Creek Street in Ketchikan now houses all manner of touristy shops. In the past these houses held quite a different sort of businesses. From the early 1900’s to 1954 the red light district of Ketchikan flourished along Creek Street. One house still sits as it was in that era with all the furnishings intact. People can take a tour of Dolly’s house, now known as Dolly’s House Museum. Creek Street is an easy walk from the cruise ship docks for most people through several blocks of shops on level ground.
The self-guided tour starts with a bit of history about Dolly Arthur, born in 1888 as Thelma Copeland. She left her family home in rural Idaho at age 13, living in Montana and Vancouver BC before making her way to Alaska. By her late teens she realized she could make more money from the attention of men than she could working as a waitress. In 1919 she wound up in Alaska, having discovered a way she could make a significant amount of money for that era. Dolly spent her first year in Ketchikan at the Star, the only house on Creek Street actually classified as a brothel because it employed more than two women. Then she bought her own house.
At a time when the average Ketchikan worker made $1 a day, Dolly charged each man $3 and didn’t close her door for the night until she had made $75. She bought her house for $800 and paid it off in two weeks. Eventually she bought other houses along Creek Street, which she rented to other working girls. They referred to themselves as “sporting women” rather than whores, and prospered in a town with many single men and few women. Though most Creek Street residents worked in pairs, Dolly worked alone in her own house. Through all her working years she never got an STD.
Creek Street was referred to as the place where men and salmon went upstream to spawn. While single men openly walked the boardwalk through the bordellos, married men used the more discreet Married Man’s Trail through the woods. The girls knew married clients by the mud on their shoes.
During prohibition Dolly made more money selling small amounts of liquor for large sums to her gentleman callers then she did through prostitution. Authorities never caught her with alcohol. She kept just one bottle in the house at a time and hid the rest under the dock. In a raid she could easily discard the one bottle without losing her entire stock of moonshine. Many of the Creek Street houses had trapdoors where they could receive alcohol deliveries under the dock in the dark of night.
When indoor plumbing became available she had her house done right away, with a men’s room downstairs and a full bath on the second floor. Plumbing on Creek Street in its heyday did not include hooking up to sewers though. Before the 1960’s everything just went out into the creek to wait for the tides to take it away.
The Dolly’s House Museum has many of Dolly’s things on display including furnishings and dishes. Not one to let things go to waste Dolly decorated her shower curtain with roses made from silk condoms, as they were useless for other things. The shower curtain also remains as part of the tour.
Ketchikan eventually outlawed prostitution and Dolly’s was the last Creek Street house to close. Dolly retired at age 72, but remained living in her house until nearly the end of her life.
Creek Street fell into disrepair for a time, but when tourism hit the town as a major industry somebody realized the historical value of Creek Street and the attraction that the area would hold for visitors. Many of the houses were restored or rebuilt.
While wandering about Ketchikan on our port stop there on the Holland America Westerdam, my sister and I felt it was worth the mere $5 admission to take the tour of Dolly’s House. There are not many attractions you can see in a cruise ship port for just $5.