Alaska treasure 100 years old

Brown & Hawkins general store, left, opened in Seward in 1904.
Brown & Hawkins general store, left, opened in Seward in 1904.

A turn-of-the-last-century pioneer set down roots in the Greatland in the early 1900s that are still with us today in a historical Seward landmark, the Brown & Hawkins building.

T. W. Hawkins came to Alaska in 1898 via the Chilkoot Pass to Dawson, Yukon Territory. He searched for gold in the Tanana country, and then traveled down river to Nome in 1800, where he met Charles E. Brown.

The pair moved to Valdez, where they formed Brown & Hawkins, a general merchandise business, in March 1903. Hawkins traveled to a new townsite called Seward later that year and opened a small store. He constructed a large building, and in 1904, transferred the firm’s business from Valdez.

The store sold groceries, clothing, hardware and other supplies for miners and fishermen. Hawkins and Brown also acted as transportation and communications agents at various times. Hawkins, who was involved in the Democratic Party, even went as a delegate to the Democratic Territorial Convention in Juneau during May 1908.

Over the years, he and Brown enlarged the original store, added warehouses and opened smaller stores at railroad construction camps.

The frontier businessmen then took advantage of a ready market for goods in an area where miners and trappers were just settling. They chartered the SS Bertha in 1912. Loaded with groceries, clothing, hardware and a gold scale, the ship sailed up the Cook Inlet and stopped off in a place called Ship Creek to trade with those who were filing into the back country.

Because the Cook Inlet tides were so severe, the Bertha was hauled up onto the mud flats and anchored. The miners and trappers who climbed aboard the trade ship called it the “anchorage,” which is where some say the town’s final name was derived.

The Bertha later met her end during a violent storm off the Aleutian Chain. After her demise, Brown and Hawkins moved their business ashore and opened a branch in Knik in 1913. They then built the first bank and general store at the corner of what is now Fourth Avenue and E Street in 1915 in the new railroad town of Anchorage. Due to extensive damage, the original building was torn down after the 1964 earthquake.

According to Virginia Hawkins Darling in an interview with the Anchorage Times in November 1970, “My father managed the Brown & Hawkins interests in Seward and Charles E. Brown managed them in Anchorage. The Anchorage interests of Brown & Hawkins were sold just before the untimely death of Charles E. Brown in 1929.”

Hawkins, in ill health in 1946, leased out the grocery and hardware portions of the Seward store to son James. T. W. Hawkins died later that year.

In 1956, Hawkins’ daughter, Virginia Hawkins Darling, and her husband took over management of the store. When Virginia became ill, her son, Hugh, and his wife, Iris, came to Seward and took over operations in 1989. The store has the distinction of being the longest one-family continuously owned and operated business in Alaska. And Iris Darling was a fixture at the store until it closed its doors permanently in 2013.

4 comments on “Alaska treasure 100 years old

  1. What a great history story. Next time I go to seward I will check that bldg out. Take care. Rosella Young, AA-1 Designs, Invest in your shelf!

  2. Seward is filled with lovely historical buildings, Rosella. My grandmother was a maid/cook at the Van Gilder hotel back in the 1920s-1930s.

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