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KETCHIKAN’S CREEK STREET HAS A STORIED PAST, THRIVING PRESENT AND A BRIGHT FUTURE

Creek Street, Ketchikan, Alaska

by Greg Klupar

3 months ago


If you ask Steve Reeve, there’s no other place in Alaska like Ketchikan.

“It’s the neatest community in the state,” Reeve, the executive director of the Creek Street Historical Board, said. “The architecture, the history, the environment is all part of the community.”

Reeve, owner of the New York Hotel and Cafe as well as the Inn At Creek Street, believes it’s the Creek Street boardwalk that helps make Ketchikan a special place.

Creek Street is a boardwalk along Ketchikan Creek. The history of the area can be described as “fisherman, bootleggers and prostitutes.” The boardwalk was known as a good place to have a drink during Prohibition.

“Ketchikan is the southernmost entry into Alaska, right across the border with Canada. It was a stopping-off point during the Gold Rush because it was an important place to prepare for getting to where the gold was in the Yukon and further north,” Reeve said.

The boardwalk is located on pilings along a creek brimming with salmon. It’s lined with curio shops and restaurants, but it has a more carnal past. Until 1954, it was a former Red Light District “where men and salmon came to spawn,” and includes access to Married Man’s Trail, a staircase and wooden boardwalk extension of Creek Street where men quietly visited brothels on the boardwalk generations ago.

Married Man's Trail on Creek Street in Ketchikan, Alaska

Today, the 10-minute trail leads to the Cape Fox Lodge and Restaurant with stunning views of downtown.

Creek Street also features the Chief Johnson totem pole, a 55-ft. replica of the original that stood from 1901 to 1982. The original totem commemorated the life of Chief George Johnson, of the Gaanaxadi clan of the Tongass Tribe. Though one of 80 totem poles in Ketchikan, it’s easily the most prominent.

Totem Poles outside Cape Fox Lodge in Ketchikan, Alaska

Several of the brothels have become legitimate businesses on Creek Street. Dolly’s House, for example, is a former brothel that is now a museum. The Star, another former brothel that’s now home to local artist galleries Alaska Eagle Arts and Soho Coho, was the largest and best known.

When you visit Creek Street, make sure to visit these local businesses:

(1) Alaska Eagle Arts, owned and operated by well-known artist Marvin Oliver and his wife, Brigette Ellis

(2) Alaska Canoe Experience, Marvin's traditional paddle tour in native canoe out to sea

(3) Alaska Northern Lights, gift store owned and operated by Debbie Laws

There is also the not-to-be-missed Salmon Ladder, an artificial fishway designed to help the natural migration of fish, and if you’d like to take in the entire area from the air, contact Island Wings Air Service.

That’s just the present. Reeve is working to preserve the past and protect its future.

Last year Creek Street was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Reeve said the designation will help preserve and maintain the architectural integrity of Creek Street by offering grants for various projects.

“We want to retain and commit to the history of the area, which is very interesting, and make sure new architecture is respectful of the site,” Reeve said, adding that preserving Creek Street is part of saving the character of Ketchikan.

“We’re interested in protecting the historic buildings that are on Creek Street,” Reeve said. “But we also have a context for the new buildings that are placed there as well. We have design guidelines so that the new buildings will fit into the architecture that’s already there.”

Reeve sees something tragic about having lost some of the historic buildings, and he’s committed to preserving the history because without Creek Street, Ketchikan would lose much of its identity and its future.

“It’s probably a sickness that I have but I get great satisfaction from saving the buildings,” Reeve said. “It’s satisfying to know that these buildings are going to be here for a long time, that people will be able to appreciate them.”

Creek Street, Ketchikan, Alaska