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Harriman Expedition Retraced



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Community Profile: Sitka


The town of Sitka, located on the west coast of Baranof Island, overlooks the calm waters of Sitka Sound and the sloping Mt. Edgecumbe, a 3,102-foot inactive volcano.


Sitka (Photo by Megan Litwin).
Click image for a larger view.

Location: Lat. 57E 03' N, Long. 135E 20' W

Area: 2,882 square miles

Population: 8,788

Industry: Fishing, fish processing, tourism, government transportation, education, health care.

Access: Air, sea, year-round ferry

Alaska Native Affiliation: Tlingit

Alaska Native Regional Corporation: Sealska Corporation

Weather: Summer temperatures range between 48 and 61 degrees Fahrenheit, winter temperatures between 23 and 35 degrees. Average annual precipitation is 96 inches. 

Historical Overview

  • Sitka, originally a large Tlingit community, was called "Shee Atika." The name may have meant "bend of the branch or edge," referring to the perceived shape of that part of Baranov Island occupied by early Tlingits.
  • In 1799, Alexander Baranov of the Russian American Company arrived in Sitka with a band of Russian solders and a group of Aleut hunters. Baranov and his men bargained for land that they settled and named Archangel. A large Tlingit army stormed and burned the fort and warehouse at Archangel in 1802.
  • In 1804, Russian reinforcements, led by the returning Baranov regained the area, destroying the near-by Tlingit Village. The Tlingits retreated and did not return to the area to live for more than twenty years. The Russians built a town on the site, seven miles from the original settlement. They called it New Archangel, although it was known locally as Sitka. In 1826, the Chief Manager decided it was simpler to allow the people to return to part of their old village where he could keep an eye on them. A stockade was built to divide the two parts of the town.
  • In 1808 Sitka was declared the colonial capital of Russian America when the Russian American Company moved its headquarters from Kodiak.
  • Education opportunities flourished early in Sitka. The first school at Sitka opened in 1810. A school for girls opened in 1839. Presbyterian Minister Sheldon Jackson founded a school in 1878.
  • With increased shipping traffic, Sitka soon became a town with an international feel. It was not uncommon to find Sitkans fluent in English, Russian and French, and to visit homes graced with Flemish linen or British plate. Theater and art flourished in a town that was known, for a time, as "the Paris of the Pacific."
  • In 1867, Sitka was again designated the capital when the United States purchased Alaska. It held this honor until government operations were moved to the boomtown of Juneau, 1902-1906.
  • By 1900, Sitka had passed its heyday as a major port when fish and furs were shipped from its docks.

Harriman's Visit

  • Harriman passengers disembarked the Elder mid-morning in a downpour. They were impressed by the colorful, bulbous spires of the Russian Orthodox church and the interesting mix of Tlingit and European influences in the town.
  • Several in the Harriman party noted that the townspeople were different from the rough-edged sort they had encountered at previous stops. The people were more educated and refined, and many had come from the U.S. before the gold rush. But Sitka's Tlingit population occupied the lowest social position. They lived in rough huts on the outskirts of town, and were required to attend strictly segregated schools and churches. William Dall posited that, though the segregation was a questionable practice, it was better than the treatment the Tlingits in this area had received under Russian rule.


  • At the turn of the century Sitka's major industries were fish processing, port services and timber. Quartz and gold mining bolstered and diversified this economy, as did the whaling industry, based at nearby Port Armstrong. In the 1920s, the U.S. Whaling Company took 315 whales from surrounding waters, using the carcasses for oil and fertilizer. Commercial fishing is still a major industry, with 600 commercial fishing permits in town. Health care, education and government are also significant employers in the area.
  • During World War II, a naval base was built on nearby Japonski Island, and 37,000 military civilians and civilian personnel settled in the area.. The U.S. Coast Guard continues to be a major employer.
  • Another long-time major employer, Alaska Pulp Corporation, closed in the early 1990s, leaving 400 people jobless. Luckily, the diverse economy was able to cushion this blow, and the town has recovered, partly because of its growing tourist trade. Always a magnet for visitors, Sitka is now a central port of call for cruise boats. Over 200,000 passengers visit each summer, and the cruise industry brings approximately $11 million to Sitka each year.

Community Issues

  • Access and transportation are of concern in Sitka these days. Currently the Alaska Marine Highway, a system of coastal ferries, is the sole transportation infrastructure for roadless southeastern Alaska, but trips to Juneau and Ketchikan can take up to twenty hours. By 2003, Sitka will have a new "fast ferry" system, one that cuts twelve hours off that travel time. Faster service will mean access to cheaper goods and better services, but it will also mean more traffic in a town already taxed by tourism.

(View the Sitka daily log entry)




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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