Story of Alaska: The worst of times brings out our best



“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness. It was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair…” 

The opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities reminds me that whether it’s earthquake, fire, or pandemic the worst of times never fails to bring out the best in Alaskans.  

Nome, Alaska, January 1925:  Fiona, the middle grandchild, brought over a book to read with us:  The True Story of Balto.  Balto, a dog, lived in Nome with his Norwegian musher, Gunnar Kaasen. The story provided a teachable moment about Alaska’s Great Race – the Iditarod, and another Norwegian musher and his dog team that won the race in 2020.  

It was also a time to talk about courage and sacrifice in trying times.

Alaska’s most famous mushing event happened in 1925.  Two children in Nome were diagnosed with diphtheria and an epidemic threatened the entire town.  The closest antitoxin was almost 900 miles away in Anchorage.  Twenty pounds of serum was placed on a train that made it as far north as Nenana.  Through a blizzard, the serum was then passed to 20 mushers and their teams who relayed the package almost 700 miles to Nome.  The team that brought the serum into Nome was Balto and Kaasen who arrived on Front Street in the early morning.  The serum was delivered in five and a half days.

Juneau, Alaska, October 1918:  With a population closing in on 2,000, Juneau was the largest city in Alaska.  Many of Juneau’s young men were in the military. The Spanish flu was hitting Juneau hard and October 1918 was the deadliest month of the entire pandemic. Over half a million Americans were dying from the pandemic. Those living in Juneau in 1918 surely felt it was “the worst of times/ a season of Darkness/a winter of despair.”  

However, more testing of Juneau’s resolve was on the way.

The SS Princess Sophia departed Skagway in late October bound for Vancouver.  In heavy snow, seas, and fog, the Sophia blew off course and grounded on Vanderbilt Reef.  Several Juneau vessels immediately responded but Sophia’s captain thought it best to wait until the storm died down.  Forty hours passed before the ship broke apart and quickly sank.  All 353 lives were lost.  

Ken Coates and Bill Morrison, authors of The Sinking of the Princess Sophia – Taking the North Down with Her wrote: “Almost every adult in Juneau was involved in the recovery of the victims – locating and escorting the bodies to a guarded warehouse; personal effects were transferred to the vaults at Behrend’s Bank. The cleaning and preparation of the oil soaked bodies for embalming was accomplished by a male team for male victims and a female team for women and children. The bodies then were readied for burial in Evergreen Cemetery or for shipment south.”  The people of Juneau treated each victim with dignity and honor.   

In the worst of times, Juneau’s best came out. 

Juneau, Alaska, March 2020:  We don’t know how severe this coronavirus pandemic will be or how long it will last. In some ways this makes it harder to deal with because we don’t know when the worst is over. We are learning what precautions to take and what symptoms to look for.  

Meanwhile, while we are waiting and taking care of ourselves and others, let’s also help those who are taking a bigger hit than we are. A few suggestions:

  • Buy gift cards from local businesses online or call and ask where one is available.
  • Order takeout meals from local restaurants and add a generous tip.
  • Send financial support to local major food bank distribution centers.
  • Select a health and social service organization serving the most vulnerable and send a donation.  
  • Pen a note to the transportation companies that are putting in countless hours supplying and resupplying the food and other goods we depend on. Don’t forget our Coast Guard and other military, medical, police, fire personnel, fuel delivery workers, grocers, postal workers, pharmacists, Customs and Border Protection, etc. If you failed writing class, purchase wrapped bake goods and drop them off with a thanks.

Lend a hand to all five, or do five of one, or any combination of five. Extend a helping hand and when we get the all-clear support a local bar or coffee shop for a celebratory alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink and make a point of taking that local tourism excursion that you always wanted to take.  Stay safe.

Ken Koelsch is known as Juneau’s former “Poet Mayor,” elected to office in by a landslide in 2016 during a special election held when former Mayor Greg Fisk died on Nov. 30, 2015. Koelsch is a former longtime high school teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School.


  1. Ken, I recall that you Sir were a great Teacher, it seems you have not lost that touch!
    We as Alaskans have been through bad times before, ’64 quake and the economic collapse in ’86. The important thing to remember now is to look out for our neighbors and especially those who are in need.
    I could be wrong but believe the last sentence in the book quoted above is ” it is a far better thing than I have ever done”.
    Sound advice, thanks again Ken for teaching us.

  2. Thank you for sharing! A shout out to all our doctors, nurses, and medical staff behind the scenes, first responders and firefighters. God bless and keep you all safe.

  3. And, although it is implicit in Suzanne’s description, Mr. Koelsch is about the most fundamentally decent human beings I have ever met. Go Bears!

  4. Impressive response to what was likely Alaska’s greatest mass casualty event. Kudos to Juneauites ? For demonstrating the highest levels of humanity, compassion and respect!!

  5. Little known history.

    Chapter Six –
    Frozen North
    by Clinton B. DeSoto
    IN THE sparsely settled regions of the Far North short-wave radio has made itself and
    indispensable aid to living. Like the airplane it is continually performing miracles. From Cape Race
    to Little Diomede and from Windsor to the Melville Peninsula the face of the Northland is dotted
    with the jutting antennas of amateur radio stations. In the twinkling of an eye their comforting
    signals leap the vast white spaces, bringing news and companionship and relieving distress.
    The inhabitants of Ugashik, a little Indian village on the shores of Bristol Bay along the northwest
    coast of the Alaskan Peninsula, cowered in their huts while high winds from the north brought
    winter closer to them.
    It was September, but already the ice of winter gripped the shore line. The fisher folk stayed in
    their scattered huts. Their boats were out of the water, and the fishing season was ended for
    another year.
    But it was not the snow and ice that made them cower in their huts. It was fear–fear of the
    dreaded red plague. For a deadly scarlet-fever epidemic was sweeping the Indian village.
    All of its sixty-five inhabitants had been exposed. Many were sick; some were dying. The others
    knew the same grim fate awaited all–unless something could be done. They sat, helpless, waiting
    to be struck down.
    But there was one man in Ugashik who was not helpless. He was Virgil Hanson, the lone white
    resident, representative of the U.S. Department of the Interior in that isolated village and an
    amateur radio operator as well.
    While the Indians burned herbs to propitiate the evil spirits and the smoke from their tiny fires
    curled upward to the low ceiling Hanson sat at his radio key and sent up a plea for help.
    Over in Anchorage Halford Nogle, casually roving the dial, heard the frantic appeal. He answered
    Hanson’s call. When he had received the message giving details he relayed it in turn to the
    Bureau of Indian Affairs at Juneau.
    From Juneau orders came dispatching a Pacific International Airways plane, piloted by Al Monsen,
    a daring pioneer of the northern air trails. From Anchorage to Kanakanak Monsen flew. At
    Kanakanak Dr A.W. WIlson, who had come up from his home station of Dutch Harbor, and a
    nurse of the Indian Bureau boarded the plane. With Monsen and the antitoxin they roared off
    through the Arctic skies on their mission of mercy.
    Meanwhile, Virgil Hanson and Halford Nogle, the Anchorage operator, stayed at their keys
    maintaining constant communication. Hanson had been a licensed operator for less than a month,
    but his father was one of Alaska’s outstanding amateurs, and he had been nurtured in the
    tradition. He stayed at his post.
    Less than twenty-four hours after the call for help had first been sent the plane landed safely on
    the wind-swept ice offshore from Ugashik. The fever-swept Indian village gave thanks as the white
    Calling CQ – Chapter Six
    man’s relief bird swooped low to their aid. The doctor and the nurse administered the antitoxin,
    treated those who were ill and curbed the epedemic.
    The villagers blessed those who brought them relief from the deadly plague–but no less did they
    bless the magic ether waves that had carried their cry!
    Virgil Hanson is one of dozens of amateur operators along Bristol Bay, some situated in the larger
    centers of Alaskan population, others isolated in tiny villages no larger than Ugashik. Radio is
    almost as much a part of that life as the telephone is in a suburban household.
    The outgoing mail from Pilot Point was nine days late in reaching Anchorage one time, as an
    illustration, but had it not been for radio it might have been later still.
    First of all, the air-mail pilot had the misfortune to blow out a cylinder head shortly after taking off
    from the Point and made a forced landing at Egegik. Mrs Williams, the government teacher’s wife
    at Egegik, got busy with her amateur station, and soon another plane with two mechanics was on
    its way from Anchorage.
    But when they arrived the mechanics found the engine couldn’t be repaired. Mrs Williams got on
    the job again, and next day the head pilot of the Star Air Service flew in with a whole new engine.
    Leaving the replacement, the Star pilot loaded part of the mail and passengers from the stranded
    ship and headed north. But misfortune overtook him, too; when he landed for the regular stop at
    Koggiung, fifty miles farther along, he cracked off a ski. However, at Koggiung the postmaster,
    Herman Hermann, was also a radio operator, and soon a new ski was on its way.
    Eventually, after one more lift from radio’s helping hand giving weather reports warning of a
    dangerous storm, the two planes landed at Anchorage and delivered their mail and passengers.
    They were a few days behind schedule, but they were safe, thanks to radio and a pair of helpful
    From this book:

    My father was Virgil Hanson. George Hanson

  6. To other commentators on here, Mr. Koelsch was also one of my most memorable teachers and I consider him to rank as one Juneau’s best mayors. I do not believe my comments below contravene his in the least.

    The 1918 Spanish flu epidemic was stopped in its tracks at the outskirts of Barrow and Shishmaref. These were among the few villages that blockaded all inbound travelers. It was a success. They avoided the deadly devastation entirely. In the worst case, the village of Rampart failed to blockade and lost 80% of its population. Today, all villages in Alaska, including Juneau, need to take similar action with the Chinese Coronavirus by blockading all inbound travelers seeking entry. All should undergo 15-day strict quarantine in a facility controlled by guards. Villages and small towns like Juneau will be unable to handle the hundreds of victims that could result from our failure to take such action.

  7. We’re screwed here. Village prez and fam just came back from Fairbanks and Anchorage and had a meeting, a birthday party, and peeps went around potentialy spreading it village wide. Ignorance.

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