Tlingit and Haida totem poles link Sitka’s unique history to its natural setting along the Indian River
At only 113 acres, Sitka National Historical Park is Alaska's smallest national park but hardly one lacking for scenic beauty or an intriguing history. The park was established in 1890 and is the oldest federally designated park in Alaska. Located within easy walking distance of downtown Sitka, the park is home to authentic totems nestled in a rainforest of giant Sitka Spruce trees, ferns, shrubs and flowers. The Russian Bishop’s House, a restored building which commemorates Sitka’s history of Russian colonialism in 19th century, stands as testament to the rich history of the area.
Located at the mouth of Indian River, the park preserves the site where the Tlingits were finally defeated by the Russians in 1804 after defending their wooden fort for a week. The Russians had arrived with four ships to revenge a Tlingit raid on a nearby outpost two years earlier. The Russians' cannons did little damage to the walls of the Tlingit fort and, when the Russian soldiers stormed the structure with the help of Aleuts, they were repulsed in a bloody battle. It was only when the Tlingits ran out of gunpowder and flint, and slipped away at night, that the Russians were able to enter the deserted fort.
The area became a national monument in 1910 and Sitka National Historical Park in 1972 to commemorate the Battle of Sitka. But in preserving the battlefield, the park also preserved a lush temperate rainforest and a rocky coastline that gives way to the island-studded waters and mountainous horizon that makes Sitka one of Alaska's most beautiful seaside towns. Such a setting and the unique mingling of Tlingit culture and Russian history make this one of Alaska's most unusual national parks.
On display at the Sitka National Historical Park Visitors Center are Russian and indigenous artifacts along with a video in the theater that provides an overview of the battle. Outside the center carvers are usually working on a totem while nearby is Totem Trail, a mile-long path past 18 totems that were first displayed at the 1904 Louisiana Exposition in St. Louis and then moved to the newly created park. Eventually the trail arrives at the site of the Tlingit fort near Indian River, where its outline can still be seen. Visitors either explore the trail as a self-guided tour or join a ranger-led 'Battle Walk.'
The National Park Service also renovated the Russian Bishop's House, the oldest intact Russian building in Sitka. Built in 1843 out of Sitka spruce, the two-story log house is one of the few surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture in North America. Tours are offered daily of the historic building that once served as a school, Bishop's residence and Russian Orthodox chapel.