Sitka was originally inhabited by a major tribe of Tlingits, who called the village "Shee Atika." St. Michael's Redoubt trading post and fort were built here by Alexander Baranof, manager of the Russian-American company. Tlingits burned down the fort and looted the warehouse in 1802. In 1804, the Russians retaliated by destroying the Tlingit Fort, in the Battle of Sitka. This was the last major stand by the Tlingits against the Russians, and the Indians evacuated the area until about 1822. By 1808, Sitka was the capital of Russian Alaska. Baranof was Governor from 1790 through 1818. During the mid-1800s, Sitka was the major port on the north Pacific coast, with ships calling from many nations. Furs destined for European and Asian markets were the main export, but salmon, lumber and ice were also exported to Hawaii, Mexico and California. After the purchase of Alaska by the U.S. in 1867, it remained the capital of the Territory until 1906, when the seat of government was moved to Juneau. A Presbyterian missionary, Sheldon Jackson, started a school, and in 1878 one of the first canneries in Alaska was built in Sitka. During the early 1900s, gold mines contributed to its growth. During World War II, the town was fortified and the U.S. Navy built an air base on Japonski Island across the harbor, with 30,000 military personnel and over 7,000 civilians. After the war, the BIA converted some of the buildings to be used as a boarding school for Alaska Natives, Mt. Edgecumbe High School. The U.S. Coast Guard now maintains the air station and other facilities on the Island. A large pulp mill began operations at Silver Bay in 1960, and closed in 1993.
Primarily a non-Native community, Sitka is also home to Tlingits, Haidas, Eskimos and Aleuts. Russian influences, arts and artifacts remain a part of the local color.
The economy is diversified with fishing, fish processing, tourism, government, transportation, retail, and health care services. Sitka is a port of call for many cruise ships each summer; the City welcomed 168,000 passengers during 1997. 572 residents hold commercial fishing permits, and fish processing provides seasonal employment. Regional health care services provide approximately 675 jobs. The U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Coast Guard are significant federal employers. The Alaska Pulp Corporation, the major employer in Sitka, closed in September 1993, forcing nearly 400 persons into unemployment. However, Sitka's abundant resources and diverse economy have enabled the community to recover.
The State-owned airport has a 6,500' paved and lighted runway, an instrument landing system and a 24-hour FAA Flight Service Station. Daily jet service is provided between Seattle, Juneau, Anchorage, Ketchikan and Fairbanks. Several scheduled air taxis, air charters and helicopter services are available. A seaplane base is also available, owned by the State. There is no deep draft dock. The Alaska Marine Highway system has a docking facility. Cruise ships anchor in the harbor and lighter visitors ashore. The City operates four small boat harbors with 1,150 stalls. Boat repairs and services are available.
January temperatures average 23 to 35; summers vary from 48 to 61. Average annual precipitation is 94 inches.
Water is drawn from Blue Lake, treated and piped to most homes in Sitka. Piped sewage receives primary treatment. Over 95% of homes are completely plumbed. Funds have been requested to expand the piped system to Cedar Beach. Refuse is collected by a private firm under contract to the City and is incinerated. The ash is then disposed of at the permitted, lined landfill. The community participates in annual hazardous waste disposal events. The Borough has begun planning for a new landfill site. The Borough owns hydroelectric facilities at Blue Lake and Green Lake, and a diesel-fueled generator at Indian River.