J.R. Gildersleeve School in Southeast Alaska
Thorne Bay, Alaska 2006 – My office was on the former floating J.R. Gildersleeve School. This image is not the best picture of the facility; however, it shows the steepness of the ramp at low tide. It was a beautiful day, evident from the calm water, the limp flag on the pole, and my unzipped spring jacket.
Imagine that ramp covered in snow and ice. Yikes! I climbed it carefully in the winter. I paused every morning to admire the view of the bay below and the snow-capped mountains beyond. Somehow, it always appeared different and even surreal at times.
Notice the chicken wire tacked to the ramp on one side of the walkway and wooden blocks with shingles between them on the other side. These provide a grip to prevent falling. Look at the pilings behind me – the tall figures coming up from the water securing the building’s dock. When the tide comes in, they don’t stand so tall. The second floor is a three-bedroom apartment initially intended for the school teachers who were required to share, even if they weren’t married.
A crab pot is resting on the bottom of the bay at the end of the dock behind me. A rotation schedule determined who took home the catch of the day. The building is a docked sea-vessel – a boat – constructed in 1981. It once escaped during a storm, with me on it!
Now, for the rest of the story.
The thirty-six hundred square foot J.R. Gildersleeve School included a library, science room (my office), lunch room, principal’s office, and classroom space in addition to the nine hundred square foot three bedroom teacher housing upstairs. The school moved with the J.R. Gildersleeve floating log camp from one site to another based on the timber cut location. The community was close-knit, with most workers staying more than ten years. It existed from about 1920-2000. They even had streetlights to light up the boardwalks that connected floating houses and community buildings.
After J.R. Gildersleeve camp closed in 2000, SISD relocated the floating school to Thorne Bay. It was used first as an administration building with housing for itinerant school specialists upstairs. Then the district converted the whole building into employee housing before it was sold and moved away sometime after 2020.
Watch a video of former residents describing life at J.R. Gildersleeve logging camp on Ketchikan Stories. Years before the camp closed, Robert E. Millward visited J.R. Gildersleeve School and wrote an article about his fascinating observations. Ketchikan Museums has a photo of Gildersleeve students wearing their life jackets. To learn more about the building of J.R. Gildersleeve School, check out MSI McClure & Sons, Inc.