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Wrangell
(also see the page for Fort Wrangel)

FACTOID:  Before 1902, when the Post Office officially shortened and respelled "Wrangell," it was called Fort Wrangel, with only one "l".

NOTE:  The emboldened words are links to additional information.


The City of Wrangell is located on the northwest tip of Wrangell Island, 155 miles south of Juneau and 89 miles northwest of Ketchikan. It is near the mouth of the Stikine River, an historic trade route to the Canadian Interior.   Wrangell is located in the Wrangell Recording District.  The area encompasses 45.3 sq. miles of land and 25.6 sq. miles of water.  Wrangell is in the maritime climatic zone and experiences cool summers, mild winters, and year-round rainfall. Summer temperatures typically range from 42 to 64; winter temperatures range from 21 to 44. Average annual precipitation is 82 inches, including 64 inches of snowfall. Fog is common from September through December.

Wrangell is a town with a rather unique history. It is the third oldest community in Alaska, and is also the only city to be governed by 4 nations and under the successive flags of three nations: Tlingit Nation, Russia, Britain, and the United States. In addition, Wrangell is one of the oldest non-Native settlements in Alaska

The Stikine Tlingits were recognized as the most powerful Tlingit group in existence during the late 1700s, the period of European exploration. Movement into their area by the Haida and Tsimshian impacted the Tlingits and brought competing interests for the resources. Disputes over resources are commonly described in historical accounts, along with descriptions of the Stikine Tlingits as fierce warriors who were able and willing to fight against their neighbors. Tlingits were equally well known as seasoned negotiators and traders. Successful trade networks with the Tahltans of interior Alaska extended into Canada and up the Copper River and beyond. They had well established communities, and a highly developed social structure equaling those found in Europe at the time. 

It wasn't until the early 1800's that the Native Alaskans were visited by outside forces. In 1811, the Russians began fur trading with area Tlingits Lieutenant Dionysius Zarembo, commander of the Russian-American Company ship Chichagof, landed at present day Wrangell in 1833.

The town began in 1834 as a Russian fort near today's Wrangell, named Redoubt Fort Dionysius, a simple Russian fortification surrounded by a solid fence of pointed logs.  The Russians established the fort in order to preserve their interests in the region. Both the Spanish and English had also been carefully scouting the extent of Russian settlement with an eye towards occupation themselves

Above the redoubt flew the double eagle flag of Russia, the two-headed bird with a crown on one head and a cross on the other. The fort's location was at the mouth of the navigable Stikine River, a door to the Pacific coveted by Canada's inland Hudson Bay Company. However, it was in Russian territory per an 1825 treaty between Britain and Russia, so the Russians chose to defend its property and trading rights, hence preventing the Hudson Bay Company from fur trading in that area. Two armed brigs sent down from Sitka stood guard, ready to fire upon the intruder. And fire they did at the approach of the British vessel, which beat a hasty retreat upriver.  

George Vancouver was the first recorded white man to come to the Wrangell area. He came in 1793, while on a survey expedition and just missed discovering the nearby Stikine River.  Captain Cleveland visited the "Village of Steeken" on April 16, 1799, where he did some fur trading with the Indians.

By 1840, the Russians discovered that fighting the warlike Stikine Indians, guarding against British intrusion and manning the isolated redoubt was more trouble than it was worth.  The Russians agreed to lease the site to the British in return for foodstuffs and supplies for their always under-provisioned capital of Sitka. The term of the lease was ten years in consideration of payment to the Russian-American Company of 2000 land otter skins each year and provisions of food for the Russian colonies on the west coast. On May 30, 1840, the Hudson Bay Company ship Beaver reached Redoubt Dionysius. The Russian flag was lowered and the British flag raised. The fort was renamed Fort Stikine. John McLoughlin Jr. was made commander of the fort. Eighteen Hudson Bay Company men were left to gather the furs and defend Fort Stikine. The Russians transferred their men to Sitka. Soon after the transfer of Fort Stikine to the British, there were several failed attempts by the Tlingits to capture the fort. The Hudson Bay Company leased the fur lands of the Stikine area for the next 27.  The fort was abandoned in 1849 when furs were depleted, however the fort remained under the British flag  until the U.S. Purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.

The stockade was renamed Fort Wrangel when Alaska became a United States territory in 1867. Thousands of prospectors during two gold rushes surged through Fort Wrangel en route to the gold fields via the Stikine River, first in 1874 with the Cassiar discovery, and again in 1897-1900 with the Klondike discovery.  The community of Wrangell grew as an outfitter for the miners. Riotous activity filled gambling halls, dance halls, and the streets.

Beginning as early as 1861, and spanning four decades until 1898, Wrangell played an important role in three major gold rushes: the Stikine River, Cassiar and Klondike Gold Rushes. The first one occurred when a man named Buck Choquette found gold on the Stikine River in 1861 on what is now call Buck's Bar.  Choquette was a Hudson Bay company employee, and the first white man to find gold.

Until Skagway came into existence, Wrangell served as the trade center for all the gold rushes, offering access to the Klondike fields through the Stikine River corridor and then on into the interior to the Yukon River. Henry Thibert and Angus McCulloch found gold in the Cassiar District of Canada (accessible by the Stikine River) in 1872 and started a huge stampede that brought overnight prosperity to Wrangell. 

The "wild west" came to Wrangell in a big way. Warehouses importing equipment and supplies sprang up along the waterfront, and thousands of miners moved to Wrangell to await the coming spring so that they could travel up the Stikine River to the Cassiar. This small subsistence community transformed seemingly overnight to a bustling supply center for the miners with warehouses, hotels, dance halls, saloons, food stores and the first of many churches in Alaska.  This heyday of prosperity lasted only five years before the gold was panned out and those who didn't strike it rich moved on. At one point over 10,000 persons were in Wrangell at one time, waiting for supplies and transportation up the Stikine. Today, Wrangell's current population is 2300 people. A number of buildings from this time period still exist in Wrangell.

Not long after the purchase of Alaska, the fishing industry got its start with the establishment of several canneries throughout Southeast. The canneries were responsible for the eventual development of the large fish traps at stream mouths that dramatically impacted the salmon runs. These traps were later outlawed, but had serious impacts to the local economies, particularly the Tlingit groups who had traditionally procured their subsistence resources from these streams. Chinese laborers were used in the canneries. Deadman's Island, adjacent to the Wrangell airport is said to be where the Chinese dead were preserved in barrels in salt-brine prior to transport back to their country of origin for burial.

Missionaries came during the early 1870's establishing the first Presbyterian and Catholic churches and schools. A
laska's first Protestant (Presbyterian) church and American school were established here in 1877. (see Fort Wrangel)

The second gold rush started in 1872 when two prospectors named Thibert and McCullough came to Wrangell with gold they found at Dease Lake in the Cassiar country in Canada.

Buck Choquette, who discovered gold in the first rush, participated in all of the rushes that followed.

Noted naturalist John Muir spent quite a lot of time in Wrangell in the 1880's, staging many of his explorations of southeast Alaska out of Wrangell. He caused quite a stir one stormy night in Wrangell, when he created a huge bonfire atop Mt. Dewey adjacent to town.

Soapy Smith, famed outlaw, used to hide out in Wrangell when things were too hot for him in Skagway.

Glacier Packing Company was established in Wrangell in 1889.

In 1898, when gold was discovered in the Klondike, Wrangell became a mining center for the third time.  Once again, the town became a base of operations for prospectors traveling up the Stikine River. There were three different routes to the Klondike. The first was the Stikine River route which already had been the site of two rushes. Wrangell was advertised in newspapers as the easiest and the all Canadian route to the Klondike, prompting thousands of miners to go to Wrangell in 1897.

Famed lawman Wyatt Earp traveled through Wrangell during the Klondike rush, and filled in as Marshal of Wrangell for ten days. Records don't show anything particularly noteworthy that happened while he was here, perhaps his reputation as a lawman deterred any criminal acts. He declined to become a full-time town Marshall since he was on his way, with his wife Josie, to strike his fortune in the Klondike. Instead he Josie turned back to San Francisco after learning that she was pregnant. 

An 1898 issue of the Stikine River Journal gives an excellent picture of the rapid growth of Wrangell during the gold rush when it lists the stores in town. Included on the list are two sawmills, one cigar factory, two manufacturing jewelers, one fish cannery, three tin shops, two blacksmith shops, several carpenter and cabinet shops, one ship yard, about ten laundries, one plumbing shop, one copper shop, two breweries, two newspapers, and numerous lodging houses and restaurants. Most of the shops were false front buildings clustered along both sides of Front Street. In 1898, Front Street was constructed of boards placed on pilings over the water. Today, the downtown area is built on gravel fill and still has the false front look of the gold rush days.

A number of buildings from the Klondike gold rush time period still exist in Wrangell, though two devastating fires, one in 1906 and the other in 1952, destroyed most of them. The oldest buildings in town are located on the left side of Front Street.  Norris' Gift Shop, in the heart of downtown, got its start as the Fort Wrangel Brewery Beer Hall. In one ad from the Stikeen River Journal in 1898, Bruno Grief, Proprietor says "It is a pleasure to take up one of those big, foaming mugs and look for the bottom...I wish my throat was a yard long every time I tackle one of Bruno's best" (after Cohen 1986). Keg beer sold for 40 cents a gallon, bottled beer was $1.50 per dozen. The brewery shared the street with The Totem Pole Drug Store, owned and operated by Dr. R. B. Davy. The drug store offered "photographic views and Indian Curios" (Fort Wrangell News, Oct. 26, 1898) to the tourists.

Another historic building, now J.R.'s Fish Company, was built in 1898 by R.C. Diehl, a pioneer and merchant from Montrose, Colorado.   His name was misspelled on the building as R.C. Biehl shortly after construction and never corrected.  He was only in Wrangell for a few years and left shortly after the building was erected.

In 1902, the creation of the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve and its subsequent transformation into the Tongass National Forest five years later, set in motion a series of events which eventually led to Southeast Alaska's and Wrangell's largest, employers during the mid to late 1900's - the wood and fiber companies. As with other southeast communities, Wrangell's primary economic base became fishing and timber. The first sawmill in Alaska was located in Wrangell. It shipped airplane lumber to Great Britain. The primary interests in the saw and pulp mills came from the Japanese, thus creating yet another foreign influence in Wrangell.

A weekly newspaper, The Wrangell Sentinel, printed its first issue November 2, 1902.  It is the oldest continuous publication in Alaska.

Wrangell continued developing as a town and Wrangell incorporated as a city in 1903.

Wrangell's garnet ledge was well known to prospectors who stampeded up the Stikine during its gold rush of the 1860s. The women's Alaska Garnet Corporation recognized the value of the gem and moved to develop the garnet mine. In 1922 the Minnesota women's corporation let a short-term lease to another company, which operated the mine through the 1920s and until 1936.  Eventually, the property was transferred to the ownership of Fred Hanford of Wrangell. In 1962, the 83-year-old Hanford deeded the garnet ledge to the Southeast Council of the Boy Scouts of America "for so long as the said grantee shall use the land for Scouting purposes and shall permit the Children of Wrangell to take garnets there in reasonable quantities." It is the children of the town who own the site and have free use. Adults must buy permits and donate 10 percent of their take to the Wrangell Boy Scouts.

There were two salmon canneries within the city limits of Wrangell in 1929 as well as two shrimp and crab canneries that employed over 150 people. Fur farming was also very important in the Wrangell area. Wrangell and surrounding islands had fox, mink, beaver, marten and muskrat farms.

The first Native boarding school, the Wrangell Institute, opened in Wrangell in 1932. Native children were brought in from throughout Alaska, not just southeast Alaska, for education of grades Kindergarten through high school.

Abundant spruce and hemlock resources have helped to expand the lumber and wood products industry. The Wilson & Sylvester Sawmill provided packing boxes for canneries, and lumber for construction. The Alaska Pulp Corporation sawmill, Wrangell's largest employer, closed in late 1994.

A federally recognized tribe is located in the community -- the Wrangell Cooperative Association. The population of the community consists of 23.8% Alaska Native or part Native.  Wrangell is primarily a non-Native community with a mixture of Tlingit, Russian, British, American and Chinese historical influences. Logging and fishing have supported the community.

 

Chamber of Commerce - Wrangell Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 49
Wrangell, AK 99929
Phone 907-874-3901
E-mail kirschner@wrangellchamber.org
Web http://www.wrangellchamber.org

City - City of Wrangell
P.O. Box 531
Wrangell, AK 99929
Phone 907-874-2381
E-mail cityclerk@aptalaska.net
Web http://www.wrangell.com

Village Council - Wrangell Cooperative Association
P.O. Box 868
Wrangell, AK 99929
Phone 907-874-3481