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arrow Stories and Tales of the Coast & Geodetic Survey
arrow Alaska Tales


Reminiscences of Alaska by Capt. Thomas J. Maher, C&GS

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SITKA

We then went to Sitka for coal at Japonski Island. Going up Chatham Straits, I was on mid-watch wit Pilot Crook. We passed through a snow storm, which, clearing away, was followed by a magnificent display of Northern Lights, something new to me and awe-inspiring. Sitka, one of the tourist ship stops, was a very interesting place. It was headquarters for a company of marines under the command of Captain Harding. The Presbyterian Church faced the beach. Bishop Rowe was in charge. He was well known and like throughout Alaska. He traveled all over the territory and never found physical discomfort a hindrance. The Russian Church was at the head of the main street which ran up from the wharf. At this time there were valuable works of art in the Church. The Russian Priests were very intelligent men, quite hospitable and friendly. Several of Sitka's young lady residents were showing three of the young officers Sitka's interesting features, including the old Russian Fort, totem poles at Indian river, the Agricultural Station, and stores. One suggested that we visit the Russian Church. The time turned out to be rather unpropitious, as mass was being served. However, one of the Priests welcomed us most cordially and led us to a place in the front row. I glanced around and saw that from our position all exits were inaccessible. My recollection is that the services lasted about three hours, during which time we stood up. The singing was beautiful, in the form of a chant. In later life we would have enjoyed it, but my thoughts were quite general and the question was brought up without any satisfactory solution. Finally, the girls had Bishop Rowe's niece quite nervous, as they decided to blame her and tell the Bishop she was proselyting for the Russian Church. Returning aboard we mentioned to Coleman how we spent the evening. He laughed and said, "Well, the Old Boys put one over on you." That may be so, but later he married the daughter of one of the officials of the Church, a beautiful and talented girl.

An old billy goat, a retired mascot from one of the Coast Guard Cutters, often camped in front of the steps leading to the Church. Billy's beard was stained as if from tobacco juice. His drinking habits were, I understand, quite convivial and, while perhaps not a respected citizen, he was a tolerated resident. billy would have been recognized anywhere as a thorough salt of the Old School. Upon the arrival of a tourist ship, if there were a sufficient number of women tourists, Billy would occasionally charge down the street. Billy, a really intelligent animal, was encouraged in this harmless pastime by some of the Old Timers.

At the wharf, Indian squaws would squat along one side of the street with their wares spread out before them, mostly moccasins, hair seal pouches, miniature totem poles, and similar gadgets. I understand that with a heavy tourist trade, they occasionally sent to Seattle to replenish their stock. With the tourist, they spoke very little English. One dol(lar) seemed to be the limit of their vocabulary, yet upon the vessel's departure they conversed with us in fairly good English and usually cut their prices about fifty percent. These Indians had much folklore, a knowledge of which was dying out with passing of the Old Men. A young government official, an Assistant Collector of Customs, if I remember correctly, was making a record of these old legends for future publication. He had many items which showed imagination of a high order, some referring vaguely to a great flood. Fishing was the principal occupation of the Indians. They lived in houses which were simple in construction but which met their needs. All showed the influence of the local Mission.

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Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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