To the southeast on Wrangell Island, and connected by ferry to Petersburg and other points to the north and Ketchikan to the south, is the modern village of Wrangell. Although Wrangell has a fascinating history as the domain of four nations, its architectural character today is largely of the twentieth century. Fires in 1906 and 1952 have destroyed the cohesion of its commercial area. Today an architectural mixture of houses, ranging from early twentieth-century bungalows to modular prefabs, rises from the irregular shoreline. In a nod to Wrangell's heritage, a number of totem poles—all replicas—are sprinkled around town.
Once home of the Stikine Tlingit, Wrangell was occupied by the Russians in 1834. In an effort to prevent the British from gaining free access to the Stikine River, the Russians built Redoubt Saint Dionysius at the mouth of the river. In 1840 they leased it for ten years to the Hudson's Bay Company in return for provisions and furs; this lease was renewed periodically until 1865.
Under the British, the site was known as Fort Stikine, and with the discovery of gold up the Stikine River in Canada in 1861, it grew in importance as a supply point. After Alaska was acquired by the United States in 1867, the United States stationed troops here and named it Fort Wrangell, after the island on which it sat, which was named for the Russian Vice Admiral Baron von Wrangel. In the 1870s, gold strikes in the Cassiar region, also in Canada, were also reached through Wrangell, and for a few months each year Wrangell was the busiest town in Alaska, as recounted by historian Hubert Howe Bancroft. It was also exceedingly unimposing:
The main street is choked with decaying logs and stumps and is passable only by a narrow plank sidewalk. Most of the habitations contain but one room, with sleeping rooms arranged round the walls and a stove in the center, and many of them have neither windows nor openings, except for the chimney and a single door. ( History of Alaska, 1730–1885[New York: Antiquarian Press, 1886], p. 678)
John Muir was even less impressed during his visit in 1879:
The Wrangell village was a rough place. … It was a lawless draggle of wooden huts and houses, built in crooked lines, wrangling around the boggy shore of the island for a mile or so in the general form of the letter S, without the slightest subordination to the points of the compass or to building laws of any kind. ( Travels in Alaska[1915; reprint, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979], p. 25)
As one of Alaska's first boomtowns during the American period, Wrangell was a disorderly and uncivilized town. In 1877, the Presbyterian church attempted to counteract the deleterious effect of the wild Americans by establishing its first missionary effort in Alaska here in Wrangell, when Amanda R. MacFarland opened a school for Native girls. By 1880 it required five teachers, but in 1884 the boarding school was moved to Sitka.
Wrangell, no longer the roughest town in Alaska, continues to serve as a center for supplying and equipping outlying canneries and lumber mills.
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