207 Stedman Street, Ketchikan, AK, USA
Creek Street Ketchikan Reviews
Notoriusly Wicked Street Sep 09, 2009
At the entry to the Creek Street Historic Walking Tour there is a wonderful sign (see my picture) that has the following wonderful “history”
Ketchikan’s notorious Creek Street, early Alaska’s most infamous red-light, still retains traces of the gaudy rouge of a half century of speakeasies and sporting women. Here the fame of Black Mary, Thelma Baker and Dolly Arthur outlived the turnover of many of the girls with “stage” names such as Frenchie, Prairie Chicken, Deep Water Mary or Dirty Neck Maxine. The glow of their porch light globes – inscribed with their names – lured the crews of the North Pacific halibut and salmon fleets like rows of beacons in the night. The bold sailors swaggered across the Creek Street footbridge near the Star dance hall; others more timid slunk to the Creek behind the screen of brush on the hillside “Married Man’s Trail.”
Alaska’s First City northbound was transportation and supply hub first for mining, then fishing and later to timber industries. Ketchikan’s male-worker populations sometimes seemed to match census count and prostitution flourished for more than fifty years. And then, in 1954, it was banished.
More than two “female borders” constituted a house of prostitution according under Territorial Alaska law, so most Creek Street ladies lived in pairs or alone. The exception was No. 5, the Star Dance Hall, Two stories, 12 rooms, with live music and dance partners for various types of entertainment. The Star’s operation was allowed via larger “protection” payments. A five-pointed dark wood star still graces the old dance floor in this “nice” establishment. Its famous proprietors were “Black Mary” Thomas who bought it in 1917 and her successor Thelma Baker, who took over in 1924. Black Mary died not long after, in a rocking chair in her nearby home, counting her money. Thelma died in a fire in the Star in 1972, 18 years after Creek was closed. The gutted Star was boarded up until 1991 when it was restored.
City Council planted the Creek’s red-light roots with a 1903 formal edict ordering all bawdy housed moved to a single location in the Creek street area. Ramshackle sporting houses built on pilings sprang up on both sides of the creek. Fourteen operated in 1914; in 1920 31 “female boarders” occupied 21 houses, and after World War II some 33 houses were listed. Starting upstream No 1 to No 24 with exceptions like No 13, dubbed simply “The End.” Housed burned or collapsed over the years and some were replaced. Several abatement efforts closed the Creek in the ‘teens and 20s’. With great irony, final closure came in 1954 after a lengthy federal grand jury investigation exposed police graft and city tolerance. There are still people to this day that are angry over the closure that put 22 girls and 18 houses out of business.
It was a bazaar of red light vice for half a century, but Creek Street also served as a clearinghouse, news and job center for the fishing fleet. After weeks on the fishing grounds, fishermen appreciated Creek Street parlors for socializing and after hours drinks as much as for the favors of the girls. Nonetheless, the district’s by-products of scandal, mayhem and the occasional corpses joining empty hooch bottles floating downstream indelibly assured its sordid far-flung reputation. Today, no longer “Uncle Sam’s Wickedest City” shades of Ketchikan’s Creek Street past still trod the wet boardwalk in the damp night air.
Thelma Dolly Copeland – whose “stage” name was Dolly Arthur, was born in 1888 near McCall, Idaho but fled west at the age of 13 to escape a troubled family life. By age 18 she found selling her favors more lucrative than waiting tables. In 1914, after plying her trade in Spokane, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C., she scouted Alaska for a new location, bypassing the cribs of Juneau and settling on Ketchikan’s sporting atmosphere. Dolly preferred to work alone. She neither drank nor smoked but could swear with a knack when tested. Neither proud nor ashamed of her profession, she wanted the money that bought her “chippie” lovers, pets, and travel. After a stint at Black Mary’s Star dance hall, she bought her own sporting house in 1919 at No 24 Creek Street, which she still owned at her death in 1975. Her last words “I’m going on a long trip…..”
What that wonderful sign doesn’t show is that since the middle of the twentieth century there has been very little going on around this previously bustling area. It has only been in the last twenty years that a combination of the Historic District and the cruise lines has brought back this area. Still just a few blocks long, as the address numbers prove, today, you will find many jewelry, souvenir, and art galleries. The buildings have mostly been restored and renovated and painted, the pilings have been replaced for safety.
Part of the 2009 Cruise to and tour of Alaska travel blog
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