Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 27, 2022

© Frank Flavin / Travel Aleska

Bookmark and Share

The tsar in Sitka

Who knew? This Alaskan fishing town was once the grand capital of Russian America

When my wife and I booked a cruise by small yacht through Alaska’s Inside Passage, we realized that it came with an unusual bonus: the cruise would start from Sitka, the state’s most historic community. For most of the 128,000 cruise visitors who arrived in Sitka last year, the town was only a day stop on large-ship itineraries that started and ended elsewhere. By booking a flight that arrived from Seattle a day early, we would have more time for a leisurely walking tour of Russian America’s former capital.

On that warm and sunny day in early June, it was easy to see why Sitka — on the Pacific Coast of Baranof Island, 150 kilometres by air southwest from Juneau — is considered Alaska’s most beautiful seaside town. Backed by spruce-covered mountains, this community of 8500 looks out onto the island-studded Sitka Sound and the snow-tipped cone of Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano on neighbouring Kruzof Island. The town’s two main harbours are filled with colourful fishing and pleasure boats and its low-rise skyline is a graceful exception to most Alaskan cityscapes.

Russia's backyard

Aside from its small-town charm and the beauty of its setting, Sitka’s most interesting attractions are the reminders of its First Nations and Russian past.

The Kiksádi Clan of Tlingit settled the coast here many centuries ago and, using seagoing canoes up to 18 metres in length, established trading relationships with neighbouring clans and other tribes, such as the Haida to the south and Copper River to the north.

However, by the end of the 18th century, Russian hunters and fur traders, based on Kodiak Island had operated in the Aleutian Islands and the northwest coast of Alaska for almost 50 years, pushing the sea otter population in that region to near extinction.

When Tsar Paul I chartered the Russian American Company to organize the fur trade in a more structured manner — and funnel more of its income into the royal treasury — the decision was made to move its operations farther south. Under the command of Alexander Baranof, first chief manager of the new company, Russians — along with the Aleut natives they forced to hunt for them — arrived here in 1799 and set up a new outpost called Redoubt Saint Michael several kilometres north of the Kiksádi village.

It wasn’t long before friction between the Russians and the Tlingit turned to violence. In 1802, natives attacked the Russian garrison and massacred more than 400 men, women and children. Two years later, Baranoff returned with a large force of Russians and Aleut slaves. After six days of fierce fighting and canon bombardment, the Kiksádi were driven away from the coast. Baranof replaced the Tlingit village of Shee Atika — which meant “people on the outside of Shee,” their name for the island — with a settlement they called New Archangel. Many years later, the original Tlingit name would be contracted to Sitka.

Move over HBC

While the Hudson’s Bay Company was trading blankets for beaver skins and expanding the British Empire in Canada, another colonial corporation — the Russian American Company — was operating quietly and very profitably on the Pacific coast, harvesting seal fur and silky otter pelts, which were sold for princely sums in China. For the next two decades, Baranof expanded imperial Russia’s influence as far south as the Spanish and British would tolerate.

Four years after it was founded, New Archangel became the capital of Russian America and a busy port for merchant vessels from all over the world. Over the next few decades, the town was known as the “Paris of the Pacific.” While most residents lived in damp, crowded quarters, company officials enjoyed relative opulence in fortress-like structures behind a formidable stockade on what became known as Castle Hill, former site of Kiksádi clan houses.

Baranof’s own “castle,” for example, was a large, comfortable residence furnished with a grand piano, fine paintings and silver samovars. Orthodox clergy, under the patronage of the tsar and funded by the company, built schools, chapels, what is still known as the Bishop’s House and, most importantly, Saint Michael’s Cathedral, the reconstruction of which is still prominent on the town’s skyline.

Overhunting of otters and fur seals brought the good times to an end. By the middle of the 19th century, Sitka had become dependent for survival on a shipyard, a fish saltery, sawmills and an ice-exporting business. Facing a financial hangover from the ruinous Crimean War and anticipating that the United States or Great Britain would eventually seize Russia’s Alaska territory, Tsar Alexander II decided to sell its 125-year-old North American enterprise to the US for $7.2 million. The transfer took place on Castle Hill on October 18, 1867.

The Alaska Day Festival celebrates the transfer on that day each year with a reenactment at the site. When the purchase was announced, it was ridiculed in the US press as a folly. It would be decades before most Americans realized what a bargain it really was.

Deep roots

Sitka is easily toured on foot. A good place to start is Baranof Castle Hill (, a State Historic Site near the eastern end of O’Connell Bridge. From the promontory you can get a good overview of Sitka and its harbours as well as Mount Edgecumbe, tipped with snow well into early summer.

Nearby, Saint Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral (Lincoln and Seward Streets; tel: 907-8120) is Sitka’s architectural centrepiece. The building seen today is an exact replica of the 1840s original, which burned down in the winter of 1966 during a devastating fire that levelled much of downtown.

Before the fire reached the church, more than 100 people formed human chains to save nearly all the contents, including a 136-kilo chandelier hanging under the cathedral’s dome. Visitors today can see that chandelier as well as a beautiful iconostasis hung with 18th-century icons, including Vladimir Borovikovsky’s famous Sitka Madonna, to which miracles have been attributed. St. Michael’s remains an active church with regular services for its mostly Tlingit parishioners.

The Sitka Historical Museum (330 Harbor Drive; tel: 907-747-6455;, tucked into the Harrington Centennial Building near the visitors dock on Crescent Harbor, focuses on the shared history of Tlingit, Russian and American residents, with an emphasis on the post-transfer decades. Exhibits range from a 15-metre war canoe to a reproduction of a Victorian-era parlour.

Not far away is the Russian Bishop’s House (corner Lincoln and Monastery Streets; tel: 907-747-6281;, one of only four original Russian structures remaining in North America. It was built in 1843 for Bishop Ivan Veniaminov, a remarkable polymath who designed Saint Michael’s Cathedral and developed a writing system for various native languages. He would go on to be Metropolitan of Moscow and in 1977 was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church as Saint Innocent.

A National Historic Site, the two-storey log building is literally a time capsule of 19th-century Russian life in Sitka with original furniture, appliances, chapel and period wardrobe. In 1972, the building was added to Sitka National Historic Park, located farther east on Lincoln.

Eagle's perch

Farther east, and just north of Lincoln, is the Sheldon Jackson Museum (104 College Drive; tel: 907-747-8981; Built in 1895 to house the extensive collection of native arts and artifacts gathered over a decade by the eponymous missionary Reverend Dr Jackson, it is Alaska’s oldest museum. From mid-May to mid-September, native artists are in residence demonstrating their art.

Where Lincoln Street veers closest to the shore you’re bound to see bald eagles eating fish they’ve caught in Sitka Sound or area creeks. Especially in June, the eagles are so plentiful around the town that residents refer to them as “Sitka pigeons.”

At the eastern end of Lincoln is the entrance and visitor centre for Sitka National Historic Park (tel: 907-747-0110; Alaska’s oldest national park, it was established in 1910 to commemorate the 1804 battle between the Kiksádi Tlingit and Russian forces on the point of land were the Indian River flows into Sitka Sound.

The 47-hectare park also features a Totem Trail that winds through a patch of old-growth rainforest past 18 totem poles reproduced from Tlingit and Haida originals. The visitor centre houses a theatre, a bookstore, displays of Tligit and Russian artifacts, original totems and workshops where natives demonstrate their arts. It is also where ranger-guided walks can be booked.

Walk through the park to Sawmill Creek Road and you’re close to the Alaska Raptor Center (1000 Raptor Way; tel: 907-747-8397; set on seven hectares bordering the Tongass National Forest. Each year, the centre treats up to 200 eagles, owls, falcons and other birds with injuries ranging from gunshot wounds to collisions with cars and power lines. Most birds are rehabilitated and released. Some are too injured to return to the wild and are used for educational sessions with school children and summer visitors. The facility has become one of Alaska’s top tourist attractions. About 40,000 people visit each year, mostly from cruise ships.

Sitka is probably best known to a wider public for its charming small-town portrayal in The Proposal, a 2009 romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds and Betty White. While most of the filming took place in Rockport, Maine, film crews shot background footage in Sitka. Visitors will quickly discover that reality trumps cinematic magic.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


Post a comment