?
Sasha Calvin, daughter of the famous Orthodox priest and historian and founder of what became the Alaska State Museum, grew up in Sitka. She said an old Russian with a team-and-wagon took tourists through Totem Park, the small national park near town. Travel was slow, so the town delighted in hearing the stories he invented. Sasha moved away for some years and said when she returned the stories were being repeated as the truth. Even today Lovers' Lane graces the entrance to the park.
In 1923 Warren G. Harding, the 29th President of the United States, came to Seward to drive the golden spike signifying the building of the Alaska Railroad. He was the first President to visit Alaska, so naturally the territory received him with all the pomp it could muster.
On his return trip Harding made a brief stop in Sitka. The town was thrilled and the good ladies, aided by donations from Dr. Georgeson of the Agricultural Experimental Farm, cooked and served a magnificent dinner of all the best Sitka had. Sadly, the President died of food poisoning a few days later. Actually, he had at least one more official dinner in Seattle, but it's a lovely story.
As I said, Sitka is a town of dreams and illusions.
Another nice one concerns the Hanging Tree. Apparently a newcomer to town was far too friendly with a resident's wife, so resident and friends captured him one dark night and took him and a rope to a large spruce tree on Marine Street still standing. There they told him it was locally known as the Hanging Tree, where those who fooled around with other men's wives were disposed of. The newcomer left town the next day.
In more recent times, the eruption of Mount Edgecumbe was a good local story. A group of practical jokers around town who called themselves The Dirty Dozen had a great idea. Since then one of the members has claimed credit for the idea, but Don Stromme was the most likely creator. Don was a Norwegian who marched alone, playing his Strommephone made from old plumbing parts, in a Saint Patrick's Day Parade he concocted in the Norwegian town of Petersburg, Alaska. At any rate, they waited for a sunny April 1, then hired a helicopter to set fire to a bunch of old tires they had dropped into the crater. In the snow by the tires they stamped out "April FoolÓ for the first photographer to see .
The Dirty Dozen played a rather evil joke a few years later. Jay Hammond was the governor of Alaska at the time and Bella, his wife, came over for Alaska Day on October 17. That celebrates the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States and is a major holiday in town. One of the dirty twelve, had an old car he drove in the parade. A stripper was hired to sit on top of the coupe and sway to the beat of the boom box set up in the car. As she traveled along the route she got into the spirit of the occasion (aided by a nice tip from the other pranksters) and raised her top, revealing she wore no bra. The crowd reaction was great, so she did it again, just as the car passed Bella Hammond standing on the sidewalk beside me. I was looking at the float ahead of the car so didn't know anything about it until people began coming up to Bella and apologizing on behalf of the town. Aghast, I asked Bella why she hadn't said anything, and she replied it wasn't her town; perhaps that's how Sitka celebrated.
The driver was deeply embarrassed and pointed out he wouldn't have had his young son in the car if he'd had any idea the joke would go that far.
There are many other good Sitka stories; when God set fire to the Fourth of July booth, the philanderer who was smoked out, and China Mary the merciless fisher, but this is already too long, so more later.