Buildings shed light on frontier history

Posted: Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Albert Shaw asked me to write a story about old buildings on South Franklin Street in the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

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To begin, I asked him about those around 233 South Franklin, where my son owns an art gallery. Right across from the Decker Building was California Grocery and Connors Motors. Where the Red Dog is today was Sweeney's Corner Bar.

Across the street was the Brunswick Bowling Alley, which later became the Dreamland, a wild, late-night party place. On the corner where the garage begins was Winter & Pond, the famous Alaska photographers. Close by was the Columbia Lumber retail yard, and on the dock was the Alaska Steamship warehouse, with an apartment above it.

Izzy Goldstein, Juneau's mayor, had a grocery and fishing supply business where the Filipino Community Hall is located.

Up the street, the George brothers, Joe, Gus and Tom, had a grocery store. Today it is still called George's, owned by Graham Roundtree. Next to George Brothers, Albert White had a department store. White was a well-known Alaska politician, who served as an aide to Sen. Borah of Idaho, an FBI agent before J. Edgar Hoover, and a U.S. marshal for the Southeast. White was als general counsel to the Republican Party from 1936 to 1956, the same years my dad was the chairman.

Just up Ferry Way where SERRC, Alaska's Educational Resource Center, sits was the Ferry Way Rooms, a house of prostitution.

Much has been written about the frontier West, when it emerged from the era of the solitary explorer and fur trapper, and when the frantic search for gold began at the same time cowboys were driving vast herds of cattle north to market. Towns sprang up to flourish and flicker in a heartbeat.

Pick up a novel about that time, or watch a TV dramatization. There the cowboy rides again, the miner searches and discovers a glint of gold in a mountain stream, and both carouse at the "Last Chance" saloon where beside them sits a girl.

Alaska was part of this great Western migration, as mighty surges of men came north to the Cassiar, Juneau, Dawson, Nome, Fairbanks and all the rivers large and small in the Interior.

Often there is an awful flaw in some historical research. Some assume that just because prostitution existed, it was pervasive and common.

I was recently reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln by historian Doris Kearns Goodman called Team of Rivals. I was enjoying it thoroughly until I read a sentence that so shocked me I couldn't go on:

"Before his marriage Lincoln almost certainly found outlets for his sexual urges among the prostitutes who were readily available on the frontier."

This is a terribly fallacious statement, belied by the experience of people who lived on the frontier, including myself, whose interests did not include visiting what often was a poor dwelling and seeing a frail woman at the door.

Prostitution was forbidden by the Territorial Legislature. In Chapter 104 of the Session Laws of 1955 it states, "It is unlawful within the Territory of Alaska to engage in prostitution."

A chapter in the history of the "Last Frontier" had come to an end.

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

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