Gustavus (Strawberry Point), Alaska - Historical Overview
The Early Settlers
In 1913 a chance meeting with an old steamship captain whose tales of
a beautiful, remote piece of “near level” land called “Strawberry Point”
surrounded by snow-covered mountains, and an iceberg-laden sea would soon prove
irresistible to 3 young couples looking for adventure.
Late June 1914, Bill & Margaret Taggert, John & Bernice
Davis, and Verne & Janet “Janie” Henry
arrived at Strawberry Point, Alaska with basic survival supplies
(and a few personal possessions) aboard a hired fishing boat. In foul weather,
the men and their wives transferred to a little gas-driven skiff in Icy Passage
and motored up Salmon River where tents were erected on the western shore.
By 1917 several other venturesome families—the Goods, Lester Rink,
and the Abraham Lincoln Parker family responded to the call of the wilderness
and joined the small band of settlers with homesteading dreams of their own.
There were no roads, no docks, no bridges, no services and no time to
spare. There were families to raise, crops to plant, houses, boats, river
crossings, floats and a school to build. And though fishing and hunting
were plentiful, there were lean years, long and unforgiving winters, bears that
decimated cattle herds, and even ships that sank carrying entire harvests of
Life was difficult. But challenged by the elements, agricultural
setbacks, and always with the lack of outside assistance or communications, the
settlers only banded their indomitable spirits together and invented clever
solutions, designed and built innovative “contraptions”, helped each other in
every way possible and got the job done.
For the early settlers, hard work was embraced and expected, and
having a good time was mandatory. Any reason at all, became reason enough to
get cleaned up, dressed up, and have a “Bang-Out” community celebration. They
were self-taught, willing entertainers, and original, hilarious music flowed
like a river.
Children climbed trees for the first glimpse of the once-a-month mail
boat and a chance to be the first to report it in view. Postmistress
Jennie Parker baked and served cake for the all-night gatherings to read and
share the news. Homesteader Ruth Matson once observed that with all the
closeness, they were bound to get mad at each other once in a while. “But what
was the use of staying mad”, she wisely concluded, “ because then who would you
have to play pinochle with?”
“Strawberry Point” is Renamed “Gustavus”
It may have never been printed on a map, but the entire southeast
Alaska region originally called Gustavus “Strawberry Point” for the bounty of
sweet strawberries that grew wild across “the flats”. The name change from
Strawberry Point to Gustavus occurred in 1925 when the United States Post
Office choose a new name (based on Pt. Gustavus, a Glacier Bay landmark) and
required the new, tiny post office that served 17 settlers to comply.
Locals felt the action was thrust upon them without adequate reason or
explanation and continued to refer to their beloved homestead lands (so aptly
named) as Strawberry Point through the 1950’s and beyond.
Thirteen determined, hardworking families had successfully patented
their homesteads by the time homesteading was abruptly ended in 1939 when
President Roosevelt enlarged the Glacier Bay Monument boundaries and took
possession of all unpatented Gustavus lands.
Homesteaders were stunned. The act not only land-locked their
homesteads and halted any further chance of growth or development, but the
brown bear “sanctuary” now surrounding their ranches would all but guarantee
the devastation of their prized herds of cattle.
The move was regarded by the pioneers, who saw their hard-fought
dreams evaporating before their eyes, as an attempt to strangle their ability
to survive and in so doing drive them out of the area altogether. Thanks in
part to the uprising among the settlers and an unrelenting letter writing
campaign by Charles Parker, son of 1917 homesteader A. L. Parker, homesteading
restored in 1955 when by Presidential proclamation 19,000 acres were
released back to Gustavus from the Monument.
The 6 canneries in the Icy Straits and Chatham Straits area provided
a viable, though largely seasonal economic base for the early settlers to sell
or trade their
strawberries, root crops, and beef. In 1924 A. L. Parker’s steam
driven (later diesel)
sawmill further enhanced the homesteaders’ ability to thrive and
Just about every one who “followed their star” north to Alaska in the
early days had a thirst for gold. Gustavus pioneers were no different and
at one time or another they nearly all “prospected” and staked their claims
somewhere in the surrounding area. However, the only commercial mining
operation in the greater Gustavus area was the “Leroy” gold
mine at Ptarmigan Creek, in Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay located by
Leslie and A. L. Parker in 1938.
It was the Japanese threat of invasion during WWII that provided the
impetus for the U. S. Government to build both a major military installation in
neighboring Excursion Inlet and about the same time, a first class airport in
Gustavus in 1942.
Though the Glacier Bay Monument was
created in 1925, it wasn’t until 1956 that a road was built from
Gustavus to Bartlett Cove with a dock and facilities put in the following 2
years. With the airport to fuel Gustavus’ first economic engine—bringing new
ease of travel and prospects of tourism (the NPS visitors lodge was completed
in 1966), Gustavus was “on the map” as a beautiful, remote but accessible
get-a-way destination and as a “Gateway” to Glacier Bay.
Gustavus Then and Now
In many ways Gustavus has remained the same remote, unspoiled,
picture-perfect “nearly level” land surrounded by majestic mountains and vast,
sandy beaches and wonder-filled seas as it was for the earliest settlers.
Strawberries still grow in wild abundance, and residents today must compete
with the bears much the same as days gone by.
There was then, as today, a grand sense of community among the
independent, rugged (and now semi-modern) “pioneers”. An invigorating mix
of hard work, fun and adventure best describe the Gustavus residents—including
a number of descendants from the original homesteaders.
The “Post Office” no longer serves cake. But a quick trip to
pick up the mail (it comes daily these days by air, weather permitting), can
easily find one loosing an hour or two “catching up” with neighbors you spoke
with only moments before.
There are still no roads that go “outside”, but present day
“Bang-Outs” and social get-togethers remain the glue that bands us together.
Everyone extends a willing hand where there is need. Every one “knows”
everyone. And hearts and homes are always open to newcomers and wide-eyed
Has anyone ANYWHERE ever had as much camaraderie, good time fun, and
sense of communal purpose as a group of Alaskan kindred spirits happily
“stranded” together by mountains and a sea that corral them and by roads that
only lead (from beginning to end) to each other? The essential ingredients of
Strawberry Point (Gustavus), Alaska have never changed, and no one would have
it any different.