Story last updated at 12/4/2013 - 2:07 pm
The Ketchikan Air Service Cessna 185 took off up Tongass Narrows on a beautiful clear spring morning 38 years ago. Our destination? Kasaan on the east coast of Prince of Wales Island. The Haida Natives had moved there from Old Kasaan when Kasaan Bay Mining Company started a sawmill, copper mine, and cannery in 1900.
The late Virginia McGillvray, at that time director of Tongass Historical Society Museum in Ketchikan, and I planned to document the totem poles and community house at the totem park. If we had time we would photograph the few remaining buildings in the village itself. My hope was to wander through the cannery buildings.
We were dropped off at a float located in the lee of the red cannery buildings. At the head of the ramp, the wooden walk led left toward the village. Everything looked deserted. Finally Louis Thompson came down the walk. He told us that he had lived in Kasaan for 43 years. (A few years ago he and his wife Annette sold their property and moved away.)
In spring 1975 there were about a dozen residents who called Kasaan home. The population had fluctuated from a reported 250 in 1905, to 112 in 1929, 77 in 1938, 47 in 1950, and 41 in 1996.
We passed dilapidated buildings along the shore. A pile of rubble was the Filipino bunkhouse that had been dismantled for lumber. As we progressed we asked Thompson about each house. "Turner, he was a prospector." "Olsen." "Man named Brown." "Louis Jones." "Julias Frank. Died in 1958." All were in a state of disrepair. Most had lost their windows. Some had doors sagging open. The windows were boarded up on one. In contrast, the homes of the Peeles and McAllisters were well taken care of with stacks of newly split wood on the porches.
Everyone except Thompson was in Ketchikan. Later we learned there was a public meeting where David Peele, Kasaan's Delegate to the Tlingit-Haida Convention, reported that the T-H Central Council had given full recognition to Kasaan. Peele was the chairman of the Organized Village of Kasaan.
Past Thompson's house, the path instantly became narrower. Around us we saw occasional stumps of logged trees, perhaps for the first sawmill. Sometimes a seagull screamed. The only other sounds were our feet on the forested path and the swish of salad bushes as we passed.
At the end of a meadow, Sonihat Creek came out of the tall timber that covered the mountains behind the area. Here we glimpsed the first of the totem poles and the community house named Whale House that had been constructed in 1938 by the Forest Service.
Placed to the left of the Whale House were six totem poles on which the paint had weathered to a soft hue. By the time we finished photographing each of the totems, the wind was howling through the trees, having switched from a westerly to a typical Panhandle southeasterly. It was still sunny so we pushed on to find the Kasaan graveyard. A trail to the right of the community house had recently been worked on to remove windfalls. Fresh gravel covered the path. When we came out of the woods we could barely see the marble monuments because of the salmonberry bushes. The most prominent feature was the tall white marble monument of Chief Sonihat who had first built a home where the Whale House was constructed. Part of the inscription indicated this was a memorial, and he had died January 18, 1912 at age 75. Beside him was his wife who died March 1912, aged 80 years. She had no name other than "Mrs. Sonihat"
There were 19 other grave markers with legible information. Many un-identified graves were covered with concrete slabs. A beautiful marble carving of an eagle stood on the monument of Brown Jones. Each feather in the slightly spread wings and tail was delicately carved. Virginia commented, "How often I have seen an eagle perched in a tree just like that." We drew a diagram of the graveyard for the museum files.
Back in the village we explored the remains of the Presbyterian Church. The roof was partially gone from the bell steeple and the huge bell hung precariously over the entry to the chapel. A rope from the bell loft swayed in the wind. This bell had been sent by the Young Ladies Mission Society of the Presbyterian Church in Hillsboro, Ohio. I wondered how long it had been since the tone of the bell had called worshipers.
Inside an organ (not the original that had been donated by Miss W. C. Lanquist of Lynchburg, Va.) stood forlornly at the front, rendered useless by moisture. Several pews faced the pulpit, the latter still in good condition. Choir benches were lined behind it. Other pews had been thrown out the window. Nearby we found the manse, a large two -story building with covered porch. It stood empty and dank.
Virginia looked at her watch. It was time to go, and we hadn't found the schoolhouse. Another time? We hurried along the boardwalk to the dock seeing all kinds of enticing things including a donkey engine that had been used to pull barges and boats up on the grid.
As we wait for our plane, we hesitated about wandering through the cannery that ceased operating in 1953. The caretaker was in Ketchikan. Although we vowed to be back to explore the cannery, we never did. Thankfully I took exterior photographs because the village of Kasaan eventually tore the entire complex down. Since our visit the community of Kasaan has grown and modernized.
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at email@example.com.