By June Allen
November 02, 2002
Photo by Stan Patty
The State of Alaska's community information summary says of Meyers Chuck, "The natural well-protected harbor has long been shelter for fishing boats caught in the stormy waters of Clarence Strait. White settlers began living [there] year-round by the late 1800s. 'Chuck' is a Chinook-jargon word applied to a saltwater body that fills at high tide" Less formal descriptions mention more colorful information, like the fact that some Chuckites claim that Robert Service's Lady known as Lou was a real person and retired in Meyers Chuck - as did lesser known ladies of ill repute who worked the fishing villages along the Inside Passage. One charmer in fact, is said to have opened a "store," a store that contained just one case of fruit cocktail. But it proved a popular product with the men of the town.
The chuck for which the town is named is an oval harbor with private homes perched on the natural breakwater, and on one side is a state float plane dock. The landward side of the chuck is a shingled beach lined with cabins - this beach side of town is historic "downtown" Meyers Chuck. Main Street is a well worn foot path, wide enough for one, that parallels the beach and reaches the outskirts of town before the wary walker realizes it. The hillside rising from Main Street is outfitted with the occasional trail or stairway, and, in one instance with neat round slices of logs set into the soil as rustic stairsteps to homesites above. At the edge of town, at least in late summer, the untamed salmonberry bushes grow taller and taller as the path winds inland. Two paths diverge in that bramble, both unnamed, one continuing to a large cleared forest patch as charming and welcoming as an illustration from a children's book - with a treehouse curio shop. Is it still there?
The other path leads to a million-dollar but presently unoccupied schoolhouse. The school is a modern version of a one-room schoolhouse - but with the amenities. The outside, covered play area that wards off Southeastern's plentiful rain was decorated by the children themselves. Most of the first floor of the school is a large room, the "one-room" used for most classes. Its size also allows it to serve as a hall for school activities and plays or for approved community meetings. The second floor of smaller rooms serve as offices, storage, lunchroom etc. Adjacent to the school is a teachers' house. Built in 1983, the school was well used for a time but the town's children grew up! All the school lacks now is pupils and teachers. But Meyers Chuck may yet again grow in size.
Meyers Chuck's townsite artifacts from the past include mature fruit trees near present and vanished cabins, an old but bearing chestnut next to the leaning, skeletal remains of a general store, and relics from busier days and times now unseen in forest thickets up and beyond the hillside. But most of the Meyers Chuck population in its most colorful years after World War II consisted of retired and crusty trollers whose surnames ended in -son or -sen, and everyone owned boats of one sort or another in those old days. So many of the interesting places connected with the town's history are at a distance and accessible only by water.
Meyers Chuck's population in the 2000 census was numbered at 21 - eleven males and 10 females, two of them little children. Only six more-or-less oldtimers age 60 or older were counted then, the age bracket that brought earlier regional fame to the town. Although it's known that Meyers Chuck was home to a small community of fishermen starting at least at the turn of the 20th century, there are no census population figures before 1940! If the town's roguish reputation was earned, it's possible that the Meyers Chuck folks declined the invitation to be counted - and, perhaps one of the oldtimers held a rifle on any stranger daring enough to try to venture ashore. Yet we know that there was a substantial town of sorts there at least by the 1920s. From 1916 to 1945 local fishermen sold their catch to a cannery built at Union Bay, just behind the chuck - a cannery that burned in 1947. In the 1920s a saltery there mild-cured king salmon. There was also a clam cannery as well as a herring reduction plant. What better place for a weary fisherman to lay over than in the protected harbor at Meyers Chuck.
A Ketchikan Chronicle article in the Dec. 13, 1927, issue reports a "Small Boom [of] Real Estate" in Myers Chuck (note the spelling - there were and still are differences of opinions about the correct way to spell the town's name). A man named John Kayser, who owned a store and was a fish buyer in Meyers Chuck in 1927, told the newspaper that all the waterfront property had been taken up. He said Knut Vick had built a house there and Rose Graves was putting up a $3000 store and poolroom business. He also said that 29 trollers now headquartered in Meyers Chuck and that "strange as it may seem, many of the trollers were formerly miners from the Yukon, Tanana, Iditarod, Koyokuk and Nome camps." So there were people living there, and the census takers must have missed 'em.
In the 1940 census, there were 107 people counted at Meyers Chuck. That would have been a pivotal time in the town's history. The over-fished salmon runs were about to peter out and the trollers, former would-be miners or not, were getting on in years. Many of these were typical old Scandinavian bachelors, used to living in the confined quarters of fishing boats. So jungling up in a tiny cabin made of lumber borrowed from abandoned fisheries buildings on the Union Bay side of the peninsula was considered quite comfortable. In 1950 the population would number only 51; by 1960 the census would count only 27 souls still left in town. The hardiest probably fished a little for spending money and there was social security and their pensioners dole from the Territory of Alaska.
Probably the most well known of these legendary Meyers Chuck figures were Arndt "Lonesome Pete" Pederson and his only slightly lesser known cabin-mate "Halibut" Pete (real name yet to be discovered). They were known by, and possibly envied by, men from the entire southern end of the Alaska Panhandle. Those two independent souls warm quarters, no taxes, fish from the sea for protein and gardens for vegetables. They used the berries from the woods for wine. So all they really needed was snoose, maybe a little flour and coffee plus a lot of sugar, malt and yeast for their home brew. And there was no one to tell them what they could and couldn't do.
Their home brew was as popular as they were. While Halibut Pete was the winemaker, Lonesome Pete was the brewer. The beer ingredients required the purchase of a wheelbarrow to roll it home along the path from the beachside store. The pair of Petes struggled that old wheelbarrow over the undulating path to their cabin, Lonesome pulling it by a rope, Halibut pushing and steering. When the day came for bottling, it is said that Lonesome manned the bottles and Halibut the siphon hose. He would fill a couple of bottles and then test its readiness for himself, then fill another couple of bottles and repeat the process. Their guests enjoyed that brew even though they knew the bottles had never been washed, only emptied by a previous drinker. And in spite of an occasional fly and other unidentifiable floating objects the beer must have been good because neighbors reported seeing the visiting merrymakers crawling up the trail toward home from the Petes' cabin at the end of many an evening.
Lonesome Pete was a Renaissance man. In addition to being a skilled fisherman, storyteller and brewmaster, he played the guitar and was a competent artist, able to draw amusing cartoons. He cooked and baked and also was quite a horticulturist, raising fruit trees and even coaxing celery to mature in his vegetable garden. In addition, he was a combination engineer/inventor, proved by his heating system - devised, he said, because he was just too busy to find time to chop wood. He installed a port window (a brass porthole) in the wall of his cabin, through which he fed appropriately-sized logs, the ends of which reached his fireplace. They had only to be nudged into the flames again when the end was burned. There have been more extensive and complex explanations of that rig, but you get the general idea. He smoked his fish by placing a screen across the top of his fireplace so he could simply climb up a ladder and get his smoked fish. No fancy recipes for Lonesome Pete.
Lonesome Pete eventually went to the Pioneers Home at Sitka, people heard. He had lived a good life. One of his cartoons he gave to Marian Glenz - who manned the Meyers Chuck store during some of those years. She used it on the cover of a booklet she wrote about her years in Meyers Chuck and the people she learned to know there. The cartoon shows the backs of two men facing a glowing fireplace. One is identified by the initials LP on the back of his shirt, the other as HP. Lonesome is playing the guitar. Both are holding bottles of beer and both have halos over their square, bald heads. A cat sits as contentedly as they do in the front of the fire. It is a picture of a good life.
Meyers Chuck's other famous son was Leo "Lone Wolf" Smith, the champion of the salmon and the chuck. He wielded a mighty pen, writing to local officials, territorial and then state officials, and to federal officials and even the President of the United States. One of his favorite targets was the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce for building the Deer Mountain king salmon hatchery on Ketchikan Creek, a pink salmon stream. He fought any and all fish and game biologists whose educations he equated to kindergarten level. And he fought for the "correct" spelling of Meyers Chuck. He insisted that the town be spelled Myers because he claimed it was named after his uncle whose name was spelled that way. Lone Wolf said he arrived in Myers Chuck in 1920 and he knew the correct spelling was Myers, a fact that is supported by some sources and unsupported by others.
But his main bone of contention was his opinions about the wisdom of the new State of Alaska's fishery biology program being contrary to that of the Creator, quote unquote. In his many letters to the editor of the Ketchikan Daily News, he patiently explained that the Creator made the large salmon species, like kings, to spawn in the large rivers and smaller species to spawn in smaller streams. The Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce, that built the Deer Mountain Hatchery in 1953 to hatch kings for sport fishermen, enraged Lone Wolf. He called the chamber the Chamber of Crimes. He also said that salmon fry fed by hand (shadow feeding) would come to depend on a shadow being present to feed. He had many other opinions, some of which were right on the money, others which were not.
Lone Wolf spent 50-plus years in Alaska, most of those near Meyers Chuck. He had a spawning stream on his property there and he studied those fish like a scientist, and formed his own opinions. In the mid-'70s Lone Wolf could no longer manage alone and came into Ketchikan to wait for a place in the Ketchikan Pioneers Home. While he waited he lived in a room at the Ayson Hotel on Stedman Street. His visitors saw him there, sitting at an oilcloth-covered table, his files spread out in collapsed stacks as he continued his correspondence. He was a small, smiling man, balding and without a tooth in his head. But he was a perfect gentleman, soft-spoken except when carried away on one of his pet subjects. He later transferred to the Sitka Pioneers Home. Perhaps some of his Meyers Chuck friends were there.
With Lone Wolf's departure, Meyers Chuck's curious heyday was over. Today it is a quiet little village that welcomes tourists, sport fishermen basing themselves in the Meyers Chuck lodge, the occasional long-route kayakers each summer, as well as the nostalgic oldtimer passing by. Those waters that teemed with fish earlier in the century are prime locations for fish again today. And Meyers Chuck is a delightful destination for anyone wanting to "get away from it all" - except for the great stories of the past.
I think someone in Meyers Chuck still has a traditional Chuckite sense of humor. Prowling the Internet for nuggets about the little town, I discovered a Meyers Chuck website, complete with a link for airline and hotels, just as if it were a large city, plus a grid showing distances from other regional communities. For example, Ketchikan was listed as an "estimated" ten miles distant from Meyers Chuck, and Thorne Bay an "estimated" four miles distant - although it failed to mention that those particular "estimated" miles were almost straight across Clarence Strait! Well, "Bon Voyage."