New book preserves history of life in Unga

Posted: Wednesday, June 06, 2007


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  Unga, Alaska during the WWII era.

Unga High School graduate and teacher, Nikiski homesteader, Kenai Chamber of Commerce executive director, and U.S. Congressional district office director for U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, Frank Murkowski, and Rep. Don Young, Peggy Arness now adds published author and historian to her impressive resume. Peggy assisted by two other Unga alumni, Thor Lauritzen and Edward Melseth, recently published “The Alaska Pen; An Illustrated History of Unga.” Once a fishing and mining village of some 150 residents on the Aleutian chain, Unga today is a ghost town that lives only in the memories of those that once lived there and in The Alaska Pen, the monthly newspaper written by Unga students on a long carriage Underwood typewriter between the years of 1934-1951.


Unga, Alaska during the WWII era.

“The decision to publish a monthly newsletter concurrent with the organization of the high school was a bold step in uniting the community behind its students and one that would provide a lasting historical account of what turned out to be Unga’s twilight years. The foundation upon which The Alaska Pen was built was so strong and the commitment so devoted that the paper continued publishing through most of the war years and into the 1950’s.”

“The lifestyle in Unga was a treasure as far as I’m concerned and totally unique compared to other villages. I grew up there from age nine when my dad was appointed Deputy Marshall. We never thought anything about the weather, if it was raining and windy, which it was a lot we just put on our rain coats and went about our lives. Unga is located about halfway between Kodiak and Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian Chain,” Peggy told the Dispatch.

Arness was one of only about 12 students that ever graduated from Unga High School. According to Arness following WWII there was no economic basis for people to provide for themselves in Unga and gradually people moved away to find work and never returned. “Most of them when they did leave left a lot of their belongings in homes. They didn’t try to sell them they just left and didn’t even lock the doors. Over the year’s people on boats that stopped by ramshackled the homes and in that way the community was destroyed,” explained Arness.

Unga’s legacy is the basis for The Alaska Pen;An Illustrated History of Unga that seeks to meld the history of this period with comparable photographic images and articles taken from The Alaska Pen. “The paper in effect became the history of Unga as told through the eyes of its students, so we researched and found as many copies as we could, which was nearly all of them and then went through and selected stories and found pictures that matched with the stories and that is our book which we also call The Alaska Pen,” added Arness.

Peggy and her colleagues have been working on the project for the last four years and now have the finished product available. “Unusually the people of Unga have stayed in touch with each other and one of the things we always talked about was writing the history of Unga so it would be remembered. So the three of us finally decided it was time to quit talking about it and do it, so four years ago we got started and have worked diligently to complete the project,” said Arness.

On their website a former Unga resident wrote: In The Alaska Pen; An Illustrated History of Unga, the authors have recaptured their beloved Unga with actual excerpts from their high school newspapers, providing a moving portrait of the village in three parts, The Thirties, The War Years and the Aftermath. “If I were ever asked about where I would choose to be born, I would choose Unga. We were all so lucky to have lived there as children with so many warm, loving, caring Ungaites in the peaceful, quiet town of our beloved Unga,” wrote Alice Knutsen Lauritzen Nilson (1915-2004).

Locally the book is available at River City Books in Soldotna and at the Kenai Visitors & Cultural Center, or it can be ordered while supplies last on the website. “The families from Unga have been delighted with the book and have already purchased most of the copies printed, but there are still a few available but not very many and then at some time I suppose it’ll be a collectors item,” said Arness who hopes to plan a book signing in the fall.

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