Writings of Juneau past

Posted: Sunday, March 13, 2011

The towns of Juneau and Douglas contain a treasure of interesting history.

While investigating the towns’ early period between 1890 and 1910, I came across several diaries and books written by people who either lived in these towns or passed through on their way to more northern adventures. Some records display a perspective of life in those early years that is not normally seen in this century; others point out what people still see in Douglas and Juneau and what still draws visitors back year after year.

Tidal town

In a book written in 1979 by Trevor M. Davis, “Looking Back on Juneau the First Hundred Years,” I found some interesting descriptions of downtown Juneau during the years between 1884 and 1895:

By 1885 quite a few houses were built along the shore as well as several buildings. C.W. Young constructed the ACE Hardware store about 1884, on pilings, with a gangplank going down to the beach.

Huge icebergs, the size of a house, would drift up Gastineau Channel from Taku Glacier and lodge against the docks. They had to be towed away in case a storm would rise and smash the wharf.

The present upper Front Street sidewalk is the old high tide beach line, while the street itself has the curve of the old beach. Around 1895 the walk was of wood and at high tide the waves splashed over it.

The lower side of Front and South Franklin Streets was only beach during the 1880s and 1890s. Mr. Reuben Goldstein, father of Belle Goldstein Simpson, owned a mercantile store where the present Filipino Community Building stands. He had a warehouse across the beach on pilings. When the tide was in, he could not get to his warehouse, so he devised a bridge across to the place to solve his problem. At the time 4x12 planks became available, Front Street was planked on pilings as far down as Georges Gift Shop.

The Silent City

On August 25, 1900, Elizabeth Robins was traveling by steamer from Skagway to Seattle. In her book, “The Alaska-Klondike Diary of Elizabeth Robins,” she wrote the following:

(I) wakened about 8:00 am to see the Steamer Cutch on the rocks tipped up half of her high and dry. Throwing overboard bales of hay, etc. — “They’ll never get her off,” say the Topeka onlookers. We stop awhile and then steam by. I have a cold and feel languid. We reach Douglas Island (Juneau opposite) about 10:30. I am introduced to Mr. Corbus, manager of the Treadwell Mines. He puts me in the care of Mr. Cristo, a young Californian, three years at Douglas Island and very thoroughly informed. “Biggest stamp mills in the world.” — altogether 880 stamps. I was in the two largest mills and all through one of 240 stamps, one 300. They have many properties and employ just here in Douglas 800 men.

On shore at Juneau, a beautiful little town built on terraces up and up the mountain side for some distance, the great body of the mass towering high over all.

At Winter and Pond’s Curiosity Shop we see faint pictures of a mirage, the Silent City, said to have been photographed by one “Professor” Willoughby, an old timer, trader, miner, etc., from the very early days.

It was later found that the “Silent City” picture was a fake. The picture was actually taken of a city in Scotland and because of a thin fog that made it look quite ghostly, it was passed off as a mirage of possibly a future Alaskan city. Many people were fooled until the city was recognized.

Juneau’s first tourists

In 1903, May Kellogg Sullivan wrote a wonderful book called “A Woman Who Went to Alaska.” She wrote the following:

On the voyage to Skagway there was little seasickness among the passengers, as we kept to the Inland Passage among the islands. At a short distance away we viewed the great Treadwell gold mines on Douglas Island, and peered out through a veil of mist and rain at Juneau under the hills. Here we left a few of our best and most pleasant passengers, and watched old Indian women drive sharp bargains in curios, beaded moccasins, bags, etc., with tourists who were impervious to the great rain drops which are here always falling as easily from the clouds as leaves from a maple tree in October.

Who would have thought that our tourist industry had such old roots?

The Inside Passage had the positive benefit of smoother sailing, but the negative benefit of unmarked rocks, reefs, islands and strong tidal currents waiting for the careless ship captain. Many ships lay sunken throughout the Inland Passage. If you visit the Thane Ore House, on one of the walls you will find a picture showing over 50 places in and around the Gastineau Channel where ships have sunk. Even today, with all our high technology, ships continue to go aground.

Culture of early days

On Oct. 19, 1888, Ellen Calhoun published a poem in the Juneau City Mining Record called “Drifting.” I believe the quality of the poem and the statement it makes shows a high level of education that may be surprising to some, considering that at the time it was composed, Juneau was only seven years old and the lion’s share of the population was made up of miners and their families.

Drifting along with the current strong,

Questioning not, be it right or wrong,

Asking not to what does this tend —

Where are we going and to what end?

Brothers and sisters drifting away,

Husbands from families parted to-day.

Dearest of friends are drifting apart,

No longer together in mind or in heart;

Sympathies once true and firm for the right,

Turn with the popular current for might.

If you would rank in the world’s estimation

As a popular man, what’er be your station,

Throw away friendship, honor, and trust;

Trample them under your feet in the dust,

Think not of justice, integrity, truth —

Precepts your mother taught you in youth —

All these are valueless, troublesome things,

Sometimes the conscience is roused by their stings —

Now join with the crowd that is surging wide

And you’ll find you are on the popular side.

A poem like this makes me wonder how different we really are from those who lived here a century ago. Perhaps the problems of past and present are more similar than we think.

• Jack Marshall is a 32-year Alaska resident who has been in Juneau for 26 years. His parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were pioneers of Oregon and Washington, leaving Alaska for him to discover.

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