First established as a base for collecting sea otter pelts, Sitka has a long and compelling history. In 1799, Alexander Baranov—head of the Russian American Company—founded the settlement under a charter from the czar. Baranov (also spelled Baranof) built his original fort, Redoubt St. Michael, near the present Alaska ferry terminal, only to see it destroyed in a Tlingit attack in 1802. There is evidence that the British, long enemies of the Russians, assisted the Tlingits in the fort’s destruction.
Two years later, Baranov returned with 120 soldiers and 800 Aleuts in 300 baidarkas, defeating the Tlingits in what was to become the last major resistance by any Northwest Coast Indians. The Russians rebuilt the town, then called New Archangel, on the present site and constructed a stockade enclosing what is now downtown Sitka.
New Archangel soon became the capital of Russian America and a vital center for the sea otter and fur seal trade with China. Although the Tlingits were invited back in 1821 (Native leaders say the Russians begged them to return), the groups coexisted uneasily. Tlingits built their houses just outside the stockade, facing a battery of eight Russian cannons.
Once labeled the “Paris of the North Pacific,” New Archangel quickly became the Northwest’s most cosmopolitan port. By 1840 it was already home to a library of several thousand volumes, a museum, a meteorological observatory, two schools, a hospital, an armory, two orphanages, and dozens of other buildings. The wealthier citizens lived in elaborate homes filled with crystal and fine lace, but as in czarist Russia itself, the opulence of Sitka did not extend beyond a select few. Slave-like working and living conditions were forced on the Aleut sea otter hunters.
America Takes Over
An emotional ceremony at Sitka in 1867 marked the passage of Alaska from Russian to American hands, and most of the Russians, including many third-generation Sitkans, returned to their motherland. Even today, there are locals who speak Russian. Although the town served as Alaska’s first capital city for three decades, its importance declined rapidly under the Americans, and it was almost a ghost town by the turn of the 20th century. The territorial government was moved to the then-booming mining town of Juneau in 1900.
During World War II, Sitka became a major link in the defense of Alaska against Japan. Hangars remain from the large amphibious air base just across the bridge on Japonski Island (Fort Ray), and the barracks that once housed 3,500 soldiers were turned into Mt. Edgecumbe High School, Alaska’s only boarding high school for Native Alaskans. The boarding school is now fully integrated.
Sitka’s largest employer until 1993 was a Japanese-owned pulp mill five miles east of town. The mill closed mainly because of the high cost of production and competition from mills elsewhere. Before it closed, the mill gained national attention for dumping large quantities of cancer-causing dioxin into nearby Silver Bay, and for being one of the primary forces behind the clear-cut logging of Tongass National Forest.
Many Sitkans still work in the fishing and tourism industries, or for the government. The mill’s closure did not have nearly the devastating effect the prophets of doom had predicted; in fact Sitka seems to be doing just fine, fueled by tourism and the arrival of retirees. Large cruise ships are in port most summer days, but things aren’t nearly as bad (yet) as in Juneau, Ketchikan, or Skagway.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition