Sitnews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


EMERY TOBIN: Pistol-Packin' Reformer
By June Allen


July 10 2002
Wednesday - 12:30 am

Ketchikan has had many notable citizens in the city's 102 years of history, but perhaps none stands out so boldly as the late Emery Tobin, who died in 1977 at age 81. His roster of activities and accomplishments in Ketchikan is lengthy and incredibly varied. He joined the newly founded American Legion Post 3 in 1921, became a member of the Chamber of Commerce in 1923, and was a charter member of Ketchikan Rotary in 1925. In the early 1920s he also was an active leader in Ketchikan's Boy Scout Troop #1, the first troop in all of Alaska, and he was a volunteer drama coach for the high school's theatrical productions. He was later a founder plus publisher and editor of the Alaska Sportsman magazine, which continues today as the nationally known Alaska Magazine.

His magazine office and his Alaska Specialties novelty shop were located in the old 1904 Yates hospital on Mission Street - now the Seamen's Center. The Rain Gauge that stands


Tobin's magazine office and his Alaska
Specialties novelty shop were
located in the old 1904 Yates
hospital on Mission Street - now the
Ketchikan Seamen's Center.
photo by Dick Kauffman
next to today's visitor bureau on the dock was first erected in front of Tobin's shop. He was an avid booster of tourism and sold Alaska books and novelties through ads in his Alaska Sportsman magazine.

But those things are not necessarily what Emery Tobin is remembered for. Emery's claim to fame is that he is said to be the man who spearheaded the closure of the city's red-light districts in 1953, ending 50 years of openly tolerated prostitution in Ketchikan, Alaska! He became a hero to some and an arch villain to others. It was during that contentious crusade that Emery kept a pistol at hand on his desk.

Although he served in France in World War I, Emery was not a man one would ever connect with a firearm. He was not tall, he had a rather high voice and a Boston-area accent he never lost, which made an R sound like a W - some people thought it was a lisp. He spoke rapidly and with great assurance. Even after his hair turned white, he still had thick black eyebrows on a brow ridge that made smiles that blossomed on his face seem closer to frowns. When he walked with his rapid gait down Ketchikan's wet and breezy streets, head bent and hands in pockets, he appeared to be bucking a powerful headwind.

Even into his sixties Emery was fearless. When a young man shoplifted something and departed running from Emery's Alaska Specialties shop on Mission Street, Emery took off after him, legs and arms pumping. He tackled the miscreant to the wet sidewalk in front of the entrance to St. John's Church and pinned him there until help arrived. Some of Emery Tobin's spirit and determination must have come directly from his father.

Emery Fridolf Tobin was born to August and Emma Tobin, Swedish immigrants, on Dec. 14, 1895, in Quincy, Mass., ten miles south of Boston. August Tobin was a painting contractor, working for the school district. The great Depression of 1893 had affected everyone. Tobin's customers owned him money and Tobin owed money to his own creditors. Times were hard.

Two years after Emery's birth, in 1897, news of the Klondike Gold Rush circled the globe, and among those infected with gold fever were August Tobin and his brother-in-law - Emma's brother. The two couples were close and had been married at a double wedding. Each little family had two children - the eldest of the four babies not yet two years old. The two fathers decided that one would have to stay and care for both wives and all four children; the other would go to Alaska, make a fortune and return in a year to Quincy. At least that was the plan. So the men drew straws and August drew the long straw for Alaska. Emery loved to tell this story. He would lean back in his squeaky oak desk chair and his face was all smiles as he related his family's history.

Emery's father was long on confidence but short on money to get himself to Seattle, much less all the way to Alaska. Then Providence stepped in when one of August's workmen


The Rain Gauge that stands
next to today's visitor bureau
on the dock was first erected
in front of Tobin's shop.
Photo by Gigi Pilcher
named Morton said, "If you'll let me go with you, I'll loan you the money to get to Alaska." And off they went, climbing down from the transcontinental train in Tacoma. There they joined their lot with 25 farmers from Pennsylvania who were just as anxious to get to the gold fields as they were. And just as green as the Swedish painter and his companion from Massachusetts.

The group recovered an old schooner that had been lying on the beach at Tacoma for many years and were determined to make it suitable for the voyage to Cook Inlet, their destination of choice. The gold claims along Turnagain Arm from Indian to Hope were said to be rich and the area far less crowded than Dawson and the Klondike. The Pennsylvania men knew a lot about farming but nothing about sailing, Emery explained. His young father who orignally hailed from Sweden knew a little bit about boats but not much. He knew a lot about painting, however, and painted the vessel stem to stern, lettering the name Elemina Johnson on the bow. The schooner looked pretty good.

At this point in the story, Emery was chuckling as he told what happened next. One of their number looked a little like Christopher Columbus, so he was chosen to be captain. And once the boat was floated, the men climbed aboard and set off for the north. None of them, however, knew how to navigate. But off they sailed, laden with supplies and confidence, expecting to reach their destination in about two weeks. Three stormy months later the ship and its passengers had not been sighted and were given up for lost. But the word had gone out to keep an eye open for the Elemina Johnson in Alaska waters.

The famous Alaska revenue cutter Bear rescued the argonauts, whose broken rudder was hanging loose on the stern of the vessel, and towed the crippled boat into the closest port, Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island in the Aleutians, a far cry from Cook Inlet! Some of the Gold Rushers decided to give up and head home, but Tobin, Morton and another man chose to be put ashore at the mouth of the Kuskokwim River, north of Bristol Bay. From there they hiked up the river into the mainland, stopping to pan at a number of rich placer operations. Finally they prospected the Interior, crossed the Yukon and ended up some twenty years later in Wiseman in the Brooks Range.

As it turned out, the elder Tobin did not return to Quincy after one year as planned. In fact, he returned only once in the next twenty years, promising in each letter, "Next year I'll be home." He sent many letters and as he read them, son Emery, too, was lured by the novelty and excitement of Alaska. He had finished school, worked for a time as a reporter, and served as company clerk of an infantry company in France. After the Armistice, he made plans to come to Alaska, securing employment at New England Fish Co. on the south edge of Ketchikan.

It was 1920 and Emery was 25 years old. His father August was had also arrived in Ketchikan shortly before, having stopped en route as "he worked his way south," Emery explained. In time Emery's mother and sister came to Ketchikan and the family was reunited. When they died two decades later, August and Emma were buried side by side at Bayview Cemetery, "forever in Alaska." To the end of his life, Emery proudly referred to his father as "a jolly old Sourdough."

Emery became a reporter for the Ketchikan Chronicle for a few years and gained additional experience for what would be one of his crowning achievements, the creation of the Alaska Sportsman magazine. He and several others - including popular local artist Bill Gabler and well known resident Ray Roady - formed a corporation to publish a magazine that focused on stories about hunting, fishing and adventure in Alaska plus editorials that addressed Alaska's political challenges. It would soon find an audience across the nation. In 1935 the first monthly issue was published and then there was a lapse until the second issue came. But from that time on, Alaska Magazine - the name changed when Tobin sold it in 1966 - has published every month since.

But it was during the years of the mid-1950s that Emery Tobin's name became familiar to anyone who didn't already know him or know about him. Emery Tobin set out to see Ketchikan's red-light operations ended once and for all. And through it all, the scandals, the convictions and firing of a police chief and his captain, the libel lawsuits, anonymous hate letters and the fights between pro- and anti-reform forces, Emery Tobin stood firm. With a stubbornness and tenacity that he probably inherited from old August Tobin, Emery Tobin finally prevailed.


Next: The history of prostitution in Ketchikan, its extent, and Tobin's role in the closure.


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Photos by Gigi Pilcher & Dick Kauffman


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