Wrangell's History Thrives in the Southeast Alaska Rainforest

Wrangell Alaska
Erin Kirkland

 Wrangell is only 90 miles north of Ketchikan but feels a world away, and in some ways, it is. Accessible via boat or aircraft, Wrangell is a unique example of small-town life, and once you arrive here, you’re likely to realize this is the Alaska you had been hoping for. Located near the top of beautiful Clarence Strait, and at the mouth of the shallow Stikine River, Wrangell is also one of the most diverse towns you’ll find in the entire state, thanks to a number of historical events and interesting individuals.

Situated on Wrangell Island, sandwiched between the mainland and Etolin Island, Wrangell has seen a surprising number of residents and visitors over the last hundred or so years. Explorers, fur hunters, and on-the-way gold seekers found the town to be quite to their liking from a navigational perspective and in the value of wildlife like sea otters, that could be killed for their fur. While Russian fur traders were the first non-Natives to claim Wrangell for the preservation of their interests by building a fort in 1833, George Vancouver was actually the first white man to set foot upon Wrangell’s soil during a quick survey visit in 1793.

It must have been superficial, however, because Vancouver missed finding the Stikine river that leads into what is now Canada and the Coast Mountain range. 

When the Russians built Fort Redoubt St. Dionysus, as Wrangell was first called, the local Tlingit indians relocated to the center of the new town on a small plot of land today called Shakes Island (named after then-Chief Shakes V). Here, the Tlingit helped manage fur trading with their own shrewd abilities and helped lead the fur industry toward a resurgance in value. 

Shortly after the fort was completed, the famous Hudson's Bay Company showed up wanting a piece of the action, intending to build their own post on the Stikine River. When the Hudson Bay ship arrived in the community, Russian commanders refused them entry, saying the British had no right to the land. The Tlingit people joined the fray, claiming their right to the furs (and thus the ongoing trade influence), so the Hudson Bay sailors returned to Vancouver (the city) to ponder their options. 

Eventually, the British, Russians, and Tlingits reached a land-lease agreement in 1840, costing payment of 2,000 otter skins for payment to the Russians, and delivery of food for Russian colonies on the west coast. But the British saw the potential of Wrangell’s resources and took the deal. 

But when Alaska was purchased from Russia in the famous “Seward’s Folly” bargain in 1867, one more flag was due to fly from the post of Wrangell, so named for Baron von Wrangel of the Russian-American Company who originally founded the area. Once the Americans had established a military presence in the town, a flag of the United States of America flew high and proud, making a total of four to be hoisted up the flagpole over the previous 40 years. 

Perhaps the most colorful individual to explore the land around Wrangell was naturalist John Muir, whose writings manage stir a sense of adventure in travelers, even today. Muir came to Wrangell Island the first time in ​1879, and wasn’t too impressed by the wet forests and boggy shorelines. Nonetheless, he stuck around and made his way up and down the wilderness of the island and adjoining waterways. The Stikine made an impression on him, Muir calling the Big Stikine Glacier a “broad, white flood,” unlike anything he’d ever seen before.


Impressed enough to visit? Wrangell's visitor bureau can provide a full itinerary for Alaska visitors, whether interests lie in wildlife, fishing, or Tlingit culture. 

Travelers seeking a bit of solitude and scenery will enjoy staying at the Grand View Bed and Breakfast, located a mile from downtown and the boat harbor. With a full kitchen, three separate sleeping quarters, a living room, and sweeping views of the sound beyond, Grand View lives up to its name. Oh, and don't overlook the filling breakfasts that will fuel one for a day of adventure. 

Most visitors come to Wrangell to see the Stikine River, and see it you will with the help of Alaska Waters charter company, utilizing jet boats with shallow drafts to enable them to navigate the sandy delta. Take a ride to the glaciers, watch sea lions, or visit AnAn Wildlife Observatory to see brown and black bears feeding on salmon. 

Tlingit history can be understood through an Alaska Waters cultural tour, where a trip to the ancient Chief Shakes House immerses one in dancing, drumming, and stories that date back generations. 

Don't forget to take a hike up Mount Dewey, especially in July, when ripe blueberries flank the trailsides and sometimes prevent an actual arrival at the summit. It's worth the effort to go, however, as the top yields great views of Wrangell, surrounding mountains, and the occasional Alaska Marine Highway ferry passing by.