Redoubt St. Dionysius
The third-oldest community in Alaska, Wrangell is the only one to have been governed by four nations: Tlingit, Russia, Britain, and the United States. Tlingit legends tell of an ancient time when advancing glaciers forced them to abandon their coastal life and move to what is now British Columbia. As the ice retreated after the last ice age, the Stikine River was their entryway back to the newly reborn land.
When the Tlingits discovered that the river suddenly disappeared under a glacier, they sent old women to explore, expecting never to see them again. One can only imagine their astonishment when the women returned to lead canoes full of people out to the coast.
For many centuries the Tlingits lived in the Stikine River area, paddling canoes upstream to catch salmon and trade with interior tribes. Similarly, the river figured strongly in Wrangell’s founding. Russians began trading with Stikine Indians in 1811; by 1834 the British were trying to move in on their lucrative fur-trading monopoly.
To prevent this, Lieutenant Dionysius Zarembo and a band of men left New Archangel (the present-day Sitka) to establish a Russian fort near the mouth of the Stikine River. The settlement, later to become Wrangell, was originally named Redoubt St. Dionysius. When the British ship Dryad anchored near the river, the Russians boarded the vessel and refused to allow access to the Stikine.
The Dryad was forced to return south, but a wedge had been driven in Russia’s Alaskan empire. Five years later, the Hudson’s Bay Company acquired a long-term lease to the coastline from the Russian government. Redoubt St. Dionysius became Fort Stikine, and the Union Jack flew from town flagpoles.
The discovery of gold on Stikine River gravel bars in 1861 brought a boom to Fort Stikine. Hundreds of gold-seekers arrived, but the deposit proved relatively small, and most prospectors soon drifted on to other areas. With the transfer of Alaska to American hands in 1867, Fort Stikine was renamed Wrangell, after Baron Ferdinand Petrovich von Wrangel, governor of the Russian-American Company.
Its population dwindled until 1872 when gold was again discovered in the Cassiar region of British Columbia. Thousands of miners quickly flooded the area, traveling on steamboats up the Stikine. Wrangell achieved notoriety as a town filled with hard-drinking rabble-rousers, gamblers, and shady ladies. When the naturalist John Muir visited in 1879 he called it
the most inhospitable place at first sight I had ever seen…a lawless draggle of wooden huts and houses, built in crooked lines, wrangling around the boggy shore of the island for a mile or so in the general form of the letter S, without the slightest subordination to the points of the compass or to building laws of any kind.
By the late 1880s the second gold rush had subsided, and lumbering and fishing were getting started as local industries.
The Klondike gold rush of the late 1890s brought another short-lived boom to Wrangell as the Stikine was again tapped for access to interior Canada, but Skagway’s Chilkoot Trail became the preferred route. With its rowdy days behind, Wrangell settled into the 20th century as a home to logging and fishing operations, still mainstays of the local economy. Rebuilt after destructive fires in 1906 and 1952, much of downtown is now on rock-fill and pilings.
Today, Wrangell is searching for a more prosperous future—and tourism is right at the forefront of that quest—while getting by on the remaining industries: fishing, construction, and small timber operations. It’s an easy-going, slow-paced, and friendly town and a good place to unwind.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition