Good deed uncovers stone stairs built in early 1900s

Uncovering historical items can have its ups and downs. In some cases, that's the literal truth.

Somewhere around 1915, a set of stairs was built that saw a lot of use over the next 80 years. But they began to fade like an old photograph until suddenly they disappeared.

It wasn't until a couple of weeks ago that the stairs were found, leading to a conversation about their place in Wrangell's history.

Peter Karras, of Sitka, was in town on a visit in mid-July. Not one to be idle, he was cutting down some trees for Frank Young, who lives on Third Street.

"He said there's some steps over here and they let them overgrow with salmonberry bushes," Karras said. Partly out of curiosity but mainly because he wanted to help unearth Young's childhood memories, Karras set to cutting back the bushes and revealing the stone steps.

The stairs are part of pathway that runs from the intersection of Reid Street and Greif Street up to Third, and is an easement overseen by the parks and recreation department, according to Borough Manager Jeff Good.

"When I was a kid, we used to run up and down them," Young, 82, said. Though he lived out at Heritage Harbor, Young said he and his friends would go to the area around Third Street now and again. "Over the years, nobody really used them. They started developing houses up here more. None of these houses were here when I was a kid."

Young has lived in his house on the south side of the easement since 1983, and the steps were still uncovered and in use at that time. "When tourists would go to Mt. Dewey, I'd see them walking up and down that path."

Before houses were built up in the area of Third Street, it was all farms, Young said. Al Binkley, who owned and farmed the land, had used a motorized tram next to the stairs to bring supplies up to the property, according to Young.

"There was a tramway made of wood and Binkley had the farm up here, that's how he got his supplies up the hill," Young said. "He had a little gas engine on it, and he'd pull that trolley up that ramp."

Both Binkley and Einar Ottesen were in their 90s when they would tell Young about Wrangell's early history, and the stairs were included in those conversations. "They built it during the First World War," Young said. "They had city co-op camps, but they had formed a different group here in Wrangell. I can't remember the name of it, but they built the stairs."

Kathie Angerman, who lives a block up from Third on First Avenue, remembered using the stairs as a girl to go up and visit the farms, since Binkley was her stepfather.

"They were beautiful stone steps," she said. Eventually, Binkley sold all the land for homes, with one of the lots bought by Angerman and her husband more than 60 years ago just a stone's throw from the steps.

Young's wife, Cherie, said when she was a girl, she used to have a friend who lived up the hill and they would walk together up the steps to get to her friend's house.

Karras cleared around 70 feet of the stairway before returning to Sitka on July 22. It's his hope that the work can continue by people willing to volunteer their time.

Kate Thomas, director of Parks and Recreation, said she was unaware of the steps until last week. She's unsure of how much control, if any, her department has over the easement, but said she would follow up with the borough to get a better understanding.

Young would like to see the steps restored in some capacity.

"I'd love to see them uncovered," he said. "It's part of Wrangell's history. ... It's kind of neat."


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