The town timber left

Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2008

Wrangell Mayor Bob Prunella remembers a time when his town prospered, all because of timber.

He moved to town in 1958, and saw it grow from 1,100 people and one small sawmill to 2,600 people and two mills in 1990.

That time ended when the Alaska Pulp Corp. mill closed in 1994. Wrangell has never recovered, Prunella said. A thousand people left town, mostly between then and 2,000.

Ken Davidson built his life on timber in Wrangell. He was a supervisor at the mill and in November last year, one of the last to be laid off, after a year of cutbacks on shifts and people.

One of the many effects of the timber downturn is that Wrangell has a number of places to get your hair cut these days. Davidson and several other timber men took federal relief money for education and went to barber college, though not all stayed in Wrangell.

Davidson cuts hair sometimes from a barber's chair in his house. His wife works three jobs. They are considering moving to Juneau.

"My family are here, my children are here," he said. "But you're torn. You can't keep biting the bullet and praying the mill's going to start back up."

The whole town is down, according to Prunella.

"Mental depression follows economic depression," he said. "We're losing all our youth. There's nothing here for them to do."

The mayor is not banking on the mill reopening.

"Several outfits keep saying they're going to buy it, but they never do," he said.

He said Wrangell is orienting more toward fishing and tourism. It built a new museum and a conference center, and is rebuilding its main street to be tourist-friendly.

He said he is hopeful.

"What do we have?" Prunella asked. "We have water, and we have trees, and we have some really good people that are left."

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