Wrangell, valued for its position near the mouth of the Stikine River, began as a Tlingits stronghold and trading post and became the site of a Russian fort built in 1834. The British leased the area from the Russians in 1840, and their flag flew until the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867. Over the balance of the 19th century, Wrangell experienced three gold rushes and the construction of a cannery and sawmill.
Then time pretty much stopped.
With little incentive for anyone to visit, Wrangell stayed as it was after a 1952 fire burned the downtown: a burly, blue-collar American logging town, simple and conservative. Wrangell cut trees, processed them, and shipped them. The bars stayed busy, and no one thought of opening a health food restaurant. As long as there were trees to saw into lumber, the future was safe in the past.
When the lumber mill closed in 1994, some feared that Wrangell would disappear. But they didn't count on the remarkable "can do" spirit of its citizens, who are slowly transforming this little lumber town into a comfortable jumping-off point for wilderness adventures on a grand scale.
Wrangell worked to improve on its positive qualities. Residents show an endearing eagerness to please. A new museum was completed in 2005, and eco-tourism operators offer kayaking paddles. Tour boats take guests up the wild Stikine River, out on the water for Southeast's great salmon fishing, and over to the mainland to see hordes of black bears at the Anan Wildlife Observatory. The U.S. Forest Service maintains gravel roads that lead to some spectacular places. The community even built a golf course to attract visitors, and Muskeg Meadow (tel. 907/874-4653; www.wrangellalaskagolf.com) is truly spectacular. The townspeople are so proud of it, you'll find it difficult to turn down a round ($22-$44 per day; clubs are for rent).
The town has a nonthreatening small-scale feel that allows a family to wander comfortably and make friends. Visitors are often invited home to dinner because, with little crime, there seems to be almost no fear of strangers. You can picnic in a totem pole park, hike in a rainforest, and look at the ancient art of Petroglyph Beach. It's clear that Wrangell still has a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the world, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.