AK: Heated by hot springs, Tenakee Springs Museum tells community’s story

Since opening in July 2017, the Tenakee History Museum has recorded over 700 visitors. Most of the collection is paper archives, but the museum also houses historic domestic and non-domestic items dating back to 1899. Pictured here are Museum Director Beret Barnes, Curator Vicki Wisenbaugh, and intern Kate Duffy preparing to cut the ribbon. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Tenakee Springs, Alaska is a dirt road town with a 10-mile-per-hour speed limit. Time seems to slow down. Few interactions are in passing. Residents actually bathe together in a communal hot springs sheltered from the rain. And now, there’s a place where time comes to a complete standstill. During a reporting trip around Chichagof Island, KCAW visited the new Tenakee Springs Museum housing the history of this storied southeast town.

On a clear day in January 2012, Carlene Allred broke out a video camera to film the renovation of the Tenakee Springs Museum. Moving inside the building, she asks her husband, Kevin Allred, “What’s going on in here?”

“We’re renovating this liquor store and making it in to a museum,” he cheerfully responds.

Kevin Allred has figured out a way to heat the structure with geothermal energy. That’s right: The Tenakee Springs Museum is warmed entirely by the town’s naturally occurring hot springs.

“The best source seems to be the excess heat that’s leftover from heating the changing room of the bathhouse,” Kevin Allred explains.

Tenakee Springs is a city tucked along Tenakee Inlet on Chichagof Island in Southeast, Alaska. The population hovers around 100. The public bathhouse is open every day for residents to bathe. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Years of hammering, sanding and painting – sometimes to the sounds of ABBA – are compiled by Carlene Allred in a 30-minute YouTube video. The renovation work was paid for through a combination of local dollars and grants from the Alaska State Museum and Rasmuson Foundation.

The Allred’s weren’t in town when I visited Tenakee Springs. But their handiwork and others’ is evident in the schoolhouse red structure that is now home to the Tenakee Historical Collection. Carlene Allred filmed the grand opening ceremony too, which is at the end of the YouTube video.

Curator Vicki Wisenbaugh held the ribbon at the grand opening alongside Director Beret Barnes, officially opening the museum on July 2, 2017. The ribbon was cut by intern Kate Duffy. Duffy spent eight weeks helping develop the layout for the museum. Ninety people attended, which is the vast majority of Tenakee’s population.

Today, Wisenbaugh and I are standing outside the museum. The door is ajar. They logged over 700 visitors between July 2017 and July 2018, some unexpected. At that very moment, a squirrel attempts to dart inside.

“Eh. Don’t you go in there, bud!,” Wisenbaugh shouts. “We’ve had them in there before. It’s pretty exciting.”

Luckily, the squirrel does a U-turn.

A vanity displays high heels and letters. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Inside the museum, you can faintly hear the sound of the ocean beneath the pilings. It’s one room and the oak cases are full. There’s fish hooks, seine twine and a metal stencil to mark a package as “Captain Bing Brand Alaska Pink Salmon.”

One glance and you’ll know that the history of Tenakee Springs is in fishing and canning. It’s a place for those who work on the water to heal their bodies in the bathhouse. The nearby Superior Packing Company closed long ago, but the remnants of that boom time are in the museum.

For Wisenbaugh, the crown jewel of the collection is a case of stone tools and a spruce root basket from the Tlingit people who first inhabited this land. She points to a cooking stone. “You can see where the finger holds are. You can see where your hand would fit,” she says with awe in her voice.

Salmon and crab canneries operated in Tenakee Inlet beginning in 1916 and ceased operations in 1974. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

The tools were found entirely by locals digging around their own property. This is truly the museum that Tenakee built. Officers and board members privately stored decades of donations from residents. And now, to their great relief, it’s mostly all in one place for the public to enjoy and build upon.

“One of our members brought over this cigar box full of old keys,” Wisenbaugh notes. The box of key is used to fundraise. How it works is you become a member of the museum, pick a key from the box and hang it on a community board with your name.

“People spend a lot of time picking their key, children especially. And they’ll race in to show other kids,” Wisenbaugh said. “‘This one’s mine, it’s got my name on it!’ It fascinates me how the kids love this place. Some of them come up with their own ideas of what things are.”

Wisenbaugh is also quick to imagine the lives of the people who used these objects. She’s hard pressed to talk about the what the museum means to her in words, so does it with the collection.

A box of cigar keys has become a fundraising tool for the Tenakee Museum, as members commit their support and claim a key. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

At one point, she gleefully produces a vintage car horn, salvaged from a rotting car on the beach. Kevin Allred, the guy who built the heating system, got it to work again.

“I regret it doesn’t do OOO-AHHHH-OOO-AHH, but this is okay,” Wisenbaugh said.

She loves the work of putting life back into objects long forgotten. History has an immediacy for her and comes right up close. She has to go soon to pick up her grandson, but not before showing me a letter from Dermot O’Toole, the namesake of the local library. He sent this letter to his mother in 1941.

“I happened to be tuning in to the radio at the house when I happened to learn that Japanese planes had bombed Pearl Harbor,” he wrote. “For a moment, I thought it was just a hoax or play. Now we have settled down to the grim realization that it is actually a war and from all indications, it is going to be a long one.”

With the museum open, Wisenbaugh now wants to catalog the collection. They’re running out for room to take more donations, but as she put it, “If it has anything to do with Tenakee and a good story behind it, we’ll take it.”

Tenakee Springs Fire Hall on a summer day. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)