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Tenakee Springs History

No place is a place until things that have happened i n it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends or monuments. ---Wallace Stegner

"Snyder Merc" watercolor by Terry Kennedy, reproduced with permission.Tenakee Springs wasn’t always the mostly quiet town it is today. With about 100 full-time residents, including a handful of school children, it grows by about 50 percent during the summer.  That's when tourists cruise in and people from Juneau and farther away come out to enjoy the summer in their second homes.

Tenakee has an ordinance against cars and trucks. An exception is made for the fire truck and the truck that delivers fuel oil. The ferry dock in Tenakee was purposely built to exclude any vehicle larger than the off-road 4-wheelers, which scurry onto the ferry to pull off shopping loads from Costco and Home Depot during the 30-minute ferry stay. The town is not connected by roads to any other community.  Arrival, therefore, is exclusively by boat or plane. Most people walk a lot and ride bikes.

The town has two restaurants, both very small; a lodge open part time; a grocery store, Snyder Mercantile, in operation since 1899; a library supported by the Alaska library system; a large school house built by the state during the 1980’s, equipped with computers, a gym, and a library; several rental cabins; and a harbor, also supported by state funds. Public entertainment is ad hoc and infrequent.

High tide at Tenakee Springs, AK. Outhouses, three of which are visible in this 1982 photo, have passed into the realm of historic curiosities. Photo by Yvonne MozeeEarly and mid-twentieth century Tenakee was quite different. During those early years the population in Tenakee Inlet and Tenakee Springs proper increased seasonally.  A saltern was located across the inlet from Tenakee in Saltary Bay to produce salt by evaporation of seawater for food preservation.  Use of salterns was supplanted when the 'technological breakthrough' of high-pressure canning arrived in the area. Fishing boats, logging camps, and canneries were generally self-sufficient and brought an influx of workers and families to the area.  Tenakee was the nucleus for these operations, a place to shop and conduct business via telegram and postal service, take a bath at the hot springs, get a haircut, have a meal and drink, do some gambling and dancing, and maybe take in a movie at the Liberty Theater.  The day could end with a trip back to the camp, cannery or boat, a night at the hotel or, if things went badly, at the jail. 

There were miners from the interior goldfields, packers, trappers, prospectrors and hangers-on who came to winter here rather than go south. Some stayed because they hadn't made enough money to go farther and some because they were avoiding the law or families they'd left behind. Tenakee living was cheap, with venison, seafood, homebrew, and free hot baths. Grace Davis' mother said in an interview that the men would "hire" women to spend the winter here.  She said some of these women lived at Olaf Person's house, which was then a little way out of town.

When Ed Snyder rowed his first boat of supplies out from Juneau, before he opened Snyder Mercantile in 1899, he sold his goods to miners and fishermen drawn to the natural hot springs for the winter. Before that, Tlingit Indians in the area had used the springs for generations.

In 1900 the hot spring was enclosed in a log cabin.  In 1917 a school was established by the Territory of Alaska; the Tenakee School District started that year with "ten white students between the ages of 6 and 20." A harbor with floating docks was built with state funds in the late 1960s. Scheduled  plane service was also initiated in the late 1960s and regular ferry service started in 1978 with the inaugural voyage to Tenakee of the Le Conte.

By the 1970s, logging in the area began to decline and flash freezing on large processing vessel replaced canneries. The last cannery in Tenakee closed in 1974.