Ketchikan – City of Totem Poles and Salmon

Over 80 Native American Totem Poles dot Ketchikan and a traveler  cannot go a few blocks without seeing one.  These Totem Poles serve as important illustrations of family lineage and the cultural heritage of Native American people.

The Totem Pole shown above tells the story of a Raven, who desired the sun, the moon and the stars believed to have been owned by a powerful Chief.  The Raven is depicted on the top of the pole.  Below the Raven is the Sun.  In order to procure the heavenly bodies, the Raven changed form to appear as the Chief’s daughter’s son.  The Chief’s daughter is depicted below the Sun.  The Raven cried to his grandfather until the Chief gave him the boxes containing the heavenly bodies.  The Raven opened the box, bringing the sun, moon and the stars to the earth.

This is the Chief Johnson Totem Pole.  The figures symbolise a single story about Raven.  On top is the mythological Kajun Bird.  The un-decorated long blank space symbolises the high regard in which the Kajun Bird is placed.  Below the blank space are the Raven’s slaves with the Raven below it.  The bottom figure is that of the Fog Woman.  She is identified with the summer salmon run. It was believed that the Fog Woman produced all salmon and caused them to return to the creeks of their birth.

The life story of the Alaskan Salmon is another interesting tale.  The story that takes the Salmon  from the rivers and streams of Alaska’s wild frontier to the Pacific Ocean and back again.  How they find their way back from the Pacific Ocean is intriguing.

Starting out as small eggs in a stream bed, they hatch and begin their journey downstream towards the ocean. They spend a couple of years in the streams and rivers growing up. During this time, their bodies change to adapt to seawater. The young adult salmon then head out to sea and spend several years swimming in the Pacific Ocean.

Adult salmon spend one to four years swimming and feeding in the Pacific Ocean. They grow to their adult size and develop unique adult markings . Their ocean journey is long and hazardous as they are constantly hunted by seals, whales and fishermen. After swimming more than 2000 miles throughout the Pacific Ocean they swim back to their original stream or river where they re-adapt to the fresh water and swim back up the stream to reach their spawning grounds, the place of their birth. To ‘spawn’ means to release or deposit eggs.  Sometimes this involves swimming up rugged rivers with rapids and even waterfalls to leap.  Upon reaching their spawning ground, the female adult clears a spot in the stream-bed by sweeping her tail back and forth creating a gravel nest and lays her eggs.  The male adult salmon now fertilizes the egg with his sperm and protects them until both die within a couple of weeks and leave the embryos to fend for themselves.  Their carcasses decompose in the stream creating a nutrient-rich environment for the new infant salmon that are about to hatch.

It is obvious that Alaska salmon have interesting lives. One has to admit that a salmon that has returned to its birth stream after years at sea is an admirable fish to say the least. Due to the excellent salmon management practices that now exist in Alaska, salmon populations are well protected.

If the salmons could come up the Ketchikan’s  streams  to spawn, the men of Ketchikan were not far behind.  By the turn of the Twentieth Century, the population of male workers in the city was almost double that of the females.  This encouraged prostitution and thrived until banished in 1954. In 1903, the City Council ordered all the bawdy houses to be moved to the Creek Street.  At the time in Alaska, prostitution was tolerated but only if it did not occur on land.  This gave birth to Creek Street, where the houses were built on stilts above a creek.  The women who worked in Creek Street called themselves as ‘sporting women.’

As per the then Alaskan laws, more than two ‘female boarders’ constituted a prostitution house.  Hence, most Creek Street ladies lived in pairs or alone.  The only exception was Star Dance Hall, (the building with the salmon), a two storey building with 21 rooms, with live music and dance partners.

Single men frequented the Creek Street openly, whereas the married men used the more discreet Married Man’s Trail through the woods.  The girls could easily identify them by the mud on their shoes

At the other end of the Creek Street lived Dolly who bought this house in 1919 and lived here till her death in 1975.  Dolly lived all alone as she preferred to work alone. In those days when the average Ketchikan male worker earned $1 a day, Dolly charged each man $3.  She purchased her house for $800 and paid it off in two weeks.

Dolly neither smoked nor drank, but her house was the most sought after ‘watering hole’ as prohibition was in place.  Dolly earned more money selling small amounts of liquor for large sums to her clients than she did through prostitution.  She kept one or two bottles in the house at a time and hid the rest under the dock. It was easier for her to discard them in case of a raid.   Many of the Creek Street houses had trapdoors where they could receive alcohol deliveries under the dock in the darkness of night.

Dolly was an industrious lady.  As soon as people realised the ineffectiveness of French Silk Condoms in vogue then, with the dead stock Dolly had, she made flowers out of them to decorate her bath curtain.

Dolly’s bedroom was done up very tastefully, obviously it was here she conducted her business.  It appears she loved pink, red and green colours.  The furniture in the room was a gift from a client a from Petersburg.

When Dolly died on July 1975 at the age of 87, all the major newspapers in Alaska carried her obituary, paying tribute to a woman with an indomitable spirit exemplified the tough, roistering years of Ketchikan’s early history.

By evening, It was time for us to bid adieu to the colourful historic city of Ketchikan.  We embarked on our ship for the last leg of our sailing to Vancouver, Canada.

Next : The Last Lap

5 thoughts on “Ketchikan – City of Totem Poles and Salmon

  1. Very interesting article.
    Especially about the Alaskan salmon, born in fresh water streams, swims out to the sea, spends about four years swimming, playing in the ocean and returns to the same place to spawn and die.
    And then… the next generation of salmon swim out to the sea.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting article.
    Especially about the Alaskan salmon, born in fresh water streams, swims out to the sea, spends about four years swimming, playing in the ocean and returns to the same place to spawn and die.
    And then… the next generation of salmon swim out to the sea.

    Liked by 1 person

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