Historical Society and Museum

Historical Society and Museum Hold Annual Meeting

 

The Sitka Historical Society and Museum honored a retiring board member and heard a presentation, “Blue Lake Dam: Then and Now,” Saturday at the society’s annual meeting.

Also at the meeting, longtime resident Walt Dangel presented the museum with the large format camera that was used in his family’s photography business, The Sitka Photo Shop Studio, from 1934 until the shop closed in the 1970s. 

The tripod-mounted camera, with a 3-foot bellows extension, makes exposures on 11-by-7.5-inch sheet film, and is still in operating condition, said Dangel, who also turned over a supply of film that he has preserved since the camera went into storage in 1973.

He described himself as the “mule” who carried the massive instrument to different locations and up mountainsides to take photos that became historic images of Sitka. The downtown shop was started by J.H. Gilpatrick and was run for many years by Luella Smith, Gilpatrick’s daughter and mother of Dangel’s late wife Margaret.

Society president John Stein presented retiring board member Doris Bailey with the Isabel Miller Award for her “exceptional volunteer service ... that preserves and exhibits the fascinating history of Sitka.” He praised Bailey for her six years on the historical society board, her previous work as a member of the Sitka Planning Commission and the City and Borough Assembly, and for her book “A Divided Forest,” about the life and Tlingit heritage of her late husband, Roy Bailey.

Stein recognized another retiring board member, Jim Davis, who “has made massive contributions to the preservation of Sitka’s history.”

Davis, who recently entered the Pioneers Home, built the model of 1867 Sitka, which is on display in the museum, and more recently wrote and illustrated a book on Sitka, “The Raven and the Double Eagle.”

Historical Society Executive Director Bob Medinger reported on the society’s activities this past year. The Legislature granted funds for building a museum wing at Centennial Hall and the city approved $120,000 for museum operations.

The historical society also was host to the recent joint conference of the Alaska Historical Society and Museums Alaska, and Medinger said it was “the best-attended statewide conference ever.”

He said the state groups honored two Sitkans: Marilyn Knapp received the Alaska Historical Society’s Evangeline Atwood Award as historian of the year, and Sue Thorsen received the Museums Alaska Award of Excellence.

In her annual report, Jackie Fernandez, the Sitka museum’s curator of collections and exhibits, said the museum received nearly 500 new items during the year, including artifacts, historic photographs and archival materials. The museum also put up a historical photo display at the Sitka airport terminal.

Ron McClain was elected to the board, along with incumbents John Stein, Pat Alexander and Sabra Jenkins.

City electric department generation engineer presented the program on Blue Lake, and longtime Sitkans Clint Miller and Willis Osbakken related their adventures as young men working on the dam and the power tunnels in the 1950s and ’60s.

Orbison said he would talk about the future of the dam, as well as its history.

In 1913 a private company, Sitka Wharf and Power Co., built a small hydroelectric dam, flume and powerhouse below Blue Lake and it was sold to the city in 1942. It was heavily damaged by a flood in the next year, and another flood in 1947 damaged it beyond repair.

The steam plant built on Japonski Island for the military installations during the war years provided power for the city until 1961. In the meantime the city had added diesel generators and begun exploring the power potential of Blue Lake.

The dramatic story of the development of Blue Lake hydro between the engineering studies of the 1940s to the completion of the 155-foot high dam is related in a 1961 history compiled by the Sitka Public Utilities Board that was reprinted recently in historical society’s newsletter.

Orbison emphasized the role of Alaska Lumber and Pulp Co. in bringing the project to fulfilment.

“It was all about water,” he said. ALP, which needed Blue Lake water to manufacture pulp, signed the water agreement and bought the $2 million in bonds that allowed a low dam to be built at the site of the present Blue Lake dam. The long lower tunnel was drilled at ALP’s expense to bring water down to the mill. The low dam, which raised the height of Blue Lake by 35 feet, and the lower tunnel that brought water to the mill, were both integral parts of the high dam and hydroelectric system as they were eventually built, Orbison said.

He praised the work of Carey and Kramer consulting engineers of Seattle for designing a dam strong enough to support the additional 83 feet of height that is now planned.

Orbison said the latest project is possible only because of the quality of the Carey and Kramer design specifications for the first two phases.

The importance of a consistent supply of fresh water for the pulp mill played an important part in the intricate negotiations that made it possible for the city to build the Blue Lake hydro system, and also the second hydroelectric project at Green Lake, Orbison said. The city traded hydro power for steam-generated power at the mill when necessary to maintain a Blue Lake water supply for the mill, and ALP’s agreement to purchase excess Green Lake power was the key to securing the bonds for that project.

Orbison pointed out that the eventual cost of every hydro project in Sitka’s history has substantially exceeded the original estimate, so the city’s latest experience with construction bids twice as high as estimated is nothing new.

In the discussion of the current expansion plans, Orbison said that one issue causing some concern is the extremely low “leakage rate” at the base of the Blue Lake dam. Every dam has leakage, he said, but at only one gallon per second, leakage at Blue Lake is so low as to make it difficult to calculate changes from stresses to the dam base from the new construction. The risk from a miscalculation is a “blowout,” he said, but added that the engineers are being careful to prevent this possibility.

The stories that Miller and Osbakken told at the meeting – of near-misses from landslides, a wild ride in a crane bucket and walking at above sheer dropoffs without safety gear – pointed up the changes in construction safety practices since the 1950s.

A worker was seriously injured in a fall, but there were no fatal accidents during the construction, they said.

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