After traveling more than three weeks over the Alaska Highway, my husband and I turned our motorhome at Haines Junction in the Yukon onto the highway toward our first stop in Alaska—Haines.
Local author Heather Lende captures the spirit of Haines’ resilient residents in the pages of her book, If You Ever Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-town Alaska. Likely, locals will know your name if you spend more than a week in this sleepy, laid-back town.
Their friendliness was illustrated by an incident at a downtown restaurant. Some visitors came into the restaurant, not knowing that the owner had died and that a “wake luncheon” was under way. Friends and family warmly welcomed the visitors to the luncheon, and quickly everyone knew their names.
From Haines Hitch-Up RV Park, we walked downtown to a grocery store, a couple of restaurants/bars, and a few shops lining a street that bustled during the Gold Rush. Families strolled the sidewalks in nighttime sunshine. A teenager zoomed on a skateboard down the middle of the deserted main thoroughfare. Dogs trotted behind owners. On the dock where the ferry to Juneau or Skagway departs, a woolly yellow dog snoozed under a sign: All Dogs Must Be On A Leash. A black dog traipsed behind his master down the ramp, stopping to sniff the yellow dog.
In Haines, with a population of about 2,000, there are modern houses with banks of windows that capture grand views of snowcapped mountains surrounding the water passageways and the harbor. And there are also homes that look like they were constructed with whatever material was handy. A young artisan at the Sea Wolf Gallery, a carving studio for Haines artist Tresham Gregg, said her home is powered with propane, lanterns and candles. But there are also modern touches—on the outskirts of town, you see roofs with solar panels.
As in any small town, some services are limited. Expectant mothers ride a ferry to Juneau or travel to Whitehorse in the Yukon to deliver their babies. Items from refrigerators to coffins arrive on the ferry or by air. Haines is only 14 miles from Skagway by boat, but 350 miles by road.
The town’s history traces back to the Tlingit Indians, and it remains a center of Tlingit culture and art. The Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center in downtown Haines introduces the town’s history. The museum’s first floor houses a private collection of artifacts, documenting the history of fishing, logging, and Alaska’s first permanent Army base. The second floor features the first settlements in the Chilkat Valley 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. The People, as the Tlingits prefer to be known, divided into two groups—the Eagle and the Raven. From marriages between the groups, they formed the Chilkats and the Chilkoots and established trade with other tribes and nations. The clans created artworks now recognized as some of the finest indigenous creations in the world. Their woven blankets tell family history, and their totems represent the authority of the clan. The Chilkats adorned everyday objects down to their fishhooks.
In 1881, the Chilkats asked Sheldon Jackson, who was in charge of Alaska’s Presbyterian missions, to send missionaries to their area. S. Young Hall and his friend, naturalist John Muir, traveled five miles up the Chilkat River from today’s Haines to talk with the Chilkat and Chilkoot chiefs, and after a powerful speech by Muir, the Chilkats donated land for the mission.
The gold rush, the establishment of an Army post, salmon canneries and commercial fishing helped develop the town.
Our exploration started at Fort Seward, garrisoned in 1904 as the farthest north fort of the Pacific Coast Defense System. Named for Secretary of State William H. Seward, who engineered the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, the fort served as the only military post in Alaska for some 20 years. Its remoteness and primitive environment classified the fortification as a foreign duty post for the U.S. Army. In the 1920s, the post took the name Chilkoot Barracks in recognition of the local Native American tribe and for those who had struggled over the Chilkoot Trail to the Klondike Gold Rush. After World War II, the fort was decommissioned. In 1978, a National Historic Landmark designation returned the property to its original name, Fort William H. Seward.
From the hillside, Officer’s Row commands a grand view of the harbor and the state ferry. The once elegant buildings surrounding the six-acre parade grounds are now privately owned. In varying states of restoration, the two-story residences once housed officers who reviewed soldiers marching on snowshoes or skis during weekly winter inspections.
Inside comfortable homes heated with steam radiators, their families entertained around ornate Victorian fireplaces. Kerosene lamps provided lighting until electrification of the fort in the early 1920s. A tower at the top of the hill supplied homes with water.
The commanding officer’s quarters and the bachelor officer’s quarters now house Hotel Halsingland and a restaurant. Near the bottom of the hill, a fire hall accommodated a LaFrance soda pumper. In winter, six soldiers pulled the pumper by hand using a knotted rope. Harnessing the mules took too long when fire broke out in the frame buildings. The men shoveled snow to keep the parade ground boardwalk cleared for the two-wheeled fire hose cart.
When in full garrison, the now abandoned barracks, built to house 400 men, recorded its highest numbers at 240 enlisted men and 14 officers. Along the opposite hill by the parade ground, Soapsuds Alley took its name because wives of noncommissioned officers took in the officers’ laundry.
The soldiers mingled with townspeople, hunting, fishing, and hiking in off-duty hours. They attended weekly dances and basketball games. In winter, soldiers outnumbered local girls six to one. In summer, the arrival of a steamship brought a live orchestra and new dancing partners. Some of the Fort Seward men married Haines girls and stayed after their tour of duty.
One morning, we drove to Chilkoot Lake, a state recreation area. We gazed up at the lush-green mountain that towers above a four-mile lake. On an opposite wall, mountain peaks released waterfalls of snowmelt racing down their rock faces into the lake. Although we did not see bears, locals reported they fish in the gurgling clear stream falling over mossy boulders.
Later, we drove to Chilkat State Park. A paved two-lane highway led to the park’s entrance. Graveled roads traveled down a 14 percent grade to an observation deck opposite the Davidson Glacier across Lynn Canal.
Other attractions in Haines include the Hammer Museum, which features 1,800 hammers including one that is 800 years old, and the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, where as many as 4,000 bald eagles gather every fall.
Tours to Glacier Bay and Juneau and Skagway are available from Haines. And if you hang out long enough, everybody will know your name.
Arline Chandler and her photographer husband Lee Smith live in Heber Springs, Arkansas.Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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