Thursday, July 24, 2014

Castle on a Hill

We woke up on the ferry. Gorgeous patterns in the wake as we cruised into Sitka.

Wake from the ferry with reflection in Sitka Sound.
I have wanted to come and photograph the totem poles for some time, and also visit some of the National Historic Landmarks (NHL) in town. I used to work for cultural resources in the regional office, for the National Landmark program. I am very familiar with the history in this small little town.

We arrived in Sitka too early to check into our hotel, so we hit the ground running… first Castle Hill (an NHL), drove around the St. Michael’s Cathedral (NHL), walked around town, watched the fisherman fish, visited the Sheldon Jackson Campus (an NHL) and Museum, and an old Russian Cemetery. We finished the day of exploring by walking the fishing docks and admiring the ships.

Castle Hill or Noow Tlein (Tlingit) is a rocky hill that overlooks Sitka. The top of this location is significant to the history of this area. First the Tlingit, then the Russians built and lost forts in battle on this hill. It was on this very hill where the Russians lowered their flag and the American flag was raised, signifying US ownership.
At this ceremony in 1867, a dual cannon salute was fired. The Russian flag got stuck in the lanyards as they tried to lower the flag. Several soldiers tried to climb the pole with no success. Eventually they got it down, but once it was untangled, it fell, landing on the Russian soldier’s bayonets. The American flag was raised with no incidents, and Alaska became part of the United States. Today, there are no sign of forts, structures, or bayonets. Two cannons sit there, and the space is a grassy spot with a view.

1827 illustration of Castle Hill in Russian-controlled Sitka. The hilltop building was an imposing fortification on a hill overlooking the water and Tlingit areas. (Old Sitka, Alaska) by Postels.
Source: Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
The top of Castle Hill today.
In 1959, after Alaska was admitted as the 49th U.S. state, Castle Hill was the location where the first 49-star U.S. flag in Alaska was raised.

Sheldon Jackson (May 18,1834 – May 2, 1909) was a Presbyterian minister, missionary, and political leader. His history and legacy in Sitka is very interesting, particularly his interest in education. He is interesting enough that he should have a blog post all about him, but instead I will mention where my interests are. Sheldon was a collector. An early scientist and ethnographer, he believed in preserving the material objects from all his travels. He traveled extensively in Alaska, and early. I wanted to go to the museum to see some of these artifacts that remain in Sitka. I was not disappointed. If you ever get a chance to get to the Sheldon Jackson Museum, it is definitely a must! Some of the best artifacts I have seen in Alaska are here. I purchased a couple of books on Sheldon Jackson and toured the museum.

Sheldon Jackson School

Center of the Sheldon Jackson Museum has 3 totem pole artifacts.
Collection cases in the museum.
 From the collection (I particularly like the masks):

We spent a good part of the afternoon enjoying the boats.

more boats...

I glanced at a map and noted there was an old Russian Cemetery in town and we opted to wander through there. What an amazing find. The cemetery was overgrown and was very lush. The Russian Orthodox cross was to be seen in many places, and someone had been planting flowers randomly in the cemetery. We later ran into the security guard who told us that she spends a lot of time in the place; she thought natural wildflowers growing would be respectful and add a touch to the graves, many long forgotten. The place was very peaceful and beautiful.
Russian cemetery
mostly forgotten graves
 Soon we will visit the totem poles... my primary reason for coming to Sitka, aside from the fact that I have done every other road in Alaska, and I am now reaching...