Mercantile Trade and Transportation
Evolution of the ACC
By the time the Alaska Commercial Company Pribylov Islands lease expired in 1890, the company had already established 70 trading posts and major mercantile centers across Alaska making them the first ‘chain’ store in America’s history and the first international one. “…beyond Dawson in Canada to Kommandorskie Islands across the International dateline,” writes Johnston in his history of the ACC, …” from a hundred miles above the Arctic Circle to Cook’s Inlet in Southern Alaska.” In all this extended area were stations, supplying Natives, miners, prospectors, trading merchandise for furs.”
Many of the company employees had gone on to found businesses of their own beyond the fur trade, some in conjunction with the ACC such as salmon canneries, gold mines, and a sulfur plant. In the process of moving goods across the huge territory, most of it by water, the ACC built the largest fleet of vessels on the Pacific Coast. It was instrumental in fueling the gold rush along the Yukon River, transporting miners and supplies along several thousand miles of sea lanes from San Francisco to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Its commercial activities Americanized Alaska. To service this extensive operation, the ACC commissioned a number of vessels built to their specifications for hauling cargo, mail and passengers.
Based on many of the original Russian fur trading stations, these ACC outposts, for trade in fur other than seal, could be divided into four districts: Kodiak, Unalaska, St Michael in Western Alaska and the Cook Inlet/Prince William Sound areas in the south-central part of the territory. The company did not maintain any trading posts in southeast Alaska. Kodiak was the hub for the grizzly bear pelts as well as the salmon canneries on the Karluk River. Unalaska traded red and cross fox pelts and had a coaling station making it the Aleutian/Pribilof/Bristol Bay main port. Later a hotel was built to accommodate miners and others on their way to the Yukon River. St Michael, the northwesternmost station on the Bering Sea, was established before Nome and served as a transfer station from Unalaska to points east on the Yukon River. Polar bear, white fox, wolf, lynx, and ermine were prized trade items. Nutchuk, the smallest centrally situated station, collected the furs of muskrat, mink, marten, beaver, land otter, and fox from all over Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet.
Along with the decline of the fur seal herd due to illegal pelagic sealing, which was to become an international issue in the following decades, the loss of revenue that had supported some of the marginal posts had to be closed. In one tiny Aleutian village, the company, knowing there was no other source of revenue for the Natives who lived there, discharged all debts and left food and coal for the use of the remaining people. The U.S. government had no plan in place to assist the Native population anywhere in the territory of Alaska.
From the Aleutians to the Yukon River: A New Fleet of Vessels
As furs made up less revenue, the needs of the gold miners began to take up some of the slack and the focus of ACC activity shifted from the Aleutians to the Yukon River. Shipments of skins gave way to the needs of the gold miners and those that serviced them. With the Gold Rush increasing in size and duration, the ACC built or bought more vessels: sternwheelers, tenders, and dories for the Yukon River trade. Many of these vessels were named after the company members’ wives and daughters, a common practice: Dora, Bertha, Sarah, Saidie, Susie, Florence, Hannah, Louise, Alice, Bella, and Leah to name a few. The state-of-the-art stern-wheeled steamers, Sara and Suzie, serving miners and villagers from St Michael to Dawson, were known as the Yukon Twins. The Alaska Commercial Company now maintained a fleet of over 40 vessels, the largest commercial fleet in the Pacific Ocean at the time. They were in place to service the ACC’s new Nome store and the last big gold rush of the era when in 1899, gold was discovered on the beaches there.
Many of the ships were built by the prolific shipwright Matthew Turner of Benecia, California including the SS Dora which continued to deliver cargo and passengers and mail along the Aleutians until 1918. The large steel-hulled ocean steamer, the St. Paul, was drafted by the government to serve during WWI.
About the SS Dora
In 1879, the Alaska Commercial Company commissioned master shipbuilder Matthew Turner to build the SS DORA, a 120 ft steam and sail-powered cargo ship to serve in Alaskan waters. By the time of the DORA’s launch in 1880, the Alaska Commercial Company had evolved from the vision of a few hardy entrepreneurs in 1867 to a multimillion-dollar corporation with an extensive network of 90 trading posts throughout Alaska serviced at its height by a fleet of 30 vessels flying the red ACC flag including ocean steamers, riverboats, trading schooners, barges, and tugs. ACC ships transported supplies, goods, and people throughout Western Alaskan waters. They were America’s first chain store. For the duration of the lease of the Seal Islands the company fleet provided the most reliable, if unscheduled, maritime transportation system in Alaska. This serendipitous convergence of ambitious and well-situated Northwest Coast businessmen built a multi-million-dollar commercial empire that was one of early California’s most profitable corporations.
The 20-year lease of the Seal Islands, granted in 1870 to the ACC, allowed a total of 100,000 pelts to be harvested from St Paul and St George Island rookeries each season which generally began in early June: 80,000 from the first and 20,000 from the second. In 1880, the sealing crews managed to do this in 35 days. The DORA would be one of the vessels carrying the furs to San Francisco.
(J. Pennelope Goforth)
Expansion and Merger
By 1900, facing increasing competition from other shippers and unable to sustain the cost of maintaining all those vessels during the lulls in business, the ACC decided to separate the operation into two separate branches: the North Commercial Company (NCC) for mercantile trade stores and the Northern Navigation Company (NNC) for the vessel operations. Many of the shareholders of ACC became part of the new companies until they, too, were sold. Despite the change of ownership, most people in Alaska continued to use the name, Alaska Commercial Company which was to come full circle nearly a century later.
In 1922, W.J. Erskine purchased the mercantile operation in Kodiak and Volney Richmond bought the NCC company with a group of employees. Both were former ACC employees. The Yukon River and western Alaska stores were consolidated in the larger villages, and the Aleutian stations all shut down with the last in Unalaska closing in 1940 at the outset of WWII. The NCC operated the two largest stores in Fairbanks and Anchorage. The remaining stores still in operation were sold in 1975 to the Nordstrom Company of Seattle. Not wanting to see Alaska Native villagers left out of the changes following the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and to keep the consumer dollars cycling within the community, the Community Enterprise Development Corporation (CEDC) purchased the rural stores in 1978. Allan Gallant was hired as manager.
Gallant revitalized the chain of eleven mercantile stores by nearly doubling the number of stores to 23 employing more than 400 by 1985. Once again, the ACC trademark red and white pennant flew across the state from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians, Bethel in western Alaska, Barrow in the north, Sitka in the southeast, and even further south to Kent, Washington. The latter functioned as ACC headquarters. In Bethel, the hub of villages along the Kuskokwim River, Gallant acquired the financing to build a modern shopping mall. A magazine article at that time reported that at the mall more than 1,000 people flocked through the doors each day. On offer were freshly baked pizza, cut flowers, several types of lettuce, varieties of exotic fruits, plus shoes, tools, electronics, clothes, and a counter for buying furs and gold nuggets. ACC’s annual sales topped $55 million when the ACC board instituted an Employee Stock Ownership Plan which gave local people a direct stake in the company.
Once again, the ACC moved into international waters when the Canadian retail leader North West Company added the 20 stores of Alaska’s first and oldest enterprise to their 160 from the Pacific to the Atlantic in 1993. The North West Company was one of Canada’s oldest businesses emerging from the early fur trading Hudson Bay Company. Alaska Business Monthly subtitled an article about the sale ‘In a historic merger, Canada’s North West Co. acquires the state’s leading Bush retailer, Alaska Commercial Co.’. The North West Company chose to keep the name of its newest Alaska stores: Alaska Commercial Company.
E.K. Pedler Collection
The following photographs are from the E.K. Pedler Collection Estate of E.K. Pedler, Agent at Unalaska, Alaska for Alaska Commercial Company 1930-40
The ACC Celebrates 150 Years
ACC celebrated 150 years of serving Alaskans in 2017 with a grand evening featuring Iditarod-winning dog musher Martin Buser and his fabled team. Today, the Company operates 37 stores in rural Alaska, including two satellite stores in Hydaburg and Hooper Bay. They employ more than 600 people from Barrow to Metlakatla. In 2022, a new store was opened at Gambell on St. Lawrence Island in the Northern Bering Sea, and there are plans to open an additional one in 2023.