Satko's Ark

Family journeys to Juneau in 1940 on an ark

Posted: Friday, January 24, 2003

The Satko family came to Juneau not by plane or ferry, but the biblical way - by ark. The vessel, with "Ark" painted across its unusually deep hull, became a legend in Juneau and a news story across the nation in 1940. The pioneering family weathered a storm of criticism from Washington authorities who said the boat was not fit for the seven children aboard. The Satkos also rode a wave of popularity as their supporters helped them continue their journey.

By the time the family arrived in Juneau and settled in, the boat had run aground several times, the family had outrun U.S. authorities, and an eighth child had been born on the boat while it was beached.

The idea for the journey began during the Great Depression, when Paul Satko lost his 24-acre farm, his gas station and his parking lot in Richmond, Va.

About this same time, the federal government was transplanting some 200 colonists to the Matanuska Valley in Alaska. The government offered each family 40 acres of land on which to scrape out a livelihood. Takers had 30 years to repay the government. Satko heard about this and the idea appealed to him.

In 1934, he began constructing a boat. He welded a steel frame to a truck chassis, leaving the truck wheels in the rear. The front end of another truck was used to tow the boat. You might call the contraption somewhat of a prototype for the fifth-wheel RV. The rig was powered by a 1927 Buick engine, and the frame of the boat was covered by canvas to create a living space for the family. The boat measured 40 feet long and 8 feet wide.

In 1938, Satko, his pregnant wife, Mollie, their seven children and one black cat embarked on a journey across the United States with the idea of sailing from Seattle to the Matanuska Valley, joining the colonists already there.

The family stopped many times across the country to take odd jobs to pay for their expenses. Their journey took 81 days.

They settled in Tacoma, Wash., for the next year, and Satko removed the chassis from under the boat and attached 2-inch-thick fir planks to the frame of the boat. On Nov. 28, 1938, the boat was launched.

The family's journey was covered heavily by the media, which constantly referred to the contraption as the Ark, so Satko decided to name the vessel the Ark of Juneau.

Thousands of Tacoma residents turned out for the launching. The Ark had been painted a bright yellow and three tons of cement were placed in the keel to make it draw more water. On the trial run, the boat reached a speed of 8 knots.

Then, in May 1940, thousands of well-wishers watched the Ark depart from Tacoma. The next day it went aground on the shoals off Magnolia Bluff in Seattle.

Local officials prevented the family from proceeding northward because the Maritime Pilots' Association believed the ship was not seaworthy and Satko was not qualified to captain it. The welfare court removed the younger children from the ship and prevented them from reboarding until certain repairs were made.

The family's plight captured the heart of the Tacomans who resented the interference of Seattle authorities.

With locally donated material and encouragement of local residents, Satko and his 18-year-old daughter, Hazel, sailed to Everett, where some repairs were made. Mollie and the rest of the children were taken by car and boarded the Ark there. They then sailed to Anacortes. The court and the U.S. Coast Guard still had not cleared the vessel.

On May 25 family members pretended to go to bed. Instead, at midnight they cast off. Satko calculated that, with a head start, the Ark would reach Canadian waters before the faster Coast Guard boat could catch up.

They arrived safely the next day in Nainamo, British Columbia, where the Canadian authorities found their papers in order for a trip to Alaska.

Forty-one days later, after bad weather, two more groundings, problems with the 1928 Buick power plant and stops for subsistence hunting and fishing, the Satkos landed in Ketchikan.

The family's progress was followed closely by the media, including the New York Times. Movietone News filmed the Ark's arrival in Ketchikan.

There the family was given the key to the city and interviewed in a program that became Alaska's first radio broadcast to be heard nationally.

The Ark finally reached Juneau on July 26, 1940. Shortly after the family arrived, a daughter, North Sea, was born on the Ark.

The Ark was beached on Eagle Landing and the Satkos obtained a homestead between Herbert River and Eagle River. The family lived on the Ark while Satko and the older children built a cabin on their homestead. The family developed a large garden and sold produce in Juneau. The products were sold to the public and some were sold wholesale to George Brothers' Grocery Store.

However, the U.S. Department of the Interior would not give Satko a title to his homestead because he failed to file for the title within the prescribed time.

In 1946, after the war was over, Paul and Mollie, along with their children, returned to Virginia. Hazel (Mrs. Bill Brown), Joe and Grace (Mrs. Tom Connolly), remained in Juneau. The Ark became a victim of time and the weather, and only parts of the steel keel remain. Paul Satko died of a heart attack in 1957 at the age of 66. Mollie died in Washington in 1995, just a few days before her 92nd birthday. Only Joe of the original settlers remains in Juneau.

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