Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Discovered crate a link to early firefighting efforts


A bit of Fort Seward history surfaced recently when a 50-pound, unopened crate of soda ash addressed to the quartermaster at Chilkoot Barracks was discovered near the fairgrounds parking lot.

Lohnn Richey, who has plots in the fairgrounds’ community garden, came across the wooden crate with stenciled lettering on a nearby Haines Borough slash pile.

It apparently came from the upstairs of the newly remodeled Port Chilkoot fire hall. Fire hall co-owner Phyllis Sage said the crate was among old items that were stored by the Haines Volunteer Fire Department, the building’s previous occupant.

Sage said she was interested in keeping the stenciled crate, but its weight made it more than she could deal with at the time, so she had the borough haul it off with other fire department odds and ends, such as old boots.

Alfred Chiswell, director of the Coast Artillery Museum at Fort Worden, a historic fort in Port Townsend, Wash. similar to Fort Seward that operated during the same era, said the soda ash was likely for use in the American LaFrance soda pumper fire engine originally stationed in Fort Seward.

The soda pumper created a chemical mixture of acid and soda ash to douse fires, similar to the workings of invertible fire extinguishers that were used in the United States into the 1960s. “With a soda pumper fire truck, you could use that volume of soda ash up. Also, you may have received it in that quantity on account of your distance (from the Lower 48),” Chiswell said.

Lee Heinmiller, president of the Port Chilkoot Co., Fort Seward’s majority landholder, said the crate was likely shipped here between 1923 and 1945, when Fort Seward was known as Chilkoot Barracks.

Soda ash – the common name for sodium carbonate – has a myriad of uses, including as a water softener used in laundering to remove stains, and for making soap. Fort Worden’s Chiswell said the crate of soda ash would have been much more than needed for laundry or to recharge fire extinguishers, which it also may have been used for.

Community gardener Richey said he might use the soda ash to correct the pH in garden soil.


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