Sitnews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


THE FAIR AT THE PARK and The Little Train
By June Allen


July 19, 2002
Friday - 12:20 am

The Great Depression after the stock market crash of '29 didn't impact Ketchikan until three years later, but then Alaska's First City suffered the same fate as small towns down south. Those who survived those impoverished years said Ketchikan people ate so many clams that their stomachs could tell at any time of day whether the tide was in or out! The First

Locomotive - City Park - 1939

Ketchikan City Park - 1939
Historic Photo Courtesy
of Ketchikan Museums
City's population then was about 4,000 and by 1935 it seemed that the doom and gloom of the Depression would hang on forever.

P.J. (Pat) Gilmore was mayor that year and would be replaced in 1936 by J.A. (Jack) Talbot. Both were civic boosters at a time when boosters were sorely needed. No one person took credit in print - maybe it was the Chamber of Commerce - but in 1935 someone came up with the idea of holding an Industrial Fair, to be held at the town's new City Park. A Ketchikan Spruce Mills ad in the fair's booklet said, "Welcome to Ketchikan Industrial Fair. We are Prepared to Help in Ketchikan's Industrial Development by Furnishing Lumber for Building and Boxes for packing." The groundwork for industrial development was hopefully being laid - much as it is today!

The old hatchery building that once straddled the creek in the hatchery/park had been moved across the street (we call it Fair Street now) and, remodeled. It would house the fair's exhibits, musical events, and other activities. The ball park was right there and so were the wide open spaces of the park and environs, and the fair was planned to be an exciting family event. It was! Invitations and notices went out to neighboring towns. At a dark time, Ketchikan found a way to lift the spirits of its populace!

There were no farms, so there were no livestock exhibits, but there was a large mineral display that included gold bearing ore, silver bearing ore, copper bearing ore, and antimony and paladium or platinum ore. And there was another category for fine arts. The ladies had their exhibits, too, including those for sewing, knitting, crocheting, embroidery and everything from quilts to afghans, hand sewn gloves, beadwork and baby clothes - including a junior category. Then there was cooking and baking, best cakes, best pies, and best bread as well as canning local meats, fruits and salmon, of course. Prizes were offered for winners, in amounts ranging from 50 cents to $2.00. Curiously, prizes in the same categories in today's "state" fairs at Haines, Palmer and Fairbanks are not all that much larger!

The fair in 1935 must have been a smashing success. It looked as if every business in town bought an ad in the fair booklet. Another fair was launched the following years and it proved successful, too. Then in 1937 there apparently was so much community enthusiasm that two men decided to provide something special for the children of Ketchikan. The story from the Ketchikan Alaska Chronicle issue of August 21, 1937, states:

Miniature Train to Circuit Park

"Perhaps one of the greatest boons to entertainment for children ever constructed in Ketchikan, a miniature railroad - built as a permanent fixture - will start operation when Ketchikan's Third Annual Industrial Fair opens here on September 3.

Termed a 'swing route' scenic road because the track is a series of curves that wind around the various streams and pools in the city park opposite the Fair building, the train will provide many thrills for the youngsters.

There is a possibility that the boys and girls may have to wait their turn to ride in the two-car-and-a-tender accommodations while their older brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers make the loop.

The locomotive, although it actually is built from a car motor and chassis, is a complete miniature of a big steam locomotive. The two passenger coaches will be covered. And together with passenger accommodations in the locomotive tender, the train will accommodate 38 passengers.

On its seemingly snake-back circuit of Ketchikan Park, the train crosses three bridges and goes through one tunnel. The tunnel, incidentally, will serve as a barn where the train will be kept at night.

The largest of the three bridges is directly across the street from the main entrance to the Fair building. It is crossed soon after riders board the train at the depot across the street from the back end of the Fair building. The track loops down along Park Avenue to the lower end of the park and returns up the side of Ketchikan Creek.

The miniature railroad does not cross any street nor does it cross Ketchikan Creek. The three bridges on the route cross small streams in the park fed by the mill race from the power house. The complete track is 1,000 feet long. However, it appears longer as it winds through the trees and around the park.

Fred Rockhill and Bob Waters are building the locomotive. The coaches and tender were built at the city warehouse by Bob Gilbert and George Butterfield. The railroad construction crew which is laying the ties and rails is under the direction of Joe Bartline."

Fred Rockhill has earned much of the credit for the idea for the train. He and S.H. "Pete" Petersen opened Petersen and Rockhill, a garage and automobile service station, at the corner of Mission and Main Streets in May of 1930. They leased the building from Scotty Nichols until 1943 when Petersen bought it. The store was also was an auto parts store and a dealer with Briggs & Stratton air-cooled motors.

The little train ran each year until the final Fair was held in 1939. Hitler's troops were seizing European countries that year and war clouds hovered in the distance. Preparations were underway for possible U.S. involvement in the war. Things were happening, and rumors were whispered of Japanese spies in the region's canneries and enemy submarines off the coast of Alaska.

And then on May 8, 1941, the Chronicle carried a sad story about the fate of the little fairground train. "Ketchikan lost its 'railroad system' at the fairgrounds last night when the city council accepted an offer of the Ketchikan Public Utilities to buy the rails for three cents a pound and the cedar ties at 12 cents a tie. The utilities will use the rail and track at Ketchikan Lake." KPU did not need or want the engine.

As sad as it was to lose the railroad, just seven months later the United States would enter World War II, Ketchikan would be under blackout and air raid alert, and no one would think about fairs and fun for the duration. City Park was used as temporary camp sites for CCC and military units. The Fairs were a thing of the past.

But, what do you suppose happened to that little modernistic locomotive? Was it stored somewhere? Or was it cut apart and used elsewhere. Are its rails still used by KPU at Ketchikan Lakes? And has anyone ever thought about starting up another series of Ketchikan Fairs, somewhere?

This story was written for Betty Lee (Lien), Nancy Hanson Rosenbalm, Pat and Des Moore, Liv (Knutsen) Hauge, and the others so far away who, after reading the story about city park, mentioned the little train they remembered.



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