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Chapter Two
Ketchikan

The steamer docked on a dreary Sunday afternoon. The buildings appeared gray and
badly weathered after a winter of storms and nearly 200 inches of rain. A chill southeast
wind blew rain, peppered with flakes of wet snow, sideways. Dark, green spruce and hemlock
forests at the higher elevations behind town were draped with fresh snow. March can
be a month of frequent and heavy snows in Southeast Alaska.

George and I stood at the rail as the ship approached the wharf. Thousands of sea gulls
either perched on the surface of Tongass Narrows or flew in circles, screaming excitedly.

Occasionally several dived into the water and fought over a herring one bird had caught.

“Herring run is in,” George said. We looked down into the sea. A solid school of dark
green-backed fish slowly swimming around the ship. Occasionally one would turn its silver
belly up and float to the surface dead. Twenty seagulls would dive in unison in an attempt
to grab it.

Longshoremen took the lines. We were soon tied up alongside the Alaska Steamship
dock. A gangplank was rolled into position. Despite the nasty weather the dock was crowded
with a hodgepodge of people who came to see the weekly steamer arrive. Some local men
wore blue jeans and light jackets or woolen shirts open at the collar. They were lightly
dressed, I thought, considering the wet, cold weather. A policeman stood at the bottom of
the gangway checking to see who arrived. Several women, dressed in slacks or jeans, heavy
woolen coats, or a slicker, stood hunched against the wind and rain. A few wore calf-length
rubber boots. This was the first time I’d seen women wearing rubber boots to town. I
learned later they were known as “Ketchikan tennis shoes.”

Standing off to one side, in stark contrast to the other women, were three beautiful
females dressed in the latest Seattle fashions, short skirts, silk stockings, fur coats with fox
collars, fur hats, high heeled shoes and rubber overshoes. They twirled bright parasols and
attracted the attention of most of the men. I assumed they were probably members of
Ketchikan’s upper class, and was about to point them out to my companion when George
nudged me.

“Girls from Creek Street. Down to size up new customers. Advertising their wares.
Some of our shipmates will be making a beeline for the creek tonight.”

Of course I’d heard of Creek Street’s red light district.

“Including you?” I asked. George gave me a dumb look and winked. “Come along.
You might become half a sourdough tonight.”

“Half a sourdough?”

“Yeah. To become a sourdough you’re supposed to **** in the Yukon River and sleep
with a squaw.” He laughed.

“George, shame on you. I’m a married man.”

A few people were expecting friends. Others were seeing someone off to Petersburg or


Ketchikan Spruce Mills and Thomas basin breakwater. Ketchikan is strung out along Tongass narrows at the base of the mountains.

Juneau. Although it was possible to fly from Seattle International Airport by Pan American
Airlines to Annette Island, then transfer by Ellis Airlines and fly in a Grumman Goose
amphibious airplane to Ketchikan, flying wasn’t very popular yet. No airports existed at
any Southeast Alaska towns except Annette Island and Juneau. Small float planes were the
normal means of transportation between towns. Steamships owned by Alaska Steamship
Company and the Canadian Princess Lines were slow, compared to flying, but were a relaxing
way to travel, provided excellent food and service for passengers. Unless the traveler
was in a hurry the steamers were the preferred means of transportation for most people.

I had no job, no place to stay and only about fifty dollars. I had intended to look for
work at a logging camp but had already been told on the steamer that only one logging
camp, Abe Lokken’s on Gravina Island, was in the area, and it was closed down for the winter.
I’d been told a good place to stay was at the The Knickerbocker, on Dock Street,
owned by Jean Gain. I shouldered my seabag, walked to the rooming house and paid for
one week’s room and board. That left me with about twenty dollars in my pocket. It
occurred to me that I had better find work fast. Meals were served family style for boarders,
and I was invited to join about a dozen others already at the tables.

Setting close to me were two men. They had arrived on the Pan American Airlines
flight from Seattle that day, and had also taken a room at the Knickerbocker. Not knowing
I was a new arrival in town, one man, who introduced himself as Sam Jacobson, asked me
if I knew anyone willing to do some heavy work hauling freight off the dock for a few
days.

I said, “Look no farther. I’m a logger, used to heavy work. I just arrived on the steamer
a few hours ago and I’m looking for a job.”

“Great,” Sam said, “We need two men. We’re flooring contractors and have a job on
a new apartment building up the street. About 40 tons of floor tile, cement, counter top
linoleum, and our equipment was on that steamer. We need it hauled to the building and
distributed to various rooms. Then, you’ll be laid off.”

They rented a flatbed truck the next morning and hired the late Jack Tiessen, who, I
soon discovered, was a salmon troller. He’d had a good salmon trolling season and had
recently bought a splendid new boat, the Coronation. Sam and one of the tile setters supervised
the unloading and placing the tile in the building, now named the Mary Frances
Towers Condominium at 320 Bawden Street.

Jack was big and husky. We worked hard hauling that heavy floor tile. So, on my first
full day in Alaska, I was thrown together with another commercial fisherman, a salmon
troller. Using my own terms of a few years ago in Astoria, Jack was one of those “crazy men
who went to sea in small boats.” Small beginnings, to be sure.

After work Jack invited me down to meet his wife Kay and see his boat. Kay was a
petite, cute blond, much younger than Jack. They were newlyweds. The boat was moored
at Thomas Basin, several blocks from The Knickerbocker. Jack and Kay lived aboard.

The fo’c’sle was warm, large and comfortable. I thought living on a boat like the
Coronation would be great. He explained how salmon were caught by hook and line. I
learned how power gurdies lifted and lowered the heavy leads up and down.

I also visited with Del and Mary Johnson, who I’d met briefly in Washington through
their daughter Jerry. Their boat, the Eena, a 36-foot double-ender, [pointed at both ends]
was also moored in Thomas Basin, one of two small boat harbors in Ketchikan at the time.
The Eena was an old boat, with a small pilothouse, and living quarters in the fo’c’sle. I
listened spellbound while Del told of fishing stormy Cape Ommaney, the south end of
Baranof Island, of laying out blows in snug harbors such as Snipe Bay, or Ten-Fathom
Anchorage, of catching 100 kings one day in Larch Bay. He described how herring seiners,
fishing out of Chatham Straits herring refineries, were destroying the herring runs, fish
which king salmon depended upon for food.

“Well, there’s plenty of herring here in Tongass Narrows,” I said.

“Give ‘em time, they’ll clean out the narrows too,” Del spat. “Once the herring are
gone, the kings will be gone too.”

I was intrigued to learn that the salmon fishermen despised the herring fishermen.
Commercial fishing was interesting, but I certainly had no intentions of pursuing it as an
occupation. I did want to get a small boat and catch some salmon, though.
I told Jack about my plans.

“Get a skiff. Fish commercially. Some of these hand trollers make good money.”
“Hand trollers?”

“Yeah. Trollers who fish by pulling their gear aboard by hand, or with sport gear,
instead of power.”

I asked Del about it. “The puddle-jumper fleet. Sure. There’s a few of ‘em. Some have
only little rowboats, but most have a one-cylinder gas engine. We see them at Point Baker,
Meyers Chuck and Tebenkof Bay.”

“Do they actually make money?”

Del shrugged and laughed. “Well, they have practically no overhead like we power
trollers do. I know one hand troller by the name of Hardy out in Port Protection who
makes a good living fishing and trapping. He has an 18-foot Point Baker boat.”

Not wishing to further disclose my ignorance about small boats, I didn’t ask what puddle-
jumpers and Point Baker boats were. I was confused by the talk about salmon fishing.
It seemed complicated, and, even then I was smart enough to realize it required a lot of
equipment. Exactly how much I didn’t learn until later!

After two days of heavy work we finished hauling tile. I expected to be out of a job,
but at least I’d earned enough to pay another week’s rent.

At quitting time I said, “Well, I guess that’s about it.”

“Not quite,” Sam said, writing two checks. “We’re not through yet.

You’ve worked hard getting all that tile up here, but that isn’t the end of the job. We need
one good worker to help the tile setters. Since Jack will be going fishing soon, that leaves
you.”

“ Thanks. That’s great.” I was relieved to have the job. By now Sam had five tile setters
and one counter top man on the job.

Right away it became obvious that several of Sam’s crew were more interested in
Ketchikan’s night life than working at their trade. One guy, who had a wife and several children
at home in Seattle, spent so much time partying at night he could barely make it to
work each morning. The many bars were the center of night life. Down and across
Ketchikan Creek from the apartment construction job, Ketchikan’s infamous Creek Street
brothels stretched out along boardwalks to Stedman Street. The brothels were the main
attraction for some of our crew.

It wasn’t unusual, especially on Monday mornings, to find one or more of the men
didn’t show up at the job. This infuriated the boss. He had a deadline to meet.
My job was sweeping the cement floors to ready them for spreading tile cement and
keeping material close at hand for the men who were laying asphalt tile. Working around
the tile setters, I naturally learned a few tricks of the trade.

One bitterly cold morning, with snow sifting down, I was working in a room facing
Ketchikan Creek with a view down Creek Street. One of the tile setters, who liked to
carouse at night, peered out the window overlooking Creek Street and noticed two ladies
dressed in bath robes standing underneath their house looking up at the floor. Creek
Street houses are built over tidal waters along the creek and perch on tall pilings like old,
faded blue herons. During high tide water floods up the creek almost to the floors. At low
tide some buildings stand perched on pilings high above the rocky beach. Being unfamiliar
with huge tides, I never tired of looking at the ever-changing view down the creek.

“Lookit over there,” he said. “I wonder what those girls are doing?”

“Their water pipes are frozen. They neglected to leave the water run last night and it
froze. The girls want to take a bath and go to sleep for the day.”

He looked at me suspiciously. “Caldwell, how do you know that?”

“Because, when the boss sent me to the post office for the mail, they yelled at me
across the creek, asking if we had any blow torches.”

“And?”

“I told them we had lots of blow torches.”

“That’s all? You never offered to help?”

“I told them I was busy working.”

He looked at me reproachfully. “Caldwell, I ought to report you to the Humane
Society. You’re no gentleman.”

“They’re no ladies either.”

“Awe, Come on Caldwell. Have a heart. They are too. They’re ladies of the night.”

He wandered off, muttering about the dumb laborers that worked on this job. A few minutes
later he and his buddy left the building carrying blow torches.

It was a long walk for them down to the only entrance to Creek Street on Stedman
Street, then back up the long boardwalk to the last house where they’d seen the girls.


Dolly’s House, now a tourist attraction, was once a house of prostitution on Creek Street.

[Today there is an entrance to Creek Street not far from the farthest upstream house.] As
I worked, I kept an eye out for them. I noticed them talking to the girls on the board walk,
pointing underneath the houses, then climbing down a slimy, rickety ladder to the rocky
beach below the house. The tide was low and the houses stood 20 feet above the rocks.

Toilets on Creek Street dumped straight through the floors onto the rocks in those days. I
didn’t envy them crawling around down on those slippery, stinking rocks. I hoped they
didn’t start a house fire with those torches.

The boss came around. “Seen Calvin and Tom?

I pointed down Creek Street. “Last I seen of them they were under that house.”

Mustache bristling, he growled, “What the hell are they doing down there?”

“Thawing frozen water pipes.”

“My men plumbers! What the hell is going on here? They didn’t even ask permission
to leave.”

Calvin and Tom never showed up for work the rest of the day. Sam was furious. I
didn’t blame him. The work was already falling behind schedule because of all this partying.
The next morning the two came down to breakfast looking sheepish and hung over.
“How’s the plumbing business,” Sam asked.

The two only smiled and looked down at their coffee cups with a subdued look.

A few days later this pair failed to show up for work again. Sam looked everywhere,
except Creek Street, where I expect they’d holed up, and couldn’t locate them. He was furious.
I stayed away from him, afraid he’d take it out on me. Sam knew I needed enough
money to find a place to rent and send for my family. But rentals were difficult to find.
Sam cornered me at the breakfast table the next morning and motioned me outside.

“I have a manpower problem, and right now we do not have any more men working
for us in Seattle that can come up on short notice and help. You want to learn how to lay
tile?”

“Well, sure.”

“It pays almost twice as much as laborer. I’ll pay you half the difference because you’re
just starting. I’ll get one of the men to show you.”

“How about Calvin and Tom?”

He glanced at his watch. “They’re history. Going to the Ingersol Hotel to buy them
airplane tickets right now.” The airlines had a tiny office in the hotel.

I’d been watching the men set tile. With a little coaching I was able to do the work,
except for laying out the first course of tile in a room. Sam or one of the others helped do
that. The work was back-breaking and hard on the knees but the extra money helped.

To get to the job we walked up Dock Street, around the corner and up Bawden Street.

On Dock Street, the Ketchikan Daily News was on the left and Alaska Sportsman Magazine,
Emery Tobin, publisher, was across the street. On the corner was Fosse’s Plumbing and
Heating. Walking back and forth to work and lunch I became acquainted with owner
Ole Fosse, a Norwegian.

Occasionally, as I passed the plumbing shop, Ole would be struggling with loading or
unloading heavy pipe or cumbersome sheet metal fabrications from his old Dodge pick-up.
I’d stop and help. He really appreciated that.

After the tile job ended I was ready to take a few days off. I’d been working six and
seven days a week and my knees were giving me trouble from kneeling all day on cement.
Jean Gain came and sat down by me at dinner. “You’re pretty handy with your hands
aren’t you?”

“It runs in the family.”

“What are you going to do now?”

“I’m hoping to buy a boat.”

“A fishing boat?”

“A small boat. Something I can go sport fishing with. I don’t have enough money for
anything else.”

“How much do you need?”

“Probably about $500.”

Jean thought a moment.” All those rooms upstairs need painting. You said you can
paint?”

“I’ve smeared enough in the navy to paint half the buildings in Ketchikan.”

“I’ll pay you twenty five dollars per room and furnish the paint and supplies.”

Now it is my turn to consider. I hesitated for a few minutes.

“Can I paint at night?”

“Why?”

“Well, I’ve been in town quite a while and all I’ve had time to do is work. I’d like to
look around town for a boat during the day.”

“The rooms will have to be empty for a few days, one at a time. It doesn’t make any
difference to me when you paint, as long as you get it done.”

“Well, I don’t know..”

“I’ll throw in free room and board while you paint.”

“Well, okay. Sure, I’ll paint the rooms for you.”

I didn’t require much sleep. I painted one room each night, then had all day to prowl around looking at boats. Small boats for sale were difficult to find. All were of wood. Glass
boats hadn’t made their way to Ketchikan, if they were available anywhere.


Fosse’s Plumbing Shop,corner of Dock and Bawden Streets.
 
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