Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Ketchikan -- Rugged Individualists Welcome

"The best things in life aren't things."  Art Buchwald

It was a bucket list trip, and Alaska met all of our expectations – grandscale and
rugged, not pretentious.  

Russia sold Alaska because it needed money.  In 1867 the United States agreed to purchase Alaska for $7,200,000.   At the time the transaction was called “Seward’s Folly” referring to Secretary of State William Seward.  There were other terms reflecting the skepticism of Congress for this purchase including “Seward’s Ice Box”, “Walrussia” and “Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden.”

What was the attraction then and now?  Gold, transportation, military, tourism. The purchase in 1867 stopped Russian trade and further exploration in Alaska.  Then the US pretty much ignored the “Land of the Midnight Sun”.  Late in the 19th century  attention focused on Alaska as the gold rush captured the hearts and imaginations of Americans seeking a better life.  At the turn of the century the Alaska Railroad drove the economy.  During WWII Alaska was established as a strategic part of America’s defenses.  Today the “Great Land” is a strong tourist attraction drawing people to its vast beauty and unspoiled nature.

Ketchikan is the key city of Revillagigedo Island, which is the size of Connecticut,  part of the Alexander Archipelago, and the 12th largest island in the US located in the southeastern region of Alaska.

So, you’re one of the folks looking to explore America’s last frontier.  Who were the people who were so closely linked to its history and destiny?

William Seward was a Republican career politician who served as Secretary of State under Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.  Carl Schurz was quoted as saying Seward was “one of those spirits who sometimes will go ahead of public opinion instead of tamely following its footprints.”  Seward considered the purchase of Alaska to be his greatest achievement.

 To celebrate the US acquisition of Alaska, first Nation people of Ketchikan invited Secretary of State Seward to a potlatch.  A potlatch was held when a huge celebration was in order.  It was a great honor to be selected to host a potlatch which went on for days.  However, as the host family, you were expected to provide all the food, drink and accommodations for all the guests.   Guests would give careful thought as to a suitable gift for the hosting family.  Apparently, the Secretary of State did not thoroughly research the First Nation potlatch customs, and he attended the wonderful celebration hosted by the Tinglits empty handed, which was a major affront.

Today in the Saxman Village of Ketchikan you can view the totem of shame carved as a result of William Seward’s faux pas.  Totems are carved from red cedar.  This totem has no adornment at all except a small likeness of Seward at the top with his nose and ears painted red representing stinginess.  

Ketchikan's economy is based upon tourism and fishing.

Ketchikan is named after Ketchikan Creek, which flows through the town, which is a great walking town.   Aside from the typical tourist haunts found in historic buildings in Ketchikan, there is a house at #24 Creek Street formerly owned and operated by a rather well-to-do property owner and lady of negotiable affections named Dolly Arthur.  Dolly is quoted “I realized I could make a lot more money from the attentions of men than I could waiting tables.”  Dolly operated her house as a sole proprietor from 1919 to 1950’s when government closed up houses of prostitution.  Dolly was 72 at the time.

The seed of individualism was set in the gold rush days and has been consistently nurtured to date.  Although tourism has grown exponentially, a visit to Alaska is truly a step into America's last frontier.  You may come away inspired to reach for the depths of your soul.