Little-known Petersburg celebrates its Norwegian heritage


PETERSBURG, Alaska -- As in many other century-old ethnic communities across the nation, second- and third-generation Americans here in Alaska's "Little Norway" are trying to hold onto their roots.

There is little in the scenery to distract them in this endeavor. "It's as close to Norway as you can get," said Linda Quarles of the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce. "The tall mountains, the water, the glaciers are very Norwegian."

Access to the water and ice is what appealed to Peter Buschmann, a Norwegian immigrant, when, in 1896, he founded the town and settled it with Norwegian fishermen and their families.

Hammer Slough, Petersburg's historical district. Today, the town flourishes as a center for commercial fishing and seafood processing and is a favorite among tourists who come to observe a small fishing community at work against a backdrop of natural wonders.

It is a short walk around town. Those who head to the beach will stumble across petroglyphs of ancient native rock carvings.

At low tide, they can see five tidal fish-traps made of rock and wood that Forest Service archaeologists determined are a couple of thousand years old.

At high tide in Hammer Slough (pronounced Slew), the historic district, the coastal waters reveal reflections of the 25 Norwegian-style houses and warehouses set on pilings along the shore.

Though few in number, other houses in town are identifiably Norwegian, as well. Such homes generally are characterized by their brightly painted sidings trimmed with rosemaling and topped with red roofs, according to Quarles.

Many storefronts and the harbor office also carry the distinctive rosemaling floral motif, while inside some houses built by Norwegian tradesmen, there are the deep, narrow staircases consistent with Norwegian homes.

Indeed, an interest in things Norwegian has been revived in the last couple of years, according to Dave Berg, owner of Viking Travel here.

The Norwegian Museum here is getting people to record their stories.

Young parents have resurrected Norwegian names for their children, such as Jacob, Helmer, Sigrid, Erik and its feminine form, Erika.

The Sons of Norway conducts lessons in the Norwegian language for adults and children.

A number of families each year vacation in Norway. Ten members of one family made the pilgrimage last year, Quarles said.

And a young local woman of Norwegian ancestry teaches Norwegian dancing, and parents and grandparents teach their children Norwegian songs.

It is this pride in their heritage that impels Petersburg residents to come together each year on the third full weekend of May for the Little Norway Festival, the biggest event on the calendar here.

The weekend is chosen to coincide as closely as possible with Syttende Mai (the 17th of May), the date of Norway's independence from Sweden in 1814. This year, the event will take place May 18 to 21.

Along with crafts, a parade and a seafood feast, the Norwegian dancers will show what they have learned, and a "style show" will feature Norwegian costumes, some of which were handed down through generations, some of which were ordered from Norway and some of which are homemade.

Norwegian food, including beer bits -- halibut fried in deep fat, similar to English fish and chips -- and an ample supply of Norwegian cookies are menu favorites at the festival's various venues for dining, which include a cannery cook house.

The town's major festival attracts a good number of tourists, so anyone planning to stay overnight should make reservations in advance.

Petersburg has three hotels that total less than 100 rooms, 18 bed-and-breakfasts and three parks for recreational vehicles -- Tonka View and Twin Creek on the Narrows, about three miles from town, and LeConte, 30 miles out, named for the glacier visible at spots along the coastal highway.

The town also has a variety of restaurants, although the one most written about, the Homestead, is soon to be turned into a cook house for a cannery.

Providing eating and sleeping space for transient cannery workers is a priority here.

The population in summertime swells, not with cruise ship passengers but with seasonal workers, for whose labor the processing plants compete.

In economic importance to Petersburg, the seafood business is paramount and tourism seems hardly to count at all.

Despite its distinctive ethnic makeup, its scenery, the multitude of boat charters running glacier tours and the world-class kayaking outfits operating here, Petersburg draws few tourists in comparison with other towns along the Inside Passage.

The reasons are these: Petersburg is accessible only by air or sea; has no deep-water port, and sits on the northern tip of Mitkof Island in the Wrangell Narrows, the single most difficult navigational stretch in all of southeast Alaska.

The ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System stop here twice a day, May through September.

The active Elderhostel groups who come here arrive by ferry in spring and fall, Berg said.

Accommodations on the ferries usually are booked solid for summer.

Petersburg may be "off the beaten path of the large cruise ships," as Berg said recently, but six small-ship lines dock here every summer.

They are the Seattle-based outfits: Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West, Alaska's Glacier Bay Tours and Cruises, Special Expeditions and Society Expeditions; plus American Safari Cruises of Linwood, Wash., whose two small luxury ships carry only about 12 passengers, and Clipper Cruise Lines of St. Louis.

Petersburg Visitor Information Center
Phone: (907) 772-4636

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