The Walter Soboleff Building occupies a central location in downtown Juneau on the former site of a historic building that burned in 2004. (Photo by Brian Wallace)

The Walter Soboleff Building occupies a central location in downtown Juneau on the former site of a historic building that burned in 2004. (Photo by Brian Wallace)

The C.W. Young Building: A phoenix rises from the ashes

Icebergs, shipwreck victims, historic fire and Native heritage part of downtown landmark’s history.

A spectacular fire on a sunny August day in 2004 ended the life of a famous structure in downtown Juneau. When the ashes cooled a giant pit remained showing the origin of rocky waterfront where the tide once sloshed. At the corner of Front Street and Heritage Way (renamed from South Seward Street in 2023) the C. W. Young Hardware store anchored the location since the 1880s when it was built on pilings above the water.

The smoldering pit was eventually filled and became the centerpiece of downtown: Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Walter Soboleff Building. Today the Sealaska Heritage Institute store, clan house, museum, offices and valuable collections occupy the space once filled with warehoused hardware supplies, furniture, lumber and building materials connected by a long wharf. And for one momentous event the C.W. Young Company held 350 filled coffins as the town’s undertaker following one of Juneau’s greatest tragedies.

Charles W. Young came to Juneau shortly after gold was discovered. In 1887 he had built a store on the waterfront, “with a gangplank going down to the beach,” wrote photographer Trevor Davis in his 1979 book “Looking Back on Juneau, The First Hundred Years.” Davis was born in Juneau in 1893.

Davis notes the unique challenges facing early waterfront businesses. “Huge icebergs, the size of a house, would drift up Gastineau Channel from Taku Glacier and lodge against the docks. They had to be towed away in case a storm would rise and smash the wharf.”

Icebergs from Taku Glacier frequently floated into Juneau’s harbor in the early days and well into the 1970s. They needed to be towed away promptly lest they get pushed by storms and destroy the fragile pilings that supported downtown waterfront structures. (ASL-P226-239)

Icebergs from Taku Glacier frequently floated into Juneau’s harbor in the early days and well into the 1970s. They needed to be towed away promptly lest they get pushed by storms and destroy the fragile pilings that supported downtown waterfront structures. (ASL-P226-239)

C.W. Young was a contractor and builder who saw the business potential of the Klondike Gold Rush. Discovery of easily mined gold nuggets in 1896 caused a worldwide stampede to the Yukon. Young was in a key spot to provide supplies to prospective fortune seekers heading north. He enlarged his business in anticipation of growth and filled it with local partygoers on Dec. 5, 1897. Mr. Young held “one of the most charming balls ever given in Juneau,” wrote the Alaska Mining Record newspaper, adding that the new warehouse would be fine for more social purposes but was needed for the growing business. “The upper floor is 30 by 120 feet and the lower, which Mr. Young will fill with Yukon hardware, is 30 by 110 feet.”

By 1904, C.W. Young’s warehouse and dock had expanded so much that the structures extended as far as today’s Marine Park and Ferry Way. This is clearly seen on the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company’s 1904 map.

The original C.W. Young store in the 1890s. The building was modified numerous times and the name changed as different owners took over the hardware business. Until its demise by fire in 2004, the building stood at the corner of Seward and Front Streets. Elegantly painted signage was typical of early businesses. (ASL-P297-082)

The original C.W. Young store in the 1890s. The building was modified numerous times and the name changed as different owners took over the hardware business. Until its demise by fire in 2004, the building stood at the corner of Seward and Front Streets. Elegantly painted signage was typical of early businesses. (ASL-P297-082)

Early photos of Juneau and other irruptive Western towns show evidence of economic status in the form of elaborately painted storefront signs and architecture. C.W. Young’s store was an example. Fancy lettering announced the offerings of hardware, lumber, wall paper, sewing machines and undertaking. Victorian-style cornices supported the roof eave and decorated the entry exteriors. Neighboring entities in the 1890s such as the Nevada Restaurant and Shattuck Insurance Company also featured attractive signage. While Young’s and The Nevada are gone, Shattuck Insurance remains an active Juneau business located a few blocks away.

At the time the early photo was taken, the Shattuck and Company office in the northwest corner of Young’s building served as general agents for steamship companies, real estate, insurance and “they sold dynamite,” reports grandson Allen Shattuck in a February 2024 telephone conversation. His grandfather “was a ‘Jack-of-all-trades’” in order to provide for his family and keep the business going. At the time insurance was not a full-time occupation in Juneau.

While Juneau saw some enrichment from the stampeders heading north to Skagway, Dyea and Canada’s Dawson City, the community’s economic basis in the early 1900s was hard rock mining on both sides of Gastineau Channel.

The towns were thriving until a disaster struck Douglas in 1917. The Treadwell Mine’s underground workings collapsed and below-sea level tunnels suddenly filled with sea water, essentially ending operations there. No miners’ lives were lost. The next year brought global influenza scares to Gastineau Channel as sickness threatened to arrive with steamship passengers from Outside.

The Princess Sophia is stranded on Vanderbilt Reef in October of 1918 during a blizzard. Cradled upright, it sat for 40 hours before spinning off the reef in the storm and sinking, drowning all 353 passengers and crew. (ASL-P109-50)

The Princess Sophia is stranded on Vanderbilt Reef in October of 1918 during a blizzard. Cradled upright, it sat for 40 hours before spinning off the reef in the storm and sinking, drowning all 353 passengers and crew. (ASL-P109-50)

A year after the Treadwell collapse, one of Juneau’s most difficult historical chapters was played out in C.W. Young’s building.

It was a dark and stormy night in late October of 1918 when the Canadian Pacific Steamship Princess Sophia struck Vanderbilt Reef in a blinding snowstorm. The incident did not get as much publicity at first due to competing news of World War I in Europe and approaching influenza. Furthermore, the ship had wedged safely onto the reef in an upright and stable position with electricity still providing lights, meals and comfort to the passengers and crew who waited out the storm.

There was a basis for not panicking initially at the Sophia’s grounding. Other similar incidents proved nonfatal, such as the Princess May running aground spectacularly on rocks near Sentinel Island Lighthouse eight years earlier. That ship’s passengers survived as did the ship. Considering the Princess May incident in 1910, panic did not set in as rescue vessels from Juneau hurried north to evacuate the stranded Sophia passengers.

In 1910 the Princess May ran aground near Sentinel Island despite its lighthouse. All aboard survived, as did the ship. (UAA-HMC-0428)

In 1910 the Princess May ran aground near Sentinel Island despite its lighthouse. All aboard survived, as did the ship. (UAA-HMC-0428)

The storm did not relent, however, and rescuers were unable to approach the ship’s rocky perch. Two days later the ship and all its passengers were lost when the Princess Sophia spun off its cradle of rocks and sank. This dreadful event made C.W. Young’s undertaking business strain to serve the needs of more than 350 deceased passengers.

As bodies were recovered from shorelines they were taken by boat to Young’s wharves and placed in the large warehouse. Heavy oil from the ship coated the dead. Their bodies needed cleaning and preparation for transportation and burial. Citizens volunteered to help as a sister ship sailed north from Vancouver with empty caskets. The story is detailed in a thoroughly researched book titled “The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down with Her.”

By 1956, stucco covered the hardware store exterior. That summer a Channel Bus Lines vehicle lost control and crashed into the side of the building. (ASL-P533-1-1)

By 1956, stucco covered the hardware store exterior. That summer a Channel Bus Lines vehicle lost control and crashed into the side of the building. (ASL-P533-1-1)

Over the decades Young’s store acquired different partners. The building and its wares were updated. Although Young died in 1915, the hardware company bearing his name or that of new owners continued in the original location for 120 years. The pointy shape of the northwest corner changed years later: the sharp corner was lobbed off to allow freight haulers to make a right turn onto Front Street from the narrow dockside roadway. Later photos show the corner cut on a diagonal. Pioneer Trevor Davis shared this informative tidbit with this writer in a 1980 conversation. The exact date of removal is unknown but it occurred between 1927 as documented in that year’s Sanborn map and 1956 when a bus crashed through the wall near the chamfered corner.

In August of 2004 a fire consumed the building. Flames within the old hardware store’s many layers created a difficult challenge for Capital City Fire/Rescue. While the building was destroyed, none of the surrounding historic structures were lost. (Photo by Brian Wallace)

In August of 2004 a fire consumed the building. Flames within the old hardware store’s many layers created a difficult challenge for Capital City Fire/Rescue. While the building was destroyed, none of the surrounding historic structures were lost. (Photo by Brian Wallace)

That legacy changed in August of 2004. Workers repairing the building inadvertently started a fire that flared up between the old walls and layers of roofing. It was difficult to fight. The entire building was destroyed as visitors and residents stood by with their cameras. Capital City Fire/Rescue fought the blaze, but lost. They prevented the fire from spreading to other old wooden buildings downtown, which was a huge feat.

For several years the site of the burned C.W. Young store was an idle eyesore. Here a raven is silhouetted against the snow-covered ground as it flies above the “pit.” The space would be developed into the Walter Soboleff Building. Dr. Soboleff was of the Raven moiety. (Photo by Brian Wallace)

For several years the site of the burned C.W. Young store was an idle eyesore. Here a raven is silhouetted against the snow-covered ground as it flies above the “pit.” The space would be developed into the Walter Soboleff Building. Dr. Soboleff was of the Raven moiety. (Photo by Brian Wallace)

For several years the space stood empty. Built on the early waterfront the sloping ground revealed its origins as a vast rocky beach. The huge hole earned the sad name “the pit.”

The hollow land sparked an idea. Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) was outgrowing its space in the corporate office across the street. Here was an opening in the heart of Juneau’s tourist district. In 2010, Sealaska Corporation purchased the land and donated it to SHI. The gaping hole was filled in to create a safe and attractive landscaped site.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit institute began fundraising and architectural planning. Leaders wanted to build a modern version of a traditional Northwest Coast clan house, but there was a complication.

The original C.W. Young store in the 1890s. The building was modified numerous times and the name changed as different owners took over the hardware business. Until its demise by fire in 2004, the building stood at the corner of Seward and Front Streets. Elegantly painted signage was typical of early businesses. (ASL-P297-082)

The original C.W. Young store in the 1890s. The building was modified numerous times and the name changed as different owners took over the hardware business. Until its demise by fire in 2004, the building stood at the corner of Seward and Front Streets. Elegantly painted signage was typical of early businesses. (ASL-P297-082)

The design ran afoul of the city’s historic district architectural guidelines. Carefully developed to maintain the authentic appearance of downtown Juneau, the historic district required new buildings to fit established Victorian-era or Art Deco styles. Discussions were held. A solution was devised. Acknowledging the origin of the land’s population, the Assembly voted to remove the property from the historic district and allow the traditional design plans to proceed.

Two years later the historic C.W. Young site was reborn on a sunny day in May of 2015. SHI celebrated its handsome new building on the site of the once-charred hardware store and dedicated the Walter Soboleff Building with a well-attended outdoor event.

The grand opening of the Walter Soboleff Building in May of 2015. (Photo courtesy Sealaska Heritage Institute)

The grand opening of the Walter Soboleff Building in May of 2015. (Photo courtesy Sealaska Heritage Institute)

The building houses archives, precious Southeast Alaska Native artifacts known as “at.oow,” exhibit hall, clan house, offices and a store. The contemporary yet traditional architecture features 40-foot-tall red metal formline designs set against yellow cedar exterior siding. During construction the scent of the fresh cedar lingered in the air like the natural fragrance of the forest.

The building is a fitting commemoration for Dr. Walter Soboleff whose life epitomized the Native cultural values of balance and reciprocity. He was beloved by both Alaska Native and non-Native people. Renowned for his kindness and respect, Dr. Soboleff inspired others with handwritten notes of encouragement and reminded people to “take care of the old person you will become.” He was a Presbyterian minister who led his own church and congregation in the tidelands area until that building was closed by the national Presbyterian organization, causing heartbreak among his followers. Community leaders are currently working to reconcile past cultural dismantling.

The Rev. Dr. Walter Soboleff poses in Alaska Native Brotherhood hat and sash. Dr. Soboleff inspired many Alaska Natives and non-Natives during his 102 years of life. The Walter Soboleff Building is named in his honor and arose from the ashes of the C. W. Young site that burned in 2004. (Photo by Brian Wallace)

The Rev. Dr. Walter Soboleff poses in Alaska Native Brotherhood hat and sash. Dr. Soboleff inspired many Alaska Natives and non-Natives during his 102 years of life. The Walter Soboleff Building is named in his honor and arose from the ashes of the C. W. Young site that burned in 2004. (Photo by Brian Wallace)

From a pioneer hardware store to a modern cultural centerpiece honoring a noble Alaska Native leader one plot of land has emerged like a phoenix rising from the ashes of the past.

• Laurie Craig is an artist, advocate and avid researcher of Juneau’s historical treasures. The author deeply appreciates Brian Wallace’s contribution of photographs for this article.

When Sealaska Heritage purchased the land they filled the pit and hired local landscape architect Judy Sherburne to create natural plantings to beautify the site while the future building was designed. (Photo courtesy Judy Sherburne)

When Sealaska Heritage purchased the land they filled the pit and hired local landscape architect Judy Sherburne to create natural plantings to beautify the site while the future building was designed. (Photo courtesy Judy Sherburne)

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