I recently took a trip to Ketchikan to see an old friend of mine and, as I was on the ferry from the airport to the mainland, I overheard some of my fellow visitors discussing a part of town called Creek Street.
I’d been to Ketchikan a few times before this but it was always for business and I never had a lot of time to visit the town.
Once I met my friend and we started driving over to Walmart, I asked him if he knew anything about Creek Street and if it would be worth a visit. He laughed and said, “I live a few blocks up the hill. Yeah, I’ll tell you all about it.”
Here’s everything he told me, starting with the history of the area (which is essential to understanding present-day Creek Street) and then we’ll get into things to do and whether or not it’s worth a visit.
History and General Background
Around the turn of the 20th century, the main industries in Ketchikan were fishing, gold mining, and prostitution. It was quite common to see people from all three industries in the heart of downtown.
In 1903, the city government decided to clean up its image and created an ordinance banning prostitutes from the city center. However, that did not extend to the part of the city known as “Indian Town”.
The owners of the now-shuttered downtown brothels got together and decided to create a few new buildings in the area. The only problem was that “Indian Town” was already occupied and there wasn’t a lot of space available for their expansion.
Since their only other option was to build on Deer Mountain (which was a lot more difficult before the advent of modern technology), they chose to construct a boardwalk on wooden stilts over Ketchikan Creek which they then named “Creek Street”.
During prohibition, the brothels also served smuggled Canadian whiskey, which made them even more popular with the local fishermen. They took small boats under the boardwalk and delivered the drinks through trap doors that had been installed!
The city gained a national reputation for its tolerance of said activities, being described as “a wicked town” in newspapers from cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
It was mainly tolerated because of the money it brought into the city from the fishermen who traveled many miles to visit Creek Street. In 1954, Ketchikan formally banned the act of prostitution and all of the related businesses shut down.
From the late 50s to the early 70s, many of the old Creek Street buildings fell into disrepair. Storms, fires, and other elements damaged several of the former brothels, which had been unoccupied for many years by that point.
In 1971, several developers issued proposals to the city to revitalize the area, which had become a bit of an eyesore. The city approved the plans and changed the zoning from “residential” to “commercial”.
Over the next decade, several new buildings were constructed and older buildings were renovated. In the mid-1980s, several tourist shops were opened and it became the shopping district it is known as today.
Creek Street Today
Here is a short list of some of the best activities that take place in or near Creek Street that you might enjoy during your next visit.
Married Man’s Trail
Another must-see part of the area is the famous Married Man’s Trail, which winds through the woods above the street and, after about 20 minutes or so, leads to Cape Fox Lodge.
As you can probably imagine, it got its name because it was both a way for married men to get access to the Red Light District without being seen and also, it provided them an escape during the many local police raids on those establishments.
Today, it’s a great place to take a walk and catch your breath, especially when downtown is packed with thousands of fellow visitors.
The Inn at Creek Street
The Inn at Creek Street is actually a bit of a misnomer because it’s more than just an inn. It actually consists of eight separate buildings on or near Creek Street that have a combined 26 rooms for visitors to spend the night.
Among these is the famous New York Hotel and restaurant, just off to the side of the actual boardwalk on Stedman Street. It was built in 1934 and is consistently ranked as one of the best hotels in Ketchikan.
All eight buildings provide excellent views of the water and guests have frequently reported seeing marine life popping out of the water during their stays!
There are many great fishing opportunities here as the creek is filled with a large number of salmon. There is also a “fish ladder”, a concrete structure designed to allow salmon to travel upstream on their spawning runs.
During late summer, hundreds of fish can be seen jumping up the ladder on their way to Ketchikan Creek Falls, which is truly a sight to behold.
During peak hours of the day, you’ll see fishermen on the antique red trestle Stedman Bridge. There are shops nearby that will sell you a license and rent you some fishing gear if you’d like to catch some yourself.
There are also processing plants nearby that will process your catches, freeze-dry them, and mail them to you anywhere in the world, so you won’t have to smell like fish the entire journey back home.
One of the most famous of the many “entertainment venues” on Creek Street was Dolly’s House, which is the only brothel that, although renovated, remains largely untouched since the red light district was closed down for good in the 1950s.
It is now a museum dedicated to the history of Creek Street and, for a $10 entrance fee, you can take a largely self-guided tour of the old establishment, including the hidden closet where owner Dolly Arthur hid liquor during prohibition.
Amusingly, the “amenities” section of its Yelp page has a single entry: “not good for kids”. There are a few decidedly “adult” items on display, particularly in the glass case in the bedroom.
Soho Coho Art Gallery
World-renowned and award-winning artist Ray Troll and his wife Michelle operate the Soho Coho Art Gallery at 5 Creek Street, the former home of The Star, one of the largest “houses of ill repute” that was known for its dancing hall.
Troll is most famous for his “Spawn ‘Till You Die” design, which was featured in the Jonah Hill comedy “Superbad” and was reportedly a favorite t-shirt of Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe.
It’s a great place to pick up some local Tlingit art in Ray’s unique style, which has been described as being “as scientifically accurate as it is hilarious”. It also features art from other local artists, including Chip Porter and Hall Anderson.
The Chief Johnson Totem Pole
At the entrance to the boardwalk, you’ll find the Chief Johnson Totem Pole, which is actually a 1989 replica of the original.
Chief Johnson was a wealthy Tlingit leader who led a group to Revillagigedo Island (the one that Ketchikan is on) in 1887. In 1901, he commissioned a 60-foot-tall totem pole to honor his mother.
When it was first raised, over 500 people are said to have attended the massive potlach celebration. Unfortunately, in 1981, the wood had begun to rot and the remnants were taken to the nearby Totem Heritage Center, which is also worth a visit.
A few years later, a 55-foot-tall recreation of the original was unveiled about a foot away from where the old one stood, having been carved by a local Tlingit named Israel Shotridge out of a single piece of red cedar.
In addition to the salmon that I mentioned earlier, there are many other sea creatures and birds that can be seen from Creek Street.
Bald eagles are often seen sitting on treetops and sea lions can often be seen chasing salmon in the creek itself. These are just a few of the many species that can be found here on land, air, and water.
So, is Creek Street Worth Visiting?
In my opinion, yes, Creek Street is absolutely worth a visit while you’re in Ketchikan! The wide variety of shops and activities will give you plenty of things to do, even if you aren’t particularly interested in the “history” associated with the area.
Between the fishing, wildlife viewing opportunities, shopping, incredible scenery, and cozy lodging, Creek Street is a great place to spend a few hours or even a few days!
If you only have a few hours or a day in Ketchikan, it’s the perfect destination because it’s essentially the city in a nutshell. Great shopping, fishing, wildlife viewing, a walking trail, Tlingit culture, and good food nearby.
Sounds Great! How Do I Get There?
Since most visitors to Ketchikan come on cruise ships, we’ll start there. From the cruise ship docks, it’s about a 15 to 20-minute walk through downtown along the main road. There are signs posted all over, so you can’t miss it!
If you’re coming as an independent traveler and you’re flying into Ketchikan International Airport, you’ll have to take the boat over from Gravina Island to the mainland first.
From there, it’s around three miles south-by-southeast along the main road to get to the historic district. You might want to take a taxi or the city bus if you aren’t renting a car and don’t feel like a long walk.
From the Alaska Marine Highway Service ferry terminal, it’s about two-and-a-half miles down the main road. You might also want to a taxi or a bus.
No matter what interests you the most about Creek Street or Ketchikan in general, it’s the perfect stop on a trip of any length. Even if you want to save money and just stroll along the boardwalk, you’ll get to enjoy some of the most amazing views you’ve ever seen.
If you get hungry, there aren’t a lot of dining options on the street itself, but both the Pioneer Cafe and the Alaska Crepe Company are about a block away on Mission Street and have some of the best food in town.
You won’t want to miss this breathtaking journey to the past on your next amazing adventure to beautiful Ketchikan!