One of the sights that I saw for the first time during our July, 2006, stop in Sitka was the Pioneers Home.. I really didn't know what the building was when I first saw it. I was just attracted to the architecture which I thought seemed a little out of place for Alaska, especially the expansive lawn in front, the beautiful flower gardens and a bronze statue. My daughter and I walked close to the front of the building and that is when I saw the sign for the "Pioneers Home." After some research I found that the Pioneer Homes in Alaska have a history you will not find in any of the lower 48 states. We did not attempt to go into this building as it is, of course, a residence.
The beginnings of the Pioneer Homes in Alaska are rooted in Alaska's beginnings itself. The event of the Gold Rush in Alaska between the years of 1896 and 1900 were just that....a mad rush of prospectors, miners, and others who either came to find gold and stake a claim or "strike it rich" in various other ways. Some did, some died, some left and some stayed. Many of those who stayed were able to make a living in Alaska, but many were out of luck and destitute. Early lawmakers wished to make provision for such as these and had to come to grips with the state's lack of financial resources and lack of agreement on the details. The first Pioneer's home was established in 1913 in an abandoned U.S. Marines Barracks which had been built in 1892. The Pioneers Home opened September 2, 1913, with 5 residents and by the end of the year, there were 12 residents. The need still existed for a better facility.
Recognizing this need, the state funded the building of the present home in 1934 through a tax on mining concerns and a poll tax. Since then the doors have been opened to some 3,000 Alaskans who were prospectors, miners, fisherman, and other workers because of physical disability or "other cause." Oddly enough it has also been called "home" by several former members of the Alaska State Legislature.
The home has lovely gardens and out-buildings on the corner piece of property, but a significant 12 foot bronze statue of a pioneer takes a prominent place in front of the building. Look closesly at the statue to notice the pick & shovel, the coffee pot & tin cup. This sculpture is by Alonzo Victor Lewis. It has been a matter of much speculation as to who was the model for this sculpture! In any case, I liked the sculpture very much and I regret not taking a closeup picture!
The first resident of the house was Bishop Innocent, Ivan Veniaminov.
It is an example of Russian colonial architecture and is one of the last exisitng in North America.
It is only open regularly in the Summer. By appointment it can be visited in the winter.
Most tourists arrive in Sitka via cruise ship. The "downtown" area is just to the left off the dock where the tender drop people. If you follow the streets along the coast in about 15 minutes you'll get to the Sitka National Historical Park entrance and the Visitor Center.
The Visitor Center is a small building but contains lots of information about the town, it's culture and history.
The park is the oldest federal park in Alaska, created in 1910. The location is historic due to the battle that took place in 1804 at the end of the peninsula. There is a memorial to the Russian invaders and the clearing in the woods which is all that remains of the fort that once stood at the entrance to the Indian River.
The Alaska Raptor Center is located on Sawmill Creek Boulevard north east of "downtown" Sitka. The walk from downtown on streets takes about 30 minutes but by walking through the Sitka National Historical Park it can be done in about 15-20 minutes.
The center is a full fledge hospital for raptors with many recovering enough to be released back to the wild. The center is open from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM and costs $12 for adults and $6 for children (2011 current price).
The Alaska Raptor Center is just off Sawmill Creek road, about 20 minutes walking from downtown.
This is at the top of my list for anyone visiting Sitka. There is a visitors center that is open only in the summer (so Ive never been inside) and a short trail into the forest. Outside the visitor center and along the trail there are a few cages and aviaries with raptors in them, and some exhibits. Its well done and there are usually wild Bald Eagles hanging out in the trees.
The raptors in the cages were injured and could not be rehabilitated enough for them to survive in the wild, so they became premanent residents of the Raptor center. These are impressive creatures. The Bald Eagles in particular are huge, intimidating birds, with talons as big as your hand that can grab heavy-duty Salmon from the water... really cool.
The primary mission of the Raptor Center is to rehabilitate injured birds.
You can get a very good close look at several species of eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls.
I recommend walking from town via Totem park. Youll probably see a few eagles on the way to the Raptor Center.
There are a couple things that define Sitka as far as physical landmarks go. The Russian Orthodox cathedral dominates the downtown, but Mt. Edgecumbe might be the one that will stick with you the most. It's easy to see from almost anywhere in Sitka, a bit harder to get to (on accessible by boat or float plane--it's out on Kruzof Island) but once you're out there, you don't have to rush to get back--there's a hike to the summit, camping on the island, a shelter about 4 miles up the trail, sightseeing, and so on.
Even if you can't get out there to experience it up close, it's still always an incredible view. It was seriously part of my every day routine--I had an unobstructed view of Mt Edgecumbe from my house and never got tired of enjoying it's beauty.
Mt. Egdecumbe is a dormant volcano, it's last eruption was over 2000 years ago, and though 3200 feet may not sound that impressive, it's rising straight up out of the ocean with no gradual elevation increase.
Sitka is in an incredibly beautiful setting, with great hiking trails and National Park, but for a spectacular glimpse into Alaska Native life as it was several hundred years ago, don't miss Sheldon Jackson Museum! WOW! Eskimo whaling suits, birdskin and gut parkas, tools, jewelly, shaman's paraphanalia, grass socks, Athabascan beadwork and Tlingit button blankets and bentwood boxes - and much, much more! It looks like a small museum, but there's almost 2,000 artifacts on display. The nominal $4.00 entry fee lets you see 5 artifacts per penny - the best deal in Sitka!
If you're in Sitka in June, check out the music festival. It's held at Harrigan Centennial Hall (where the Isabel Miller Museum is) and they are now in the their 33rd season. They have concerts a couple times a week and additional special events, like a crab feed, a coffee concert, an ice cream social, a wonderful boat dinner cruise with a quartet. it's chamber music and the guest musicians who come up are incredibly talented, playing in symphonies and orchestras worldwide. I talked with a woman named Toby Saks last year who was playing from Philadelphia and teaching classes at Bucknell University in my hometown. The musicians change from week to week, pretty much...they lady who plays the flute is extraordinary as well as the man who plays guitar. The music is fun, everyone is happy to be there and the tickets are reasonably priced. ($15 for an individual concert)
I definitely recommend the dinner cruise--they go out to Cedar Cove where you're likely to see bears, whales, seals, sea lions and eagles all while listening to wonderful music, drinking wine and eating fresh salmon. That's going to be held on June 12th of this year and tickets can be purchased through the festival and at Old Harbor Books, I believe.
If you like architecture and/or religious history, this place is for you. There are only 4 pieces of Russian colonial architecture in existance in N America today. 2 of which are in Sitka. This is the only one that is restored back to period time. It was completed in 1842 went through a number of uses--of course, as the Bishops house, then until the park service got the property, it was an orphanage, apartments, meeting places for clubs and so on. That was all on the 1st floor, which explains why that park is now a self guided museum. The 2nd floor was home to the bishop of the Russian Orthodox church for 125 years or so. Also, on the 2nd floor there's an amazing chapel called "Chapel of the Annuncation", the private chapel of the bishop. It's still used today for certain occassions--holidays and suck. The house is beautiful--made from Sitka spruce w/ an iron roof...check out the width of the boards and planks. A lot of the furnishings are from the house originally...some made by the Bishop who first lived in it, Father Veniaminov (later known as Bishop Innocent and then Saint Innocent) His story alone is fascinating.
Take a virtual tour of the house using the website provided below
Constructed between 1844 and 1848, the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel is the principal representative of Russian cultural influence in the 19th century in North America. From 1840 to 1872, Sitka was the Seat of the Russian Orthodox Diocese which governed all of North America, and thereafter it continued as the Seat of the Diocese of Alaska. This outstanding example of Russian church architecture was by far the largest and most imposing religious edifice in Alaska until well into the 20th century. The present cathedral is a reconstruction of the original building which burned to the ground in January 1966.
For a small donation you can tour the church and get the rest of the story from the local preist. The talks are quite informative. The church icons, golden alter doors, and a huge chandelier were saved by the townspeople who formed a chain. One man performed superhuman feet of lifting the chandelier which weighed four hundred pounds off its chain to be rescued form the encroaching fire. The icon's themselves are somewhat of a miracle. The preist told the story that they were lost at sea when the ship that transported them sunk in the Pacific Ocean. The icons were later recovered from the beach by church members on the outer shore of Sitka. The Sitka Madonna is the symbol of the city and is thought to have miraculous powers. The church was rebuilt with exacting original detail including the sail cloth which covered the dome and walls. Unlike many larger cathdrals it is built on a human scale.