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Knowing South Franklin, Front streets

History shows that roads were at high tide level, buildings on pilings

Posted: Friday, March 17, 2006

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

I want to write a series of stories about our waterfront, in particular of some of the people who have lived and worked there over the last 126 years and of people who are neighbors today.

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Let's focus on a narrow band of territory, the high tide mark on what has become South Franklin and Front Streets. Sometimes a lot of life and experience can be encapsulated in a small spot of Earth.

South Franklin and Front are where the tide passed along the forested shore. Maybe at one time there was a footpath for the generations of Tlingit people who dwelt nearby for hundreds, perhaps even for thousands of years.

You know that South Franklin and Front were at the high tide level because most of the buildings on the right facing up the street from the present tram are on solid foundations of dirt and rock, and at one time all the buildings on the left were built on pilings and some still are.

You can recognize this when you view the vacant lot where the fire burned down Tom Huntington's building a year or so ago, just across from Juneau Drug. Notice how deep the hole is. This is not because someone dug a deep foundation. It is because the tide once rolled in and the site was covered with sturdy log pilings.

Robert N. DeArmond, a famous historian presently living in Sitka, has written a lot about early Juneau. Two of his best known books are "Some Names Around Juneau" and "Old Gold: A Collection of Historical Vignettes."

Here's what he says about this spot:

"One of the first men to build on the tidelands was Charles W. Young ... at Front and Seward." The building became known as Ace Hardware.

The first gold miners explored along Gold Creek in October, 1880. In December, 1880, when John Olds and his companions traveled by dugout canoe from Sitka they landed about where McDonalds is today.

Olds said "we landed our canoe at the foot of present Seward Street ... it commenced blowing and snowing and we could not keep a fire going nor could we keep our tent up."

Franklin Street is named for Howard Franklin who was a member of a three-man committee to lay out new city streets elected by a miner's meeting on Feb. 10, 1881. The portion of South Franklin was not created until 1895 since till then a house blocked access to the waterfront.

From DeArmond's account, "South Franklin was known simply as the waterfront and later as lower Front Street. It was sometimes called Johnson Boulevard perhaps from the fact that Yosh-Noosh, a Taku chief who was known as Chief Johnson, built a large house on it near the spot where Mike Tripp is constructing a new building.

What a fascinating history South Franklin and Front have.

It is a story of preachers and prostitutes, fishermen and fish buyers, fish-house workers and gold miners, bar owners and tourist operators, transportation companies on the sea and in the air, men and women down on their luck and some who have just hit it rich.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.



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