Beached on the rocky shore by territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening’s cabin near Amalga harbor, the tides of Favorite Channel have washed away most of an iconic piece of Juneau’s past. There is no sign pointing out this rusted, hidden history blending with the rocks, and yet, still it sits, a six-cylinder, 1928 Buick engine — the heart of the Ark of Juneau.
On Dec. 27, longtime Juneau resident Joe Satko died in Anacortes, Washington, at age 91. He was the third living member of the original Satko family who built the Ark, which sailed from Tacoma, Washington, to Juneau so the family could escape the Great Depression. The other two living members are Joe’s younger sisters Betty and Northsea Satko.
Joe’s son, Herb Satko, came to town in January for a memorial for his father and sat down with the Empire to reflect on the Ark of Juneau and his father’s experience.
“He wanted it known that it wasn’t some glorious odyssey for them,” Herb recounted.
The Satko expedition to Alaska aboard the Ark was heavily covered by local newspapers as the Satkos passed through. When the family arrived in Alaska, it made the New York Times. In later years, Paul made a recording for the Library of Congress recounting his voyage, NPR published an in-depth radio program and other publications recapitulated the voyage in Washington and Alaska.
Joe’s father Paul started thinking about living in Alaska in 1934 after reading literature about the territory and began formulating his plan to move his family and claim a homestead. Paul struggled to find work to feed his family in Richmond, Virginia, where he worked as a machinist to support himself, his wife Mollie and their seven children: Hazel, Edward, Joe (about 10 years old), Grace, David, Billy and Betty and their unnamed coal-black cat.
Paul, who had invented an amphibian automobile capable of going on the water, was no stranger to creativity. His amphibian automobile was equipped with standard front wheels and paddle rear wheels and could be steered by separately braking one rear wheel and then the other. Paul decided to build a new vessel that would sail his family from the West Coast all the way to Alaska.
In his backyard, Paul welded the frame of what later became known as the Ark of Juneau. It was 40 feet long, 12 feet tall and eight feet wide so its the skeleton could be attached to a truck chassis and be hauled on the highway by the family’s 1928 Buick-engine powered truck (the same engine was later used to power the Ark).
On June 19, 1938, the Satkos left Richmond to slowly traverse the U.S. to Washington state, the trip taking a total of 81 days. Paul took odd jobs along the way to feed his family, and the family slept in the Ark’s frame, which was covered by a tarp that made it resemble the prairie schooners of old. It earned the nickname “schooner-mobile.”
There are two different accounts about how the boat received its iconic name. One account goes like this: the family passed St. Louis and a toll bridge keeper exclaimed as the boat lumbered by: “Well, if here isn’t Noah and his Ark.”
The other was when a passing motorist caught sight of the boat in the Blue Ridge Mountains and said, “Here comes Noah and his Ark right across the mountains.”
“He had a lot of support from just regular people because it represented the pioneering spirit and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and not just accepting, you know, the Depression, the food lines,” Herb said. “Paul thought it would get worse. He didn’t think he could feed his family in Richmond, Virginia, and he decided to do something about it and he wasn’t going to stop.”
At Tacoma, Paul and family began constructing the Ark, a process that took 13 months.
“Of course money was an issue, their next meal was an issue — he (Paul) got two sling-loads of lumber from a local mill that a customer had purchased or ordered and failed to pick up … He got two of them for $20 and the way he said $20 was so wistful,” Herb said, recalling a recording Paul did on his adventure for the Library of Congress. Paul estimated the Ark cost about $2,000 in total, which adjusted for inflation from 1940 would be $33,789.29 today.
Herb mentioned how his father Joe drilled the 70 steel ribs to attach the fir planking. Joe only stopped because he broke his leg from a fall from the scaffolding during a fight with his father Paul.
“But he was always there next to father,” Herb said about the relationship between his father and Paul and the journey and construction of the Ark. “I don’t think he thought it was even hard work. … Ark work was something they all did. I think he just thought it was something he had to do. He worked hard all his life.”
When the Ark was launched, 4-5,000 Tacomans came out to cheer on the Satko family with newsreel cameras taking footage. Some thought the boat would sink, but it remained afloat. On April 21, 1940, the day of the Satkos’ departure, a throng of 20,000 Tacomans gathered to send off the family. Tacoma’s mayor at the time, Harry Cain, delayed the festivities since he was forced to park several miles away and walk to the ceremonies. The boat passed through the harbor without incident but later ran aground beneath Magnolia Bluff and had to be pulled free by the Coast Guard.
More troubles came when the family arrived at Seattle and there was a delegation ready and waiting to confront Paul Satko about the seaworthiness of his vessel. With a court order, an initiative begun by Captain John Fox, the secretary of the Masters, Mates and Pilots Association, all the children were to be removed from the Ark until certain changes were made to the vessel. Paul tried to cast off before this could happen but was halted and arrested. A defense league from Tacoma paid his $25 bail and the judge later decided that if the Ark could be modified to the satisfaction of numerous marine and federal safety inspectors, the children would be allowed back on the Ark.
The changes were numerous and the cost high, Herb said, with “13 different experts with 13 different opinions.”
The estimated cost of the repairs was $500, which would be $8,447 today. Paul and Hazel, who was 18, sailed to Everett to find resources to make the changes. Pregnant Mollie and children followed by car. People in Washington promised donations and needed items for the Ark to pass the safety inspectors’ standards, but over time, Paul realized folks were not going to be timely in their help, if they followed through at all.
Paul neither had the time to make all the changes — he did not want to sail the Gulf of Alaska during the fall — nor the extra cash to pay for them.
“So he decided to make the changes he agreed with and those he could afford,” Herb said.
On May 25, 1940, the Satkos and the Ark disappeared in early morning from Anacortes.
After 97 days and 1,080 miles from Tacoma, on July 26, 1940, the Ark arrived in Juneau. The Ark was docked at Eagle’s Landing. At the confluence of Herbert and Eagle rivers northwest of Juneau, Paul claimed a homestead he named Journey’s End. While Paul was building the family a cabin and clearing the surrounding land for a vegetable patch to sell produce in town, Mollie gave birth to baby girl aboard the Ark. They named her Northsea Meridian in light of their voyage.
Due to a broken tow line, the Ark drifted on the rocks at Eagle’s Landing, smashing a large hole in the stern while the family was still living aboard. The family managed to evacuate, but the Ark was submerged for six days until Paul was able to put it in drydock. He wanted to repair it and bring it to the homestead to exhibit, but that plan never came to fruition.
The Satko family had several more minor adventures after making Juneau their home. For Northsea’s first birthday, Paul held a housewarming party for all of Juneau in Journey’s End’s completed cabin. Even territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening’s wife Dorothy attended.
In 1941, the school-aged Satko children staged a successful sit-down strike to get bus service to the new Tee Harbor School (Paul won a bid to drive the bus). Hazel Satko worked in a photo shop in 1942 and married Sgt. William Brown at the Shrine of St. Terese later that year. In the same year, Edward got a job as a welder on a war project while Joe ran the tractor on Journey’s End. Paul killed two different grizzlies which came too close to home. David, 11, along with another local boy Dudley Smithberg, 12, marooned themselves on a log in the Mendenhall River on the Mendenhall Flats while hunting, and were later rescued by Henry Meirs.
Not done inventing creative vessels, on Feb. 3, 1943, in an attempt to interest investors and the military, Paul revealed he had plans for building a landship, a huge, all-terrain vehicle 200 feet in diameter. On March 8, 1943, the War Production Board turned down Paul’s invention despite being impressed, stating it would be impossible to get priorities for steel to build the vehicle.
On May 17, 1944, the family’s in-town apartment was damaged by a fire. The family moved into town and Satko began working at a sawmill as a mechanic. The two older sons joined the military, and since Hazel was married and living on her own, the family’s cash flow was reduced. The worst news came in 1946 when the family learned that their application for their homestead had been denied, the cited reason being Paul had not applied within the necessary filing period. Gov. Gruening offered to intervene, but Paul did not take this offer.
“They cancelled his homestead,” Herb said. “He was pretty disillusioned.”
Paul, Mollie and most of the children returned east to Virginia. Hazel and Grace, who were married, stayed behind. Hazel opened a yarn shop downtown for a time.
Paul died of a heart attack on April 5, 1957. Mollie later moved to Washington and lived to be in her 90s.
While the most of the Satkos returned east, Joe had left Juneau to be in the U.S. Army. He later returned and married Irene G. Hill and later had Kathryn and Herb. He started Joe’s Body Shop, which now goes by the name of Capital City Auto.
“He believed your integrity was paramount,” Herb said. “People would come to us sometimes at the body shop wanting to include damage that wasn’t related to the accident. If they did that, he sent them home. He always told me from when I was young, do something like that and put a hundred extra dollars in your pocket at the cost of your reputation. It’s not worth it.”
Herb said his father loved fishing and hunting, and taught him how to do it. Joe frequented City Cafe with his coffee klatch. “He knew everybody and everybody knew him.”
Joe went to live in Anacortes, Washington, in his later years for his health and to be with family.
“I can tell you my dad did not want to move south,” he said.
Despite the loss of the homestead and the family returning east, Herb had this to say: “In the early days, when Paul was asked why Alaska, he said ‘to live freely, live off the land and grow up with the country … and have opportunity.’ Hazel and my dad proved Paul right. There was opportunity, and they made the most of it.”
Joe went looking for Journey’s End before he moved south, but found the cabin fallen to ruin. The Ark of Juneau, which had been left by Gruening’s cabin, was swallowed by both tide and time, erasing the name painted on the stern and the many signatures people had left on the wood during the voyage north. Though all the fir planking Joe drilled thousands of holes in, the frame where the family slept in and the steering system is all gone, the Buick engine remains steadfast, a reminder of the Satkos’ pioneering spirit and determination that first pointed them towards Alaska.