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Just northwest of Haines is Klukwan, a Chilkat Tlingit village that shuns publicity and does not welcome visitors. It is the only survivor of four Chilkat villages. The Chilkat were the most prosperous of the Tlingit because they controlled access to the Interior through the Chilkat, Chilkoot, and White Pass routes. Trade with the Athapaskans, particularly in eulachon oil, was dominated by the Chilkat, who grew rich from these endeavors. In the 1890s, the village of Klukwan consisted mostly of traditional plank houses facing the Chilkat River, including the famous Whale House described by George T. Emmons in 1916 as “the most widely known and elaborately ornamented house … in Alaska.”

Because of the influx of whites into the region during the gold rush, the Chilkat lost control of the routes to the Interior but earned money instead by serving as guides. The villagers of Klukwan grew rich freighting supplies to the Porcupine mining district, 12 miles upriver. One Klukwan resident remembered earning $25,000 annually at this time. The architecture reflects this prosperity—large, two-story, wood-framed houses replaced the plank ones. These large buildings, which are recognized as clan houses, exhibit a sophistication of design unusual for Alaska at this time. Interspersed with more modest ones, they are visible in the village today, although most of the larger clan houses have been abandoned. Set in a line along the riverbank, most of the clan houses are two-and-a-half-story buildings, three bays wide with center doors and gable fronts that further increase their impact on the waterfront. Clad with beveled siding, they are ornamented with fish-scale shingles, bay windows, bracketed door hoods, and moldings. One house has a denticulated pediment, cornice returns on the gable, corner pilasters, and a carved eagle ornament below the gable window. Another, the Whale House (the direct descendant of the Whale House described by Emmons) is one and a half stories with the first story of poured concrete. The second story is covered with shingles, ornamented with a bracketed cornice.

New housing in the village has been built away from the river. Klukwan continues its prosperous ways: in 1990 the village corporation was named the most successful village corporation in the state, and in the top ten of all Alaskan corporations.

Writing Credits

Alison K. Hoagland

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