Last updated: October 26, 2021
The Stedman-Thomas Historic District in Ketchikan, Alaska was a cultural melting pot for Asians and Pacific Islanders working in Alaska's fishing industry from the early 1900s to the 1940s. The historic district was one of the earliest neighborhoods in Ketchikan and played an important role in the economic history of the city and in the lives of the district's residents.
For centuries an abundant supply of salmon, halibut, and other ocean resources sustained the Tlingit Indians who established a summer fishing camp at the mouth of Ketchikan Creek. By the late 1880s, the abundance of fish drew white settlers to Ketchikan. These newcomers lived in small shacks at the mouth of the creek, alongside the Tlingit. The Alaskan gold rushes of the 1890s brought thousands of people north, and Ketchikan's location as the southernmost community in Alaska made it an ideal stopover for north-bound steamships. The city, which had incorporated in 1900, was a major outfitting and supply center as well as the regional center for southeastern Alaska’s rapidly growing fishing industry.
As settlers and entrepreneurs came to Ketchikan, the populations became increasingly segregated. The Tlingit began to move south of Ketchikan Creek, forming a neighborhood known as Indian Town. As early as 1908, a small community of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipinos, had moved to Ketchikan, looking for economic opportunities provided by the fishing industry. Because of social segregation, they settled in Indian Town, opening businesses along Stedman Street. Most of the neighborhood's first businesses were owned and operated by Asian families. George Ohashi had a store at 223 Stedman Street as early as 1910, which advertised its fresh "Chop Suey" ingredients in the local newspaper, the Ketchikan Daily News. Other Asian immigrants and businesses included George Shimizu and his family, who owned and ran the New York Hotel and Café at 207-211 Stedman Street; Harry Kimura, who owned Harry's Place at 325 Stedman Street; Jim Tanino, who operated Jimmy's Noodle Café at 227 Stedman Street; and James Tatsuda, who owned and operated Tatsuda's Grocery Store at 339 Stedman Street. The Japanese community had a small school and meeting house on the hill above Stedman Street, where adult volunteers taught the children of Japanese immigrants their native language.
The beginning of World War I created additional demand for protein sources such as seafood and by the end of the war the Alaskan fishing industry was highly prosperous. Ketchikan was the home port for an estimated 2,000 fishing boats with the tidal flats along Stedman Street providing one of the safest mooring areas in the city during bad weather. The Stedman Street area became the home for a small, but growing fleet of fishing boats and businesses formed to supply their needs. Indian Town grew significantly during the 1920s and soon became a self-contained "city within a city," supporting several hundred permanent and seasonal residents.
As Japanese and Chinese immigration to the U.S. became more restricted in the 1920s, Filipinos came north to work in the Alaska canneries. Ketchikan had one of the earliest permanent Filipino communities in Alaska. Those Filipinos who did not live in bunkhouses at the canneries generally lived in Indian Town. Many Filipinos resided in group homes, and individuals who had established themselves in Ketchikan often acted as sponsors for new arrivals until they had the means to find their own living quarters. The building at 337-339 Stedman Street housed a Filipino Social Club, which became the Filipino Community Club in 1938. This organization, formed by district residents, is considered the first Filipino community club in Alaska.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Ketchikan served as a principal outfitting and supply center for the fishermen in the region. The city also became a headquarters for buying, selling, canning, freezing, and shipping fish. Despite the social and geographical segregation they experienced in Ketchikan, the residents of Indian Town believed there were more opportunities and acceptance in Alaska than in other parts of the U.S. The tolerant climate of the neighborhood, in particular, helped many to realize their economic goals, while continuing to maintain their ethnic identities.
The economic importance of fishing continued to increase through the 1930s with Alaska providing nearly two-thirds of the world's salmon, as well as a significant portion of halibut, herring, and other seafood. Activity in Indian Town increased with the improvement of the tidal flats along Stedman Street in the early 1930s. During the winter, boat owners found that the mooring areas in Ketchikan did not provide enough protection and left to winter their boats in other Southeast Alaska cities. To keep the fishing fleet in Ketchikan year-round, the city dredged the tidal flats and built a breakwater in order to provide a protected harbor. Although Indian Town was already involved in supporting the fishing industry, its role intensified with the building of the new harbor known as the Thomas Basin.
The outbreak of war in Asia and Europe in 1939 brought a greater demand for fish. As the war progressed, a shrinking labor pool plagued the fishing industry and canners consolidated their operations. In 1942, with the U.S. entrance into World War II, Ketchikan's Japanese residents were evacuated to relocation centers in the lower 48 states, primarily to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho.
The Stedman-Thomas Historic District residents, businesses, and an active neighborhood association have undertaken improvement projects over the years to preserve Indian Town’s multicultural history. The historic district contains 47 buildings and structures that reflect the overall character and feeling of the district during the 1910s through the 1930s. Nearly all of the commercial buildings in the district line Stedman Street and are simple wood frame structures with false fronts, which were added to existing buildings in the 1920s. The residential buildings are mostly two-story houses with shed-roofed kitchen additions in the back. Today, the Stedman-Thomas Historic District is a thriving commercial and arts neighborhood that still evokes the feel of an early 20th century Alaskan fishing community.
Stedman-Thomas Historic District is located in Ketchikan, AK and is roughly bounded by the Stedman Street Bridge, Stedman St., East St., and the Thomas Basin. The district also includes all of the buildings along Brown Way, Tatsuda Way, Inman St., and Thomas St. For more information visit the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau website.