This is the first in a two part series. The second part will appear online Saturday.
Port Alexander is a community of about 60 people on the southern tip of Baranof Island, in Southeast Alaska. And this past summer, it celebrated 100 years as a city.
A small crowd is gathered in front of the old white house that holds the Port Alexander museum. Two fiddlers play from Beethoven’s 9th symphony. The sun is out, and long stalks of purple foxglove are swaying in the breeze.
Longtime resident Mike Stempe stands in front of the group, reading a note.
“Dear friends in Port Alexander: Happy 100th birthday!” he says, as the crowd cheers.
The note is from Mark Kirchhoff, a Juneau historian and retired biologist who also has a home in Port Alexander. He had planned to be here, for the town’s official centennial celebration. But a few days beforehand, he was doing some work on his home in Port Alexander, and …
“Well, I fell off the roof,” Kirchhoff said, by phone from Juneau.
He broke some ribs, but was fine in the long run. He and Stempe collaborated on a book, along with Tom Paul, documenting the town’s history. Kirchhoff notes that Port Alexander was on the map before 1913.
“The reason I chose 1913 is that is when the fleet actually moved to Port Alexander,” he said. “The fleet was looking for a new place — always expanding, trying to find that brand new hot spot — and Port Alexander, Port Conclusion was the place.”
Really, it was a fishing official who drove the fleet to Port Alexander. He dramatically restricted fishing, which did not go over well with the troll fleet.
“They’ve always been sort of an independent bunch,” Kirchhoff said. “They’re not into taking orders, and they’re particularly not into taking orders on a little dot out on the map. You go all that way out there, and the fish are biting and this guy comes up and tells you you can’t go fishing? I don’t think so.”
The book by Kirchhoff, Stempe and Paul is 172 pages of black and white photographs, original writing and even old memos. A note dated January 5, 1950, from a U.S. Forest Service official named A. W. Blackerby, says “Port Alexander was last fall practically a ghost town.”
The ghost town came back in the 1970s, with the help of homesteaders like Karen Lucas. She came to P.A. in 1979.
“I married a fisherman. I’d been commercial fishing 10 years prior,” she said. “I’d been seining since ’74 up here. I grew up in Seattle, and once I hit Southeast Alaska, I was like, ‘This is it.’”
Lucas runs the Port Alexander Historical Society, and the small museum it’s established in town. We’ve come off the beach and are walking along some boardwalks. They’re all named. There’s Hemlock Street and Front Street. There’s a Water Street here, and even a Breathless Lane.
Also on the walk are friends Phyllis Mulligan and Jane Stempe. The boardwalks meander through the woods, and up and down hills. Lucas says the routes are a product of the federal government, from when Port Alexander was initially homesteaded.
“And, so really what happened, when the BLM came in and they mapped this area out, they didn’t really take into consideration the terrain,” Lucas said. “So that’s why boardwalks and whatnot … they don’t really follow the lay of the land. Things like the Stairway to Heaven, a road that goes up a cliff. And that’s what we’re stuck with, pretty much.”
Lucas says when the homesteaders came in the 1970s, there were a lot of ruins.
“The homesteaders, most of us were dirt poor, and if we needed a pot, we’d go to the abandoned cabin and grab one. It was that kind of deal,” she said. “You’d walk in, and it’d be like people still lived there. Books on the shelves, dishes on the table, clothes hanging in the closet. It was kind of the salvager’s dream I guess.”
People left town in the 1940s, often without their personal possessions. Lucas says one factor was a downturn in fishing.
“And the other was the war,” she said. “The men went to war. When the fishing died off, everybody enlisted and just left town. And didn’t carry anything with them, because there was no way to get in and out of here except by little fishing boat. Because of that, and these artifacts and these old photos you’d find in an attic, there was always an interest in preserving the history.”
Lucas, and the members of the Port Alexander Historical Society are trying to do that. And by helping people understand the community’s history, they also hope to build hope for the city’s future.