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Sitka – “People On the Outside of Baranof Island”

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The City and Borough of Sitka (Tlingit: Sheetʼká), formerly New Arkhangelsk, or New Archangel under Russian rule (Russian:Ново-Архангельск or Новоaрхангельск, Novoarkhangelsk), is a unified city-borough located on Baranof Island and the southern half of Chichagof Island in the Alexander Archipelago of the Pacific Ocean (part of the Alaska Panhandle), in the U.S. state of Alaska.

As of the 2010 census, the population was 8,881. In terms of land area, it is the largest city-borough in the U.S., with a land area of 2,870.3 mi2 (7,434.1 km2) and a total area (including water area) of 4,811.4 mi2 (12,460.8 km2). Urban Sitka, the part that is usually thought of as the “city” of Sitka, is situated on the west side of Baranof Island.

The current name Sitka (derived from Sheet’ká, a contraction of the Tlingit Shee At’iká) means “People on the Outside of Baranof Island”, whose Tlingit name is Sheet’-ká X’áat’l (here contracted to Shee).

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Sitka’s location was originally settled by the Tlingit people over 10,000 years ago. The Russians settled Old Sitka in 1799, calling it Redoubt Saint Michael (Russian: форт Архангела Михаила, t Fort Arkhangela Mikhaila). The governor of Russian America, Alexander Baranov, arrived under the auspices of the Russian-American Company, a colonial trading company chartered by Tsar Paul I. In June 1802, Tlingit warriors destroyed the original settlement, killing many of the Russians, with only a few managing to escape. Baranov was forced to levy 10,000 rubles in ransom for the safe return of the surviving settlers.

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Baranov returned to Sitka in August 1804, with a large force, including Yuri Lisyansky’s Neva. The ship bombarded the Tlingit fort on the 20th, but was not able to cause significant damage. The Russians then launched an attack on the fort and were repelled. However, after a couple days of bombardment, the Tlingit “hung out a white flag” on the 22nd, and then deserted the fort on the 26th.

Following their victory at the Battle of Sitka, the Russians established New Archangel as a permanent settlement named after Arkhangelsk, the largest city in the region where Baranov was born. The Tlingit re-established a fort on the Chatham Strait side of Peril Strait to enforce a trade embargo with the Russian establishment. In 1808, with Baranov still governor, Sitka was designated the capital of Russian America.

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The Cathedral of Saint Michael was built in Sitka in 1848 and became the seat of the Russian Orthodox bishop of Kamchatka, the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, and Alaska. The original church burnt to the ground in 1966, but was restored to its original appearance, with the deliberate exception of its clockface, which is black in photographs taken prior to 1966, but white in subsequent photos.

As out of the way as it appears now, the settlement was once known as the “Paris of the Pacific;” for the first half of the nineteenth century, it was the most important port on the West Coast.

Bishop Innocent lived in Sitka after 1840. He was known for his interest in education, and his house, parts of which served as a schoolhouse, the Russian Bishop’s House has since been restored by the National Park Service as part of the Sitka National Historical Park. Swedes, Finns and other Lutherans worked for the Russian-American Company,and the Sitka Lutheran Church, built in 1840, was the first Protestant church on the Pacific coast. After the transition to American control, following the purchase of Alaska from Russia by the United States in 1867, the influence of other Protestant religions increased, and Saint-Peter’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church was consecrated as “the Cathedral of Alaska” in 1900.

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There are 22 buildings and sites in Sitka that appear in the National Register of Historic Places.

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Post-Russia control

Sitka was the site of the signing of the Alaska purchase and where the transfer of power took place on October 18, 1867. Russia was going through economic and political turmoil after it lost the Crimean War to Britain, France, and Turkey in 1856 and decided it wanted to sell Alaska before it got taken over by Britain. Russia offered to sell it to the United States. Secretary of State William Seward had wanted to purchase Alaska for quite some time as he saw it as an integral part of Manifest Destiny and America’s reach to the Pacific Ocean. 

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While the agreement to purchase Alaska was made in April 1867, the actual purchase and transfer of power took place on October 18, 1867. The cost to purchase Alaska was $7.2 million.

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On October 18, Alaska celebrates Alaska Day to commemorate the Alaska purchase. The City of Sitka holds an annual Alaska Day Festival. This week-long event includes a reenactment ceremony of the signing of the Alaska purchase, as well as interpretive programs at museums and parks, special exhibits, aircraft displays and film showings, receptions, historic sites and buildings tours, food, prose writing contest essays, Native and other dancing, and entertainment and more. The first recorded Alaska Day Festival was held in 1949.

 Sitka in 1901

Alaska’s first newspaper following the Alaska purchase, the Sitka Times, was published by Barney O. Ragan on September 19, 1868. Only four issues were published that year, as Ragan cited a lack of resources available at the time. The paper resumed publishing the following year as the Alaska Times. In 1870, it moved to Seattle, where the year following it was renamed the Seattle Times (not to be confused with the modern-day newspaper of the same name).

Sitka served as the capital of the Alaska Territory until 1906, when the seat of government was relocated north to Juneau.

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The Alaska Native Brotherhood was founded in Sitka in 1912 to address racism against Alaska Native people in Alaska. By 1914 the organization had constructed the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall on Katlian Street.

Sitka’s Filipino community established itself in Sitka before 1929. It later became institutionalized as the Filipino Community of Sitka in 1981.

Gold mining and fish canning paved the way for the town’s initial growth. In World War II, when the United States Navy constructed an air base on Japonski Island, bringing 30,000 service personnel to the area, Sitka became much bigger. Today Sitka encompasses portions of Baranof Island and the smaller Japonski Island (across the Sitka Channel from the town), which is connected to Baranof Island by the O’Connell Bridge.

The John O’Connell Bridge was the first cable-stayed bridge built in the Western Hemisphere. Japonski Island is home to Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport, the Sitka branch campus of the University of Alaska Southeast, Mt. Edgecumbe High School (a state-run boarding school for rural Alaskans), Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium’s Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital, a U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Sitka, and the port and facilities for the USCGC Maple.

The home rule charter of the City and Borough of Sitka was adopted on 2 December 1971 for the region of the Greater Sitka Borough, which was incorporated on 24 September 1963. On October 23, 1973, the city of Port Alexander was detached from the borough.

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Geography

 A view of Sitka’s Crescent Harbor, Indian River valley and, in the background, The Sisters.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the borough is the largest incorporated city by area in the U.S., with a total area of 4,811 square miles (12,460.4 km2), of which 2,870 square miles (7,400 km2) is land and 1,941 square miles (5,030 km2) (40.3%) is water. The non-city Alaskan borough of North Slope Borough is the largest incorporated area in the U.S.

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Sitka displaced Juneau, Alaska as the largest incorporated city in the United States upon the 2000 incorporation with 2,874 square miles (7,440 km2) of incorporated area. Juneau’s incorporated area is 2,717 square miles (7,040 km2). Jacksonville, Florida, is the largest city in area in the contiguous 48 states at 758 square miles (1,960 km2).
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Climate

  • Sitka has an oceanic climate with moderate, but generally cool, temperatures and abundant precipitation.
  • Average annual precipitation is 131.74 inches (3,350 mm); average seasonal snowfall is 33 inches (84 cm), falling on 233 and 19 days respectively.
  • The mean annual temperature is 45.3 °F (7.4 °C), with monthly means ranging from 36.4 °F (2.4 °C) in January to 57.2 °F (14.0 °C) in August.
  • Only 5.1 days per year see highs at or above 70 °F (21 °C); conversely, there are only 10 days with the high not exceeding freezing.
  • Extremes range from a −1 °F (−18.3 °C) low overnight on February 16th – 17th, 1948, and a high of 88 °F (31.1 °C) July 30th, 1976.
  • The winters are extremely mild compared to inland areas of similar and much more southerly parallels due to the intense maritime moderation. The relatively mild nights ensure that four months stay above the 50 °F (10 °C) isotherm that normally separates inland areas from being boreal in nature.
  • Due to the mild winter nights, plant hardiness is high for the latitude.

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My dear friend Raddy whom I knew for some years sailing also on Holland America cruiseships. We were the best of buddies. He was a wonderful musician and knew every known song to man. Sadly he passed away a few years back and he will be sadly missed. My last photo of him when we decided to have coffee together in downtown Sitka. He was on another Holland America Line cruiseship at the time, so it was great to get the chance to meet up, have coffee and some lunch at that Chinese restaurant (pic featured above).

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Attractions

The Pioneer Home, one of Sitka’s many historic structures, in May 2002

Sitka’s many attractions include:

  • Alaska Day
  • Alaska Raptor Center
  • Baranof Castle Hill
  • Naa Kahídi Dancers who perform in the Sheet’ká Kwáan Naa Kahídi
  • Russian Bishop’s House
  • Saint Lazaria National Wildlife Refuge
  • St. Michael’s Cathedral
  • Saint Peter’s-By-The-Sea Episcopal Church
  • Sheldon Jackson Museum
  • Sitka Fine Arts Camp
  • Sitka Historical Museum
  • Sitka Jazz Festival
  • Sitka Lutheran Church
  • Sitka National Historical Park
  • Sitka Pioneer Home
  • Sitka Summer Music Festival
  • Swan Lake
  • Tongass National Forest
  • Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Chapel
  • Whale Fest

The flora and fauna of Sitka and its surrounding area are also a notable attraction. Day cruises and guided day trips (hiking) are large enterprises in Sitka. Floatplane”flightseeing” excursions are a breathtaking way to view the area’s many sights from high above.

Outdoor opportunities

Sitka’s unique position of being straddled between the Pacific Ocean and the most mountainous island in the Alexander Archipelago creates an abundant variety of outdoor opportunities:

Looking down Sitka Channel in the early morning

  • The Baranof Cross-Island Trail, which leads to the small community of Baranof Warm Springs on the eastern side of the island, is a popular summer backpacking trip. Only serious and experienced backpackers, or those with an experienced guide, should undertake such a trip due to volatile weather conditions in the mountains and the required crossings of icefields with crevasses.
  • The dormant volcano Mount Edgecumbe is also a popular mountain to summit and features a seven-mile (11 km) trail up to the top. Guided day-trips are available, but the trip does not require much knowledge to undertake.
  • The officially unnamed, but informally named Peak 5390 (the name is derived from its height in feet) is the highest point on Baranof Island and a demanding climb. Few people undertake this peak; those interested should consult with one who has summited previously.
  • Kayaking is a popular activity and small guided day excursions are offered locally. For longer trips, popular destinations include the Baranof Island-located outposts of Goddard hot springs, Baranof Warm Springs, Port Alexander, Port Armstrong, or Port Walter. White Sulphur Hot Springs (on the western side of Chichagof Island) is also a destination for ocean kayakers. For locations closer to Sitka, U.S. Forest Service cabins are popular.
  • There are a number of maintained trails in the Sitka area, many of which are accessible from Sitka’s road system. Popular trails include Indian River Trail, Beaver Lake Trail, Mosquito Cove Trail, Harbor Mountain/Gavin Hill Trail, Redoubt Lake Trail, Mount Verstovia Trail, and Shelikof Trail.

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Sitka Jazz Festival is a three-day jazz festival in the community of Sitka, Alaska that takes place every February. It features educational clinics for participating students, evening concerts featuring professional jazz artists, and the All-Alaska Jazz Band—an audition-entrance honor ensemble for Alaskan high school students.

History

The Sitka Jazz Festival was born out of Sitka High School’s “jazz nights.” The jazz nights have occurred since 1995 and consisted of SHS ensembles and a guest professional artist playing solo and with SHS ensembles. Jazz Nights brought distinguished artists such as trumpeter Claudio Roditi and saxophonist Andres Boiarsky. The festival eventually expanded to accommodate multiple guest artists, clinics, out-of-town school jazz ensembles, and the venue was moved to the 1,500-seat Mt. Edgecumbe High School fieldhouse. The 2005 festival was housed in Sheldon Jackson College’s Hames Center and in 2006 and 2007 the festival moved back to the Sitka High School gymnasium which, through an extensive overhaul, was turned into a temporary 500-seat auditorium. The 2009 festival took place in Sitka’s auditorium, designed for an 619-seat capacity. The Sitka Jazz Festival is modeled after the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho.

By the way if you didnt know until now – the blockbuster movie The Proposal was shot in Sitka, Alaska starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. Now I bet alot of you didnt know this – well nor did until just now!.

The Proposal is a 2009 American romantic comedy film set in Sitka, Alaska. Directed by Anne Fletcher and written by Peter Chiarelli, the film features Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in the leading roles, with Betty White, Mary Steenburgen, and Craig T. Nelson in supporting roles. The film was produced by Mandeville Films and released on June 19, 2009, in North America by Touchstone Pictures. The plot centers on a Canadian executive, Margaret Tate, who learns that she may face deportation from the U.S. because of her expired visa. Determined to retain her position as editor in chief of a publishing house, Tate convinces her assistant, Andrew Paxton, to temporarily act as her fiancé. Initially planning on resuming their lives after Tate resolves her visa issues, they appear to abandon those plans as their relationship intensifies.

Development on the film began in 2005, when Chiarelli wrote the film’s script. Principal filming occurred over a period of two months from March to May 2008. The film received mixed reviews from critics, who criticized its script, but praised the chemistry between Bullock and Reynolds. The film was a box office success, grossing over $317 million worldwide, becoming the highest grossing romantic comedy film of 2009.

So you can see that this wonderful seaside town has more than just what you see at first sight. I was amazed on what things there are in Sitka once one gets walking around the town and getting into every nook and crany. A must-see if you wanna see the greatness and history of Alaska, the new frontier from just one historical town.

By the way, dont forget to read my other Alaskan travel article on the city of Ketchikan at http://livingmsia.com/kitschk-hin-city-of-the-ketchikan-creek/

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