There is no other word that describes Sitka better than "spectacular." Besides the natural beauty that surrounds Sitka Sound, the city boasts a fascinating history, the excitement of a college town and cultural center, a unique totem park and an attractive city center. Mount Edgecumbe and its dormant volcano stand guard over the pretty harbor.
Sitka is the only major city on Baranof Island. Throughout the area, you'll find relics from the three cultures that have most influenced Sitka: Tlingit, Russian and American.
HistoryOn July 15, 1741, the Russian vessel St. Paul arrived in Sitka, ending the peaceful lifestyle of the Tlingit. As news spread of the wealth to be gained from the fur trade, trappers, traders and explorers flocked to the new frontier. The Great Land would never be the same.
Alexander Baranof, the general manager of the Russian American Company, founded what is today known as Old Sitka in 1799. He named the site St. Archangel Michael and made it the Russian base of operations in North America. The Tlingit resisted the invasion of their territory, waging fierce, bloody battles in an effort to drive the Russians from their land; in 1802, they massacred the Russian colony while Baranof was away. But two years later, Baranof returned with reinforcements and besieged the Tlingit fort. The Tlingit ran out of ammunition and withdrew. The Russians landed, burned the fort and began to build a new city on the site, naming it New Archangel.
The city was a prosperous port by 1830, and the Russian colonists industriously set about making the new city resemble their homeland. New Archangel quickly grew into an international crossroads of commerce and culture known worldwide as the Paris of the Pacific and already economically more important than both Seattle and San Francisco. For over six decades, it remained the capital of the Russian Empire in Alaska.
In 1867, the Russian czardom negotiated with William H. Seward, the U.S. Secretary of State, to sell the Alaskan territory to the U.S. for $7,200,000. Secretary Seward was vehemently criticized by his enemies, who called the purchase Seward's folly. History has proved his critics wrong. Because of the region's extraordinary mineral wealth, Alaska has paid for itself many times over. After the purchase transfer was formalized on October 18, 1867, New Archangel was renamed Sitka. The city served as the capital of the new American territory until Juneau became the capital at the height of the gold rush.
Everywhere you go in Sitka, you are reminded of the city's exotic history; there are totem poles, Russian cannons, a Russian cemetery, Inuit artifacts, bus drivers sporting Russian-style tunics and a Russian folk-dance troupe.
The Centennial Building, the city's convention center, is a good place to start a tour--it houses the offices of Sitka's Chamber of Commerce, the Visitors' Bureau and the Sitka Historical Society. The building also contains a museum, an art gallery, a model of New Archangel and an auditorium, where the world-famous New Archangel Dancers perform. Dressed in their colorful Russian costumes, the dancers have delighted countless numbers with their repertoire of authentic Russian folk dances. The all-female troupe comprises local talent, and their dancing is a tradition passed down through generations of Russian-American women. Performances are scheduled to coincide with cruise-ship arrivals.
The Russian influence is evident in Sitka's most famous landmark, the beautiful St. Michael's Cathedral. This Russian Orthodox church, with its distinctive dome and spire, is centrally located on Lincoln Street. It holds some of the most treasured Russian icons in the country and other objects of interest to visitors. Among the collection of religious artifacts are paintings, vestments of magnificent brocade, wedding crowns over 100 years old and precious stones including Siberian topaz. If the church itself seems in remarkable condition for a building that dates from 1848, it is because the original structure was destroyed by fire in 1966. Although many of the priceless relics were saved, the building was a complete loss. Luckily, the original plans were discovered in government archives, and an exact duplicate was reconstructed on the same site.
Castle Hill, where the transfer ceremonies between Russia and the United States took place, is also on Lincoln Street. As the Russian flag came down, the first American flag to fly over Alaska was raised in its place. Castle Hill was once the site of a Russian castle, and several Russian cannons still guard the hilltop, which offers a gorgeous view of Sitka Sound.
Just a short distance from Castle Hill is the Sitka Pioneers Home, built in 1934 as part of a statewide system of retirement homes for the men and women of the 49th state. Nearby, on Observatory Street, is the Russian Mission Cemetery.
Where Monastery and Lincoln streets meet, you'll find the Russian Bishop's House, now administered by the National Park Service as part of Sitka National Historical Park. It is the oldest existing Russian-built structure in the state; it dates back to 1842-43, when it was constructed to house Bishop Innocent (Ivan Veniaminov), the first bishop of the newly created diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church serving the community of Russians and converted Natives in the Alaska-Bering Sea region. The log-and-plank structure began to deteriorate early in this century, and a project undertaken in 1972 has restored it to its original state.
Also of historical interest is the octagonal Sheldon Jackson Museum on the Sheldon Jackson College campus, which is located across from Crescent Harbor off Lincoln Street. The museum is a repository for the articles that Dr. Sheldon Jackson, a missionary and the general agent for education in the late 19th century, acquired in remote areas of Alaska. The collection of Native artifacts is one of the most important in the world.
Unusual Tlingit totems and original crafts abound in Sitka. In the Sitka National Historical Park, next to the college campus, you'll come upon 18 brilliantly carved totem poles. These trademarks of the Tlingit and Haida stand up to 80 feet tall and record valuable legends, family histories and past events. The park's Visitor Center offers audiovisual programs and exhibits, and Native artists and craftspeople are sometimes available to explain and demonstrate traditional crafts. If you follow the trail through the park to the site of the original Tlingit fort, you'll pass other grand totems.
Just minutes from town, you'll find Alaska's bountiful wildlife and rustic gold mines. The wilderness offers you a true sense of what the Tlingit once called their home.
Sitka is a great place to shop for Russian curios and objets d'art, pottery, and, of course, Alaskan art and souvenirs.
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