We are at the center of the world

Posted: Friday, May 28, 2004

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

As I walked along the dock in the late evening sun on a Monday night, I saw the massive ships positioning to leave the port of Juneau. The ships were the Oosterdam, the Radiance of the Seas and the Diamond Princess.

What makes it such a pleasure for me to live in Juneau and Southeast Alaska is that some of the major activities are represented here.

Alaska history has reflected this many times. From about 1785 to 1810 we were one of the centers of commerce. Some 10 to 15 Boston ships traded along the coast of British Columbia and Alaska to buy sea otter fur to take to Canton to trade for teas and other Chinese products to bring home to America.

In the early decades of the 1900s the largest low-grade producer of gold was located in Juneau - the Alaska-Juneau gold mine.

On Douglas Island was the Treadwell mines. At its peak capacity in 1915 there were 960 stamps that crushed 5,000 tons of rock a day, which was a world record then. Approximately 2,000 men worked eight-hour shifts, seven days a week with only Christmas and the Fourth of July off.

When I was in the fish business in the 1960s through the '80s, you sometimes had the feeling that it was a small world and that you knew all the other important fish traders in the United States and other markets. It is still so today. We are the home of wild salmon, and men in the business are selling in this country, in Europe, Russia and Japan.

For me the activity is inspiring. I think I would have reveled in the early mining days and the boisterous noise of the miners on South Franklin Street, or in the craft of the Boston traders in their sailing ships, or in the rambunctious good-hearted spirit of all the fishermen, just as today it is often a pleasure to know and talk with people who come from the four corners of the globe in great ships.

As Capt. Cook said in 1778 when he visited, "They know it to be a great land." He was of course speaking of its size as it was appraised by the few Russian and Aleut people who knew that beyond Unalaska there was a large continent.

But for us his description speaks of the spirit as well as the practical and mundane.

One of the best pedestrian walkways is in Juneau. If you haven't tried it, you are really missing something. It is the wharf from marine park to the tram. What a view of all the waterfront activity, including cruise ships, fishing boats, float planes, tall mountains on Douglas Island and the blue water with ducks, sea gulls and ravens flying over the waves. It takes only 455 long steps to go from one end to the other.

About 40 or 50 years ago I had a newspaper delivery boy who delivered the Empire to 734 Gold Belt. I talked with him one day, and he excitedly told me he was going home. I asked him where. I don't remember his exact answer, but it was somewhere in the far Bering Sea, just a speck of land, maybe St. Paul or St. George or Little Diomede or one of the larger islands, such as St. Lawrence or Nunivak.

In his joyous anticipation of his long trip and safe arrival I marveled with him in his knowledge that home was the center of the world.

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

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