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Regional History
Southeast Alaska
1900-1922 Some Needs Are Met

In this section you will learn about:

  • National forest issues
  • Large-scale mining at Juneau and Douglas
  • Fisheries conservation issues
  • Shipping problems
  • Native political organization

Drive for navigation aids succeeds

Thousands of people came north during the gold rush. The Inside Passage was protected from the stormy North Pacific by barrier islands, but reefs and rocks were hidden along the way. At the height of the stampede, a ship was wrecked or ran aground almost every day.

In 1898 the single warning light for sailors in all of Alaska was at Sitka. Elsewhere only 57 buoys and 25 unlighted beacons marked submerged reefs and rocks along thousands of miles of Alaska's coasts. Mariners' charts did not show many hazards.

Lighthouse Keepers

In the days before automated lights, no one was more important to coastal sailors than the lighthouse keeper. The first lights were fueled with kerosene. The wicks had to be kept trimmed, the lamps filled, and the brass and copper polished daily. Besides maintaining the lights, the lighthouse keepers kept watch during storms and heavy seas. They went to the rescue when ships were driven onto the rocks or shoals.

A keeper's life was a lonely one. Usually they worked in crews of two or three. At the more isolated stations, keepers and assistants worked for three years to earn one year of leave with pay away from their remote posts. In 1939 the Coast Guard merged with the Lighthouse Service and assumed operation of the lighthouses in Alaska. More liberal leave programs were established for light-tenders, but boredom remained a hazard of the job. To cope, keepers turned to hobbies and books. On Lincoln Rock, one keeper made detailed records of the nesting habits of the black oyster-catcher. At Eldred Rock, mountain goats provided sport and exercise" during the fall season. Other keepers befriended wild foxes or studied the habits of sea lions.

One of the most important lighthouses in Southeast Alaska was Cape Spencer, at the upper end of Cross Sound. Ships moved past the barren rock cliffs off the cape, out of the protected waters of the Inside Passage and into the stormy Gulf of Alaska. They frequently had to wait out storms at Cape Spencer before beginning the voyage across the Gulf.

A small unmanned acetylene beacon was placed on Cape Spencer in 1913, but members of the Lighthouse Service and ship captains demanded a better warning system. Congress finally appropriated funds to build a staffed station in 1923. Construction was a lengthy and difficult process. Equipment and materials had to be landed on rocks that were battered by surf, and bad weather delayed the work.

The station was finally lighted on December 11, 1925. Hovering a full 90 feet above the water off the point of the cape, the lighthouse was described as "a place one prefers to hear about and not to visit." Six months later, the first radio-beacon in Alaska, with a range of 200 miles, went into operation at Cape Spencer. The lighthouse was automated in 1974--one of the last in Alaska to have the keepers removed.

Chambers of Commerce in Southeast Alaska communities, steamship companies, and fishermen joined Governor John Brady to request lighthouses for Alaska. In 1900 Congress appropriated $100,000 to build light stations at Five Fingers and Sentinel islands on the Inside Passage. Two years later construction of several more lights began.

Halibut fishery opens

Petersburg was the center of Alaska's first major halibut fishery. In 1896, Peter Buschmann homesteaded along Wrangell Narrows. The site proved ideal as a halibut shipping point. Halibut were abundant. Nearby LeConte Glacier provided ice for packing the catch.

In 1899 Buschmann's company, the Icy Straits Packing Company, built a wharf, warehouse, store, bunkhouses, and a small sawmill. The town was named Petersburg after Buschmann. The salmon cannery began operation in 1900. The halibut fishery kept people employed during the winter months. This gave the community year-round economic stability which most cannery sites lacked.

National forest causes controversy

Ketchikan, a salmon cannery in 1887 and: later mining center for the area, was headquarters for Tongass National Forest which was created in 1907 and combined with the 1902 Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve in 1908.

The national forest caused controversy in Southeast Alaska. Miners, fishers, loggers, and Indians populated it. All had an interest in the forest and the way it would be managed.

On one hand, the national forest designation meant restrictions on the use of some 6.8 million acres of Southeast Alaska. Miners and cannery owners feared their operations would be limited. On the other hand, the national forest meant federal timber sales. Most lumbering in the Tongass National Forest was carried out by handloggers. They cut trees growing close to the shoreline and skidded them into the water. There the trees were fastened into rafts, towed to mills, and sold.

Southeast Alaska timber was best suited for the manufacture of pulp. Pulp mills require large amounts of water, which was plentiful in Southeast Alaska, but cost a great deal to build. Shipping costs were high, logging was difficult, and Douglas fit from Puget Sound was more popular than Alaska spruce. The timber industry, increasingly important to Southeast Alaska did not have the economic impact of mining.

Handlogging in the Tongass

In the early days of logging in Alaska, the work was slow and dangerous. The timber cruiser had the job of estimating the number of board feet in a given tree. This was done by measuring the tree with calipers four-and-a-half feet above the ground. In the Tongass National Forest, the thick undergrowth of skunk cabbage, huckleberry brush, and devil's club made finding the ground as difficult as taking the measurement. One forester reported that a timber cruiser had to know "how to fall easily on his face in the mud when slipping from a log with only a devil's club to grab." The tallier had to be able to "jump from rotten log to mossy rock with eyes glued to notebook and, without hesitation or oaths, tally the numbers as they come, even while hysterical, cold and wet and full of devil's club thorns when noseeums are exploring the tonsils."

The handloggers who harvested the timber worked under the same difficult conditions. According to hand-logger W . H . Jackson, the hardest part of the job was simply getting the tools to the tree. "Packing a load of falling tools up a steep, slippery hillside over boulders and fallen trees, through thickets of brush and devil's club, around bluffs and precipices, is exhausting," he wrote. ". . . I have left many a fine tree standing because it was just too hard to get up to."

The trees were taken from along the shoreline. The first step was to insert a springboard or platform into the trunk of the tree. This is where the logger stood while the undercut was chopped that would finally topple the tree and send it shooting down to the shore below. Jackson recalled undercutting a tree on the brink of an overhanging cliff where, from his springboard, "every chip dropped seventy feet to salt water and sea birds, startled from their rookery, flew nervously beneath my feet." One of the most dangerous jobs for a logger was dislodging the trees that became stuck on their downward slide to the water. Working downhill of a tree that might weigh 20 tons, the logger gambled with life on the ability to judge the precise movement of the log.

Today, the logging industry has taken on a different character. Commercial timber is seldom harvested by hand. Power equipment--even helicopters and balloons--has replaced the handlogger and the traditional tools. In many areas, logging companies clear-cut the timber, taking every tree in a section, regardless of size or condition, instead of selecting single targets. Timber harvesting has become a public issue that is examined through government land use studies and community hearings. Timber sales may take a year or more to plan. The days have passed when foresters could "go out with a boat, a compass, an axe and a good eye for estimating timber and lay out a sale in half a day."

Juneau-Douglas mines grow

By 1915, the Treadwell mines on Douglas Island had grown to a 900-stamp operation. Two thousand employees worked to mine and process gold from the low-grade ore. The hammer-like stamps dropped day and night. The noisy machinery stopped only on Christmas and the Fourth of July.

Shafts were sunk hundreds of feet below sea level. Some of them even ran beneath Gastineau Channel. Horse-drawn tram cars carried the ore out through tunnels. From there the rock was hoisted up the shafts, loaded onto steam cars, and transported to the mill where it was crushed to powder. The Treadwell mines flooded in 1917. The company did some mining, however, until 1922.

Nearly as impressive as the Treadwell mines was the Alaska Juneau complex on the other side of Gastineau Channel. Similar to the Treadwell mines, the Alaska-Juneau complex was a consolidation of numerous claims. By 1920 it was the largest low grade lode gold mine in the world. At its peak, the mill processed 12,000 tons of ore a day and employed 1,000 people.

Before 1913 when the territorial legislature enacted eight-hour-a-day laws, Treadwell miners worked 10 hours a day and mill employees worked 12. In the early years of the mine's operation, Tlingit Indians were employed in the open pit mine. Their pay was the going wage, which approached $100 a month.

The Native workers lived in cabins near the Douglas wharf which rented for one dollar a month. Non-Indians without families--and most workers were single--were required to live in company boarding houses. The Treadwell workers paid small monthly fees which entitled them to use company-operated bowling alleys, a heated swimming pool, and a well-stocked reading room.

The monthly fees and the requirement that single people live in boarding houses led to union organization at the Treadwell mines. In 1905 the militant Western Federation of Miners wanted to extend its influence to Treadwell employees. They used racial problems as an excuse for organizing the workers. A strike followed. Mine owners, fearing strikers would set off the dynamite stored at the mines, called in federal troops from Fort William H. Seward at Haines. Although the mine owners satisfied some of the workers' demands, more problems arose the next year. This time the company recruited strike breakers from the west coast, and Treadwell continued operating. The workers' revolt eventually faded away.

Agricultural experiments begin

Dr. Charles C. Georgeson opened Alaska's first agricultural experiment station at Sitka in 1898. He believed Southeast Alaska was suited for truck gardening, chicken raising, and dairying. Early visitors to the Sitka station mentioned seeing strawberries "almost as large as eggs" and orchards where apples, cherries, and apricots grew successfully.

True to Georgeson's expectations, truck farms gradually developed. Their products found a ready market. Wild hay, which grows on the delta of the Stikine River and needed only cutting, provided feed for animals used in the Cassiar gold rush. At Gustavus, near Glacier Bay, cattle raising and gardening were providing fresh food for nearby cannery crews in 1914.

Fisheries conservation is concern

Southeast Alaska Indians lost many of their fishing streams to canneries. Before the century ended, Tlingit leaders met in Juneau to plead for justice. Chief Kahdushan of Wrangell pointed out that the canneries had taken away his people's fisheries.

We like to live like other people live. We make this complaint because we are very poor now. The time will come when we will not have anything left. The money and everything else in this country will be the property of the white man and our people will have nothing.

The Tlingits depended on the salmon streams for much of their food supply. According to the commander of a government fisheries survey vessel,

These streams, under their own administration, for centuries have belonged to certain families or clans settled in the vicinity, and their rights in these streams have never been infringed upon until the advent of the whites. No Indians would fish in a stream not their own and they cannot understand how those of a higher civilization should be--as they regard it--less honorable than their own savage kind.

Native and non-Native Alaskans observed that their fisheries were continually being depleted and that canneries were continually reestablished in other areas. Salmon , streams productive in one decade were nearly barren in the next. Canneries opened and closed with the rise and fall of salmon runs. Overfishing and mismanagement were blamed.

In 1900 Congress had ruled that anyone engaged in commercial salmon fishing in Alaska had to establish a hatchery for sockeye salmon, the most valuable species for canning. In 1902 the number of salmon fry that they were required to produce was increased to ten times the number of salmon caught. Most cannery operators waited to see if the regulation would be enforced before investing money in a fish hatchery. Saltery owners, who processed pink salmon, objected to being ordered to raise sockeyes which they themselves did not use.

In 1906 Congress tried a different way to force fisheries conservation. A tax of four cents had been levied on each case of salmon canned in Alaska. The new act gave a 40 cent rebate for every 1, 000 sockeye or king salmon fry which Company-owned hatcheries released. This caused even more problems, for the plan made inspections of hatcheries necessary and increased record keeping. Furthermore, there was no assurance that the hatchery-produced fish would survive once they were released.

To the disappointment of cannery operators, the fish-rearing program did not result in longer runs of salmon at the fishing sites. There was no way to tell if hatching methods had failed or fishing pressures in other areas had increased. Most hatcheries closed during the following decade. Emphasis was placed instead on regulations that limited season length or the number of fish that could be taken on a type of gear. Not until the mid-1900s did new research and aquaculture methods prove that salmon raised by artificial means could increase the size of annual runs.

Navigation aids proliferate

The legislators' concern for improved transportation centered largely on construction of railroads to "open up Alaska." In Southeast Alaska, the main effect of the railroad project was to procure more aids to coastal navigation. At the second annual meeting of the United States Chamber of Commerce, Secretary of Commerce William Redfield told national delegates that the value of the railroad project would never be realized until Alaska waters were safe for ships. Redfield called for more lighthouses, wire-drag surveys, and lighthouse tenders equipped with radio communication systems. As a result, Congress appropriated more money than ever before for light station construction and improvements. Funds were also provided for the first gas-lighted buoys to mark hazards.

Pinnacle rocks were one of the greatest dangers to ships. Their tips could rise from great depths to stop just below the surface, where they remained unseen. Pinnacle rocks could, and did, rip open the hulls of steamers. They were largely responsible for Alaska's reputation as the "graveyard of the Pacific."

Ninety-two per cent of Alaska's coastal waters were still unsurveyed in 1917 when the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey began extensive wiredragging operations to pinpoint the pinnacle rocks. To accomplish this task, a wire cable was strung between two ships and set at a fixed depth. When the wire struck a hidden reef the hazard was marked by floats and the position recorded. Over the next few years more than a thousand pinnacle rocks were located and marked by wire-drag.

Morgan-Guggenheim syndicate creates shipping monopoly

Southeast Alaskans were less concerned with rail and road routes than with shipping monopolies and increased freight rates. Many were alarmed when eastern financiers formed a new steamship line in 1908. The Alaska Steamship Company resulted from the purchase of two steamship lines by Morgan-Guggenheim interests.

The Morgan-Guggenheim syndicate already operated 12 canneries in Alaska and produced one-eighth of the annual salmon pack. The new steamship firm was formed to help lower the cost of shipping copper ore from their mines near Valdez to West Coast smelters. The Morgan-Guggenheim interests also backed the new Copper River railroad. It was feared they would gain control of all of Alaska's transportation, along with its copper and salmon.

The tidewater-to-interior Alaska railroad was eventually constructed by the federal government instead of by private firms which could be influenced by the syndicate. This helped eliminate some fears. The Morgan-Guggenheim backed steamship company and its rival, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, continued to monopolize Alaska shipping. Both charged freight rates which were viewed as excessive.

To remedy the situation, territorial legislators wanted to establish their own shipping board. The body would have authority to buy or build ships for freight and passenger service, and to levy a tonnage tax on shippers. The Alaska Territorial Shipping Board was created in 1919. It brought about renewed recognition of Alaska's transportation problems, but was abolished after only two years.

World War I impacts Southeast Alaska

World War I caused an industrial boom in other parts of the nation. Its main effect on Alaska was to increase the demand for salmon, which caused prices to rise. High prices in turn resulted in a rash of robberies from fish traps. The U.S. Navy had to send ships to guard against fish piracy.

The war contributed to a drop in Alaska's population. There was little year-round employment. A greater proportion of Alaskans entered the armed forces than did residents of any of the states. Many had volunteered to serve in the Canadian army before the United States entered the war.

Aircraft construction accelerated with the war effort and had a slight effect on Southeast Alaska's economy. Sitka spruce was logged for building fighter planes. The wood was cut near Craig and Ketchikan. It was not a profitable venture, however. Wood grains, to be suitable for aircraft, needed to be straight. Half of the first barge shipment from an Alaskan mill was rejected. Sawmills continued to depend on seasonal fishing and mining needs to stay in business.

William Paul, Sr.

When William Paul, Sr., died in 1977 at the age of 92, he left behind an impressive list of "firsts": first Alaska Native to receive a college degree, first Native attorney, first Native to be elected to the territorial legislature. He also left behind a gift of inestimable value: he willed Southeast Tlingits a sense of pride in their heritage.

Paul was born to Louis and Tillie Paul in 1885. His father disappeared during a canoe voyage. Encouraged by his mother--herself a teacherand his stepfather, Paul continued his education. He finished law school and returned to Alaska to lead the growing Native movement. The Alaska Native Brotherhood had set forth two goals: citizenship and a single school system.

Young lawyer Paul believed that legal action, rather than protests, was the best way for Tlingits to obtain their rights. In 1922 he got the chance to prove his theory. His mother's uncle, the latest of the Chief Shakes of Wrangell, was arrested for voting illegally, since Natives had not yet been awarded the privilege. Paul successfully defended Chief Shakes. As a result, Alaska Natives won the right to vote two years before Congress extended citizenship to all American Indians.

A few years later, two young Indian girls from Ketchikan were told they would have to enroll in the Indian school in nearby Saxman because Ketchikan classrooms were overcrowded. Paul filed suit against the Ketchikan school board on their behalf and won the case. The judge said it was up to the school district to provide adequate space for all Ketchikan students.

Paul was elected to the territorial legislature in 1926. Other Natives later won seats in both the House and Senate. Joined by them, Paul led a fight to broaden legislation providing old age pensions and aid to dependent children to include Natives.

Paul was respected not only as a political leader, but as a historian for the Native people of Southeast Alaska. His research led him to formulate new theories about the history of his clan. His own belief was that Tsimshians of the Nass and Skeena rivers were the ancestors of Tlingit-speaking Indians. More important to Paul than Tlingit origins were their ethics, which required courtesy, and respect for the property of others. These qualities formed the basis of Tlingit law. Paul's pride in his heritage was evident throughout his life. Today, Southeastern Indians continue to renew the traditions of their ancestors that William Paul, Sr., helped keep alive.

Southeast Alaska Natives organize

Not all Indians were against the changes that were taking place in their lives. Younger Tlingits and Haidas were more apt to accept new ways than older members. They had attended mission schools. They had been exposed to western commerce and wanted some of the benefits. The were able to adapt to the new wage system. Migration to towns like Juneau and Ketchikan meant that their ties to tribal traditions and to a subsistence economy were loosened.

In 1912 a Tsimshian and nine Tlingits from Sitka, Angoon, Juneau, and Klawock met at Sitka to organize the Alaska Native Brotherhood. It was the first regional Native organization. Three years later a women's group, the Alaska Native Sisterhood, was established. Chapters of the organizations, called camps, spread to most towns in Southeast Alaska. Members worked for citizenship rights and better education for Natives. They encouraged their people to abandon customs which were considered uncivilized.

Summary questions

  1. Why were people opposed to establishment of Tongass National Forest?
  2. Why were the Treadwell mines closed?
  3. Why was a territorial shipping board established?

Inquiry question

  1. Find out where canneries operated in Southeast Alaska during the last fishing season.

Many Nations Challenge Tlingit Claims
1873-1900 Developing Southeast Alaska
1900-1922 Some Needs Are Met
1922-1942 Between Two Wars
1945-1980 The "Old Alaska"' Vanishes
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