There are many parts of the world where the automobile is not yet king, places
where carts and horses are still used, but it has become an oddity for a twenty-fi rst
century American town complete with computers and the Internet and cell phones and
all the modern conveniences to place cars at the bottom of the status stack.
Come to Southeast Alaska if you are tired of your social standing being defi ned
by your car. It isn’t that there are no automobiles; there are lots of them, mostly junkers,
or “beaters” if you want to be a real Alaskan. It’s just that this is not a car culture. No
one cares what sort you drive, not even the model or the year. What matters are the
instructions before a passenger gets in the auto.
“You can’t use that door; it doesn’t open.”
“Don’t open that window; it will fall out.”
“There’s a hole in the floor; don’t stick your foot in it.”
Conversations about autos center on defects which lead to a bit of bragging.
“To start my old car, you had to get out and open the hood.”
“Yeah? my gas tank rusted out and fell out on the road on the way to the
“Anybody have a bungee cord? I’ve got to close the door.”
Any of the small towns in the area will have small differences. In Petersburg,
Little Norway as it’s known from its founding by Norwegians, for years the modern
Vikings walked everywhere, and even now there are people who don’t know how to
Wrangell, the old town that was owned by four cultures and thrived under three
flags, involved the automobile only in its most recent incarnation.
Angoon, Hoonah, Kake, and Yakutat, ancestral and current homes to the Tlingit
Indians, saw no reason to include the car until very recent times, and even now they’re
not considered important.
Pelican has no street and Tenakee Springs has one unpaved road, just wide
enough for the children’s wagons used to carry groceries and children around.
Juneau is the automobile capital of Southeast as well as the capital of Alaska. It
has a splendid freeway that goes from the heart of the old mining town out to the
Mendenhall Valley, the suburbs that are complete with chain link fences and shopping
malls. There are traffic lights and the ubiquitous white-on-green signs indicating the
bridge over to Douglas Island, the airport, the Mendenhall Glacier, and various turnoffs.
It is only twelve miles long, but for those brief miles the freeway fanatic can
pretend he’s back in Los Angeles.
The road continues north past the Valley, all paved and modern, for another 28
thrilling miles past Engineers’ Cut-off and on to Auke Bay and the Ferry Terminal, past
the Shrine of Saint Terese and finally ends at Echo Cove. But don’t think that’s all there
is; to the south of the town center the road continues south almost fi ve bumpy, unpaved
miles to Thane. Of course, Thane, a collection of people who enjoy their rural existence,
aided only by city electricity, is cut off from time to time in the winter by avalanches
that come down the big slide area. It’s become routine to check for cars buried in the
snow, if any, then plow out the slide in the next few days. In the meantime, Thaners
come to town by skiff.
Over in Douglas across the bridge from Juneau, the North Douglas Highway
whips around nearly six miles, not to mention the southern continuation two miles into
the old mining community, once larger than Juneau as Douglas dwellers love to point
out, before petering out into residential streets and roads.
Sitka is now joined by a bridge to Japonski Island. Japonski Island, one mile long
and one-fourth mile wide, was early named Japanese Island by the Russians for some
unknown reason. In Russian days it was the home of occasional truck farmers and the
astronomical observatory. Later a Navy coaling station was established there, although
there were complaints that the coal was simply stored in sheds that rotted and not used
by the U. S. steamers at all.
The island was developed as Fort Ray in World War II and causeways built
connecting various islets around it. After the war it was turned over to the Bureau of
Indian Affairs and a large hospital built for tuberculosis patients. The FAA had a small
station on the island and the U. S. Public Health Service later became in charge of the
hospital. As there was nowhere to go on the island, but people wanted out of the rain,
free bus service was offered on the dirt roads. There were two routes; the direct and the
scenic one, which toured the island. The buses took nurses to and from work and
functioned as school buses as well as offering a ride to anyone who had been visiting or
shopping “over town” as Sitka was called.
We arrived in 1963 in our old Mercedes on the then-new Alaska ferry Matanuska,
having driven across country from Baltimore. As there was no bridge, getting the car
from Baranof Island where Sitka is located over to Japonski, was not easy. Finally it
happened and we had the first nice private car on the island.
The inhabitants agreed it added a great deal of class to the place, but the
competition was a few rusted out old government cars, so it wasn’t exactly a triumph.
Sitka had very few cars at the time because it cost $1,000 to bring one up by barge
from Seattle. At this time a new car could be had for under $2,000, so most people
walked. It wasn’t very far anyway.
However, things were changing. A pulp mill had opened recently and the mill
barge would bring cars up for $100.00. That made a difference, although the size of the
town (about 2,000) and the rust-inducing 95” of rain a year made residents wary of
investing in cars to use 14 miles of road (seven out to the mill to the north and seven to
the ferry terminal to the south).
The grocery stores delivered free of charge and there was a cab in town and one
on the island. When a bridge finally was built in the early 1970s, wide-eyed Mt.
Edgecumbites came creeping over the bridge to town in old surplus government cars.
Cars changed the dynamics of the town. In the summer, people wandered
through the streets if they weren’t out fishing or boating. It was very pleasant to chat
with someone weeding the lawn or mending nets or simply run into someone else
sauntering along in the late summer twilight and exchange news of the children or
health or hear stories of the old days in Sitka.
When Sitka had only the delivery van for groceries, a doctor on Mt. Edgecumbe
bought a surplus Army ambulance for no very good reason except to have a car over
town. His sons came home from school one day, indignant because they hadn’t been
believed when they bragged of their father’s car. “People don’t have cars: stores do.”
At Christmas, both American and Russian Christmases, so a period of two
weeks, the merchants downtown had free eggnog and other refreshments for the
evening shoppers. We were too late for that halcyon period, but were wistful we hadn’t
With more autos in town, people drove places, although there were still enough
breakdowns by the side of the road to keep conversation going. On The Island, as
Japonski was known when it wasn’t called The Rock, stranded cars were common since
the gas farm was open only twice a week. Our Mercedes had an extra gallon
compartment, but if you didn’t pull the lever it didn’t refi ll when the regular gas tank
was replenished, so more than once I had to leave it off the road for a day or two.
The gas farm, a buried tank with a pump on the surface, itself was a relic from
World War II. When the store ran low, water became mixed with the gasoline and
various cars were left sitting by the side of the road.
Time and more automobiles rolled on. Around ten years ago it was noticed
every Sitkan apparently owned two cars. That remained a mystery to me, owner of one
small Plymouth, until a man from Haines told me the secret.
He and his family were moving to Fairbanks for a year and renting out their
house, so went to Juneau to buy a car. A new car, since they didn’t trust their current
pair to take them to Fairbanks and back in the winter. Why two cars? So you’ll always
have one running. It took me back to Mt. Edgecumbe one early Saturday when I was
told my husband was with the other Island men, welding the body of Rob’s car back
together. It had rusted out in the middle and he was afraid of going around corners
However, fast-forwarding to today, there were other vehicles in Southeast1 now.
I was told about the tank in Angoon. Two young men told me about it, urging the other
not to forget the details. It’s not a big tank; no, one of the surplus little National Guard
tanks. This guy in Angoon bought it and painted it yellow. Not a real bright yellow, just
a nice color. He got it licensed, of course, and obtained a special permit to drive on the
street as long as he didn’t hit anything. Sure looked great, that little yellow tank riding
around on the road while the kids laughed and cheered and asked for rides.
A few weeks later I met the mayor of Angoon and eagerly asked her about the
tank and its owner. She looked thoughtful and said she was sure she would know if
there was a tank in Angoon.
If I can’t impress anybody in Juneau with my car (I don’t own one), I’d really like
a small yellow tank.