The Port of Wrangell lies on the northern tip of Wrangell Island in the southeast Alaska panhandle just 36 kilometers (22 miles) west of the US border with Canada. The Port of Wrangell is 29 nautical miles (51 kilometers or 32 miles by air) southeast of Petersburg and 86 nautical miles (107 kilometers or 67 miles by air) southeast of Kake. The 2000 US Census reported a population of 2308 people living in the Port of Wrangell, almost three quarters of them white and 15% Native Alaskan.
The Port of Wrangell's economy is based on fishing. Reached by sea and air, the Port of Wrangell is on the Inside Passage route of the Alaska Marine Highway and on the summer runs of the Inter-Island Ferry's M/V Stikine. Alaska Airlines also has commercial jet services to the Port of Wrangell.
The indigenous Tlingit peoples have inhabited Wrangell Island for thousands of years, migrating down the Stikine River when it still flowed beneath glaciers. Evidence of their habitation can be found in the petroglyphs at Petroglyph Beach north of the Port of Wrangell. The Port of Wrangell is one of Alaska's oldest non-Native communities. Until the new arrivals dredged the mouth of Wrangell Harbor in the late 1800s, it would frequently go dry at low tide.
Russians arrived in the Port of Wrangell area to trade furs with the Tlingits in 1811. As head of the Russian American government, Baron Ferdinand Petrovich Wrangel ordered the construction of a stockade near the clan house of the Tlingit Chief Shakes on a small island in the middle of the harbor. Named Redoubt Saint Dionysius, the stockade was built on the site of the modern Port of Wrangell.
In 1839, Great Britain's Hudson's Bay Company leased the Port of Wrangell fort from the Russians, naming it Fort Stikine. The Tlingits protested British use of their ancient trade routes to the interior. Disease intervened. Two epidemics of smallpox in 1836 and again in 1840 took half of the Tlingit population, basically eliminating the protests. When the beaver and sea otter resources in the area were no longer profitable, the British abandoned the fort in 1849, though it was still under British rule until the United States purchased Alaska in 1867.
With the arrival of US citizens, the Port of Wrangell became the only Alaskan community to have been governed under four flags: those of the Tlingit, the Russians, the British, and the United States. The United States built the Fort Wrangell military post at the Port of Wrangell in 1868. Until the fort closed in 1877, the Port of Wrangell community that surrounded it continued to grow, stimulated by the gold rushes of 1861, 1874, and 1897. The Port of Wrangell was dotted with dance halls, bars, and gambling halls, and thousands of prospectors traveled through the community on their way to the gold fields in Canada's British Columbia.
The first Protestant church in Alaska was built in the Port of Wrangell in 1877. Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson arrived there in 1878 to work with the Tlingits and the miners. He established the Fort Wrangell Tlingit Industrial School to train young Native men in trades like construction, boatbuilding, and printing. Jackson's Sitka Industrial Training School eventually became the Sheldon Jackson College and formed the center of the Wrangell Institute, a boarding school for Natives that was active until the middle of the 20th Century.
In the late 1800s, fish traps were built in the Zimobia Strait and at the mouth of the Stikine River, giving birth to a prosperous fishing and canning industries in the Port of Wrangell. Unfortunately, the fish traps seriously damaged the natural salmon runs on the Stikine River, seriously hurting the region's salmon fishing. When Alaska became a state, the fish traps were decommissioned. Despite these problems, the fishing industry continued to be the main contributor to the Port of Wrangell economy.
In late 1902, The Wrangell Sentinel began publishing, and today it is Alaska's oldest continuously-published newspaper. Opened in the 1920s, the Port of Wrangell's Bear Totem Store was well known for the many items of Tlingit arts and crafts, including several totem poles. Walter Waters, the store's owner, started his business by carrying mail from Wrangell to Sulzer while he was also buying furs. During his travels, he developed relationships with Native artisans and collected many artifacts.
In the 1950s, a serious fire destroyed much of the Port of Wrangell's downtown area. The Bear Totem Store and most of its contents were gone, as were most of the downtown historic buildings. Also in the 1950s, logging became more important to the Port of Wrangell economy. The Silver Bay Logging Company operates one of the last two sawmills in southeast Alaska.
Long important to the indigenous Tlingit people, the Port of Wrangell is home to Chief Shakes Tribal House, a replica of traditional Native homes. Built in the 1930s with Native methods and knowledge, the house stands on the site of the original Shakes House on a tiny island in the middle of the harbor. The Wrangell Cooperative Association, the Tlingit IRA council and a federally-recognized tribe, maintains shakes island, the Shakes House, and the downtown Totem Park.
In May 2008, citizens voted to incorporate The City and Borough of Wrangell.
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