Long before the arrival of Europeans to the Haines area, the Tlingit people of the Chilkoot and Chilkat tribes established villages nearby. Fish were plentiful, as were game animals and berries. The area’s “mother village” was Klukwan, 20 miles up the Chilkat River, but another large Chilkoot village nestled near Chilkoot Lake, and a summer camp squatted just northwest of present-day Haines.
The Chilkat people were renowned for their beautiful blankets woven from mountain-goat wool and dyed with an inventive mixture of copper nuggets, urine, lichen, and spruce roots. The blankets were (and are) worn during dance ceremonies. Today they are also exceedingly valuable.
In 1879 the naturalist John Muir and the Presbyterian minister Samuel Hall Young reached the end of Lynn Canal. The Reverend Dr. Young was looking for potential mission sites to convert the Native Alaskans to Christianity. Muir was along for the canoe ride, wanting a chance to explore this remote territory. While there, they met with members of the Chilkat tribe at a settlement called Yendestakyeh. Both men gave speeches before the people, but the Chilkats were considerably more interested in Muir’s “brotherhood of man” message than Dr. Young’s proselytizing. Muir wrote:
Later, when the sending of a missionary and teacher was being considered, the chief said they wanted me, and, as an inducement, promised that if I would come to them they would always do as I directed, follow my councils, give me as many wives as I liked, build a church and school, and pick all the stones out of the paths and make them smooth for my feet.
Two years later the mission was established by two Presbyterian missionaries (Muir had other plans), and the village was renamed Haines, in honor of Mrs. F. E. H. Haines of the Presbyterian Home Missions Board. She never visited her namesake.
During the Klondike gold rush, an adventurer and shrewd businessman named Jack Dalton developed a 305-mile toll road that began across the river from Haines and followed an old Indian trade route into Yukon. He charged miners $150 each to use his Dalton Trail; armed men never failed to collect. To maintain order among the thousands of miners, the U.S. Army established Fort William H. Seward at Haines. Named for Alaska’s “patron saint,” it was built between 1900 and 1904 on 100 acres of land deeded to the government by the Haines mission. Renamed Chilkoot Barracks in 1923 in commemoration of Chilkoot Pass, it was the only military base in all of Alaska until 1940.
In 1942–1943 the Army built the 150-mile Haines Highway from Haines to Haines Junction as an emergency evacuation route from Alaska in case of invasion by the Japanese. After World War II, the post was declared excess government property and sold to a veterans’ group that hoped to form a business cooperative. The venture failed, but many stayed on, making homes in the stately old officers’ quarters. The site became a National Historic Landmark in 1978, and its name was changed back to Fort Seward.
Today the town of Haines has a diversified economy that includes fishing (there are no canneries, however), tourism, and government jobs. Haines has also recently become something of a center for the arts, attracting artists and crafts workers of all types, from creators of stained glass to weavers of Chilkat blankets.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition